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Theatre and the arts are not about the curriculum or a fix for society’s problems
"What I would like us to do is to simply give children regular and frequent opportunities to go and see dance, music, art, theatre - unmediated, unprescribed, unexplained, and from the assumption that adult and child have in common that they are part of an audience, at a conversation in which the artists and audience have in common that none of us knows why we are here".
A few years ago I had the chance to produce a series of events for young people at Unicorn Theatre in South East London. I was amazed with the theatre's commitment and engagement with children and young people.
The following article by Purni Morell (their artistic director) may sound a bit harsh but in fact she speaks honestly about her believes that theatre and arts must not always become a substitute to the national curriculum. And most importantly I believe that we must give children the chance to judge art for themselves.
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We need to radically rethink why we teach art and culture in schools, says Purni Morell of the Unicorn Theatre
I am often asked to discuss the arts in education, or asked where I stand on creative learning, or cultural education; I’m asked what I think of the curriculum, or schools in general. I care about education very much, of course, as any sane person cares about our children and their development and therefore has a view on the systems we as a society have set up. But I also feel there’s no need for me to have a view on education at all. I am a theatre-maker, not an educator, and in fact my job has nothing whatsoever to do with education.
I find a lot of the language around the arts in formal education very disheartening because often, my art form and I become a branch of English Literature. We’re given to understand drama can be incredibly useful in improving literacy, or it can be a fun and accessible way to teach children about the Tudors, or we should read Shakespeare and consider what he meant and techniques for bringing that to the stage and we might learn something by the odd theatre visit. I don’t dispute any of this, but we must remember that theatre’s not a part of literature. Theatre’s got nothing to do with literature, it doesn't even depend on verbal communication. It’s a completely different thing, about the soul and not about the mind, and based on the relationship between performer and audience, entirely unlearnable in a classroom.
It therefore bothers me that when we take a group of children to the theatre, too often we’re doing it for small reasons, to do with the curriculum and measurable outcomes, and not for big reasons, which are about being human.
We start asking questions like: 'How will this fit into the child’s development?', or 'How will we be able to achieve X and Y through this visit?'. I understand that there are pressures on time and money, and that teachers have to make choices. But I want to change the way we think about why children should experience art – I want us to move away from the idea that a visit to the theatre should have value.
That question, 'What is the value of art?', is an irrelevance, I think. I am baffled as to why art for art’s sake has become so unfashionable, and why we are so embarrassed to simply allow that we need it, without really understanding why. It’s like asking, what is the value of life? We don’t know. That’s the whole point. That’s why we have art.
If we really believed that art is part of what makes us human, wouldn’t we change how we teach the arts in schools?
At the start of this piece, I called myself a theatre-maker not an educator, even though I create shows for children. I’ll add to that and say I don’t really mind whether children like theatre. I’m not especially concerned with whether they understand how theatre works, though it’s often fun showing them the secrets.
Crucially, I’m not interested in creating the audience of the future. What I am interested in, the only thing I’m interested in, is the experience of the audience, those children in that theatre, today, now. The play that is happening in their heads is what is valuable to me, not the teaching that happens about it afterwards.
I believe in art within education because schools are an absolutely vital tool in reaching children whose families might not automatically take them to a play or a concert or a painting. But just because we want to place art in schools, it doesn’t follow we have to teach it or control it. What I would like us to do is to simply give children regular and frequent opportunities to go and see dance, music, art, theatre - unmediated, unprescribed, unexplained, and from the assumption that adult and child have in common that they are part of an audience, at a conversation in which the artists and audience have in common that none of us knows why we are here. In those circumstances, free from the measurable outcomes and the learning objectives that close down our perspectives and lead us to think in terms of value, anything could happen. If we could just see children as equals, and limit our involvement to buying them the tickets and then getting out of their way, I firmly believe that children will manage the rest for themselves.