Confidence-boosting Shakespeare for special children  

This term, 99 special schools will be taking part in the annual Shakespeare Schools Festival out of a total of just over 1000 schools of all types. Susan Elkin found out more.

Suzanne Wilcock, for example, who teaches English and Drama at Broadfield Specialist School at Oswaldtwistle, near Accrington in Lancashire is involved with year 7/8 students for the fifth time. “It has a profound impact on the lives of the majority of the students” declares Suzanne, telling me that a Year 11 student recently told her warmly that SSF was the best thing he’d ever done in school. “Most of our students – we have far more boys than girls – have autism and there are social and behavioural issues. They tend to be fairly high functioning but they wouldn’t cope in mainstream school.”

The annual pattern for the festival is that teachers attend a summer term workshop – teachers of students with special needs get two – and then benefit from support from SSF staff as they cast, rehearse and prepare a 30-minute version of the play they’re assigned for performance in October or November. This year Suzanne’s students are doing Macbeth. Regional festivals held in partner professional theatres present four different plays from local schools.

Claire Meade, SSF Senior Co-ordinator with responsibility for inclusive provision, says: “When the four schools come together to rehearse they do a company workshop together and so the special schools get the opportunity to work alongside those from mainstream schools and they’re usually connected and laughing within minutes.”

“They are usually quite frightened at the beginning so it’s a real challenge although some of the year 8s are doing it for the second time so they know what to expect” says Suzanne. “But the games are such fun that it doesn’t seem like work and soon they are operating as a real team and that usually lasts for the rest of the school year”.

When she starts the project each year after the casting workshop, Suzanne’s students perform a short piece for the rest of the school. “There’s a huge contrast between the work they produce then and what they can do in their final performance. Colleagues and I often look at the production in amazement asking ourselves whether X or Y is the same child.”

Last year Suzanne took Broadfield’s production on a tour after the festival. “We visited local primary schools and ran a question and answer session after the show.”

The autumn festival is now only a part, although it’s the core of the work, of what the renamed Shakespeare Schools Foundation does. The remit has widened. “We now also offer bespoke Shakespeare-based development projects to schools of all sorts at other times of the year” explains Claire. “There have been two in special schools this year for example.”

One of these was at Queensmill – an all age school at Shepherd’s Bush in London specialising in autism. “Using The Tempest as the focus we worked with every class in the school during an intensive three week residency. It involved a thirty minute daily workshop for every class.”

When you talk to anyone who works for or with SSF the words “confidence”, “imagination” and “collaboration” come up again and again. “There were quite dramatic breakthroughs every day as we watched children, for example, start to communicate in new (for them) ways. It meant we had to have lots of ideas, and be able to think on our feet and be very flexible” says Claire.

This year’s other special school project was at Rushmere Hall, Ipswich where the aim was to work on speech, listening skills, confidence and emotional understanding with children with special needs in years 1 and 2 – and it was paid for by a donor to the school. “We went in weekly over two terms with A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Claire says, adding that it was the first time SSF has worked in this way – being in a school regularly – and that she learned a great deal from it.

“We introduced the story in tiny chunks – such as Oberon and Titania having an argument.” Claire recalls as she describes this narrative-driven journey filled with group activities to develop their communication skills. “We planned our focus but also had to be very flexible. Everything is bespoke in this sort of work.”

The defining development at Rushmere involved a very young selective mute. “We cast him as the lion in the rude mechanicals’ play so that he wouldn’t need to speak. And he developed a voice, a roar, for the lion! It was a huge transformation and massively uplifting for us. It taught me a lot too,” Claire says.