Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:04 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Benjamin Baroness Benjamin Liberal Democrat 10:04 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I was delighted that the gracious Speech contained several mentions of the intention to focus on the well-being and education of children and young people by putting measures in place to bridge the social mobility gap. I congratulate the coalition Government on their continuing efforts to address this issue. In my speech, I would like to concentrate on how even more can be achieved through cultural education within the curriculum.

Exposure to art and cultural experiences is the perfect way to build confidence, satisfy our well-being and stimulate the imagination, and the earlier children are provided with this type of stimulus the better.

However, recently I chaired a Westminster Education Forum conference at which several educationalists expressed a desire for a clear direction, a national plan, as suggested in the Henry review, on how to deliver cultural education in the classroom as many did not feel confident about what was expected from them and how best to deliver cultural provision to the children.

I believe that one effective way to do so is through the discovery of Shakespeare. The many beneficial attributes this has are not all obvious for, as well as words and language, connections with music, drama and art can also be gained from studying Shakespeare. It can be used to help children develop a critical eye, teach them simple philosophy, build their natural curiosity and help them to learn to analyse information in a fun and exciting way.

Shakespeare is loved across the world. He is the most performed playwright internationally. Half of the world’s schoolchildren study Shakespeare. In surveys, Shakespeare is cited as one of the reasons many people feel proud to be British, and yet here in the UK so many children leave school with minimal exposure to this icon who is part of their cultural heritage. Whole generations encounter Shakespeare only as a topic for examination and therefore believe that Shakespeare is not for them or is too difficult.

Well, my Lords, a change is a coming. I heard it for myself. Yes, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has plans for young children to be exposed to Shakespeare. It has started a campaign focusing on children aged nine to 11 in primary schools to discover Shakespeare. Too difficult? Too prescriptive? Too elitist? No, no, no. To be or not to be, that is the question. Well it will be, because in March 2014 Shakespeare Week will be launched as a major new national schools and cultural campaign to open up Shakespeare’s legacy to every child in Britain, uniting our numerous cultural venues and our versatile artistic practitioners in a nationwide celebration of Shakespeare’s creative influence. It will be a bold and original approach to learning.

Modern learning tools will be used to engage the children as several free online resources will bring the Bard to life for every subject in the curriculum. For geography, Shakespeare’s characters will be used to spark off children’s imaginations on the subject—for example, matching characters to countries. There will be resources demonstrating how pulleys helped fairies fly over the Elizabethan stage as an introduction to engineering. There will also be resources used to spark off children’s interest in writing and literature and lead them to discover other writers, historical and contemporary. As well, it will help them form a love for art and design because their young minds will not be influenced by negative assumptions. It will inspire them to have aspirations in whatever they choose to become and assist them to achieve their goals.

Most importantly, it will give them the opportunity to have fun with Shakespeare at an age when magic can still happen and before someone tells them, “It is too difficult for you, so do not bother”. Furthermore, it will provide teachers with a free, flexible resource to draw on, as much or as little as they like, in any subject they choose.

The pupil premium is encouraging schools to seek imaginative ways to broaden their outlook in provision for children. In just three weeks since the launch of Shakespeare Week, many have embraced this opportunity. Five hundred schools have already registered to take part in Shakespeare Week and the figure is rising, which is simply wonderful. I have seen at first hand how joyfully and enthusiastically young people react when they are exposed to Shakespeare. They identify with the characters who are so cleverly written as they reflect contemporary society and deal with all the emotions and feelings that young children are likely to grow up to experience: jealousy, anger, humour, revenge, guilt, fear, love and passion, emotions which are felt across all cultures.

The lyrical rhythm of the language is great for those with autism, dyslexia and learning difficulties. Many people from challenging backgrounds who are rarely exposed to the theatre are often transformed by discovering Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been charged with promoting the enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s works, life and times. The trust has been awarded Arts Council funding to support Shakespeare Week for just two years, 2014 and 2015. I truly believe that this initiative should go beyond that time. It will ignite young children’s appetite for art and culture and develop confidence which will indirectly have an effect on their ability to learn across the curriculum in the classroom and beyond, giving them a lasting legacy. So I ask my noble friend whether the Government will consider making Shakespeare Week an annual event in the primary school calendar for the sake of our children’s holistic well-being, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The first book I chose as my school speech day prize back in 1961 at the age of 12 was the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Little did I know that the content would be a revelation to me and serve me well in my career. The works of Shakespeare were written for all people and were not meant to be exclusive, but inclusive. It is worth noting that at the television BAFTAs last Sunday two awards were given to Shakespeare productions. Yes, the Bard is still thrilling audiences 400 years on.

Shakespeare Week is an important initiative for future generations, so let us make it a permanent resource and give all our young children the opportunity to feel that they are part of something great. Who knows, one of them could even become the Shakespeare of the future. With that, I say:

“Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow”.