The first of our series of blogs from people across the country about what theatre has done for them and their community.

Emma Aubrey is Headteacher of Dowdales School, in the Furness peninsula in the south of Cumbria. A mixed 11-16 local authority school of approximately 950 students, Dowdales joined the RSC Learning and Performance Network in 2007 is now a Lead Associate School.

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” Charles Dickens

There was a really dark day in March when I was told to close the doors of my school and say goodbye to all in my community. I needed to send them off to keep them safe and well (for me – this is such an alien concept – I usually keep them with me to keep them safe). I told them to look after their families and to be kind. I told them that I would see them as soon as it was safe to do so.

Emma Aubrey head and shoulders outside
Emma Aubrey, Headteacher of Dowdales School, Cumbria

I drove home in tears. But… opened the doors again on the Monday to a selection of children whose parents were battling against this virus on all kinds of front lines – in the NHS, in the post office, in transport, in the police force. We made it our job to look after them and to make sure that their experience of ‘lockdown’ was as positive as it could be.

It “was the worst of times;” indeed “it was the [spring] of our discontent”…

… The months continued, we kept going; one foot after the other.

However, I believe, we do need to focus on the positives and so now we need to make “the best of times.”

There is much to be positive about. All of our students will be back to school in the autumn! The school corridors will once again be filled with chatter and laughter.

My key aims are to minimise the risk of infection, to all, whilst maintaining our broad and balanced curriculum and although I have my concerns about the reality of this ‘new’ way of working, I am so pleased we can retain – who we are – and allow the students to follow their varied curriculum choice: the students who love DT, those who love art, those who love the sciences, those who love humanities, those who love sport, those who love drama, dance and music.

We face massive challenges – the students will be segregated into school year zones, the fact that they will have to sit and face forward, the fact that they can’t mix at lunchtime, the fact that our school show cannot be the usual showcase across all years.

But, we can have our Performing Arts lessons, we can use RSC techniques, we can use the offer that the RSC have put together to interact with theatre and text in a creative way that will enthuse and inspire students. The RSC have continued to give us support in a time when we need to remember the joy of exploring and learning.

My students walked down the drive on that dark March day confident individuals because of the diet that we give them – our drama, performing arts and our RSC partnership has given them that. But it has also allowed them to be resilient and they have needed that skill.

We will, and the RSC will help, pick them up from where they left off. We will have Shakespeare on the stage in our school again; I am so excited to be working with the RSC to make this happen because it changes lives for the better.

So, let us all make this “the best of times.” I am beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel and I will focus on that. I will ensure that our school lives by its maxim – to aim high, to lead by example and to be as one (just like an ensemble) and each night, when I eventually leave the building, I will feel a little less like I am “exit[ing] pursued by a bear.”

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