How one enterprising primary school uses Shakespeare to engage parents with their children’s education.

Playmaking Festival_ A Midsummer Night_s Dream_ 27 June - 8 July 2016._2016_Photo by Lucy Barriball _c_ RSC_198716
Over 50 schools performed their versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Playmaking Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2016.

Lings Primary School in Northampton has placed Shakespeare at the heart of an initiative to engage parents with the everyday life of the school. It’s perhaps not the obvious first choice for this Northampton-based primary: when Head Teacher Leigh Wolmarans first posted that pupils were to explore the work of Shakespeare alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company, some parents questioned its significance for their children. But Leigh was determined: “The scariest thing for our parents is to step over the line at the school gates because of the negative experiences that they had at school. I appealed to their trust, urging them to watch what we do and see if their children respond differently.”

Over the coming weeks, parents were encouraged into school to watch Shakespeare assemblies and attended open morning sessions to observe lessons featuring RSC-led approaches. Some parents started to report that their children had come home quoting Shakespeare, with a new-found excitement about their work in school. As momentum grew, Leigh and the staff at Lings realised that the best ambassadors for Shakespeare were the children themselves, and with them lay the potential for even deeper parental engagement.

In 2016 some 60 parents and children from Reception to Year 6 attended an after-school workshop based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using RSC-led rehearsal room techniques. The session was a gamble – some parents had English as an additional language, some had never stepped foot into the school and some were literally dragged there by their children. Staff were keen to ease any parental anxiety about taking part and carefully structured the session so that parents worked, read and talked about the play with their child. At the end of the session parents described their experience as "just brilliant", and some used Facebook to say how much they had enjoyed the evening. Leigh recalls that “It was a really lovely moment of watching our parents engage with their children through Shakespeare.”

In September 2016, Lings moved on to study The Tempest. Teachers took part in RSC-led CPD sessions in school and in Stratford, and developed a plan that connected the teaching to every part of the curriculum, including maths, reading, writing, geography, history, dance, art and music. Six months later, Lings hosted two performances by the RSC of an edited version of the play especially developed for 8 to 13 year olds. Tickets sold out to the local community within five days of release.

The success of these performances demonstrated the cultural shift that has taken place at Lings in a relatively short timeframe. Parents who were hesitant about stepping over the line at the school gate are now enthused, and the expectation in the near future is to take parents to Stratford to watch a live production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. As Leigh reminds us, “Parents need to be convinced about the value and relevance of what happens in the classroom. But in the end it wasn’t us that changed attitudes to Shakespeare with our parents, the biggest contributors have been our children”.