Having completed a post on whether it is "dumbed down" to modernise Shakespeare, and whether free schools like the West London Free School would allow such "innovative" teaching techniques, Toby Young responded with this Telegraph blog
He asks some enraged questions:
"Does he rate his own powers of composition so highly that he thinks he can rewrite Shakespeare’s dialogue to make it more “lively”? Does he really have so little faith in his pupils that he thinks they’ll be quite unable to grasp Shakespeare’s language in the original? I think it’s safe to say that, yes, this is “dumbing down” and, no, we won’t be doing it at the WLFS."
Actually, he's got the wrong end of the stick on both counts here. I didn't "re-write" Shakespeare's dialogue, my pupils did. Secondly, my pupils spent a considerable time studying the original: reading it, answering quizzes on it, responding to comprehension questions, doing hangman with key words. Then,
they had a go at "modernising" the dialogue, the settings, the characters, and the overall plot. So they knew it well. It's a tried and tested technique which the Royal Shakespeare Company use with their own actors. By happy co-incidence there was a great Radio 4 documentary
on this very issue this week. The RSC modernise Shakespeare in rehearsal time because it is an "active" way of helping their actors learn what the play is really about and helps them bring it into the modern day. I think Toby Young doesn't realise that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, his language was "contemporary" at the time. Many scholars find it difficult to understand without "translating" parts of it. He complains that I don't get my students to understand Shakespeare as it is written, but this is exactly what this exercise does! The pupils really engage with the text and the meanings of the words in a way they never do when being lectured at.
Toby goes on to complain: "Gilbert clearly believes he’s doing the children in his care a favour by dumbing-down Shakespeare in this way. In fact, by refusing to stretch them, not only is he ensuring they’ll never get into a good university, he’s depriving them of the hugely enriching experience of being able to understand and appreciate Shakespeare in the original."
Well, this is simply not true. Firstly, my pupils do study Shakespeare in the original (something I believe is very clear in the video) and secondly, I have very high expectations of my pupils -- and the vast majority of them achieve exceptionally good results. Last year, a 100% of my Year 11 class gained A*-C grades in English and English Literature, and my A Level results in English were through the roof. Seventy percent attained A grades, and my value-added score (the amount of extra value I add to my students) was among the highest in the country. Nearly all of my A Level students went on to top universities. No doubt if the WFLS pupils do this, we'll be hearing about it morning, noon and night, but I'm only saying it here to correct a fundamental error in Toby's blog.
Do you want to know why my students did well, Toby? They were actively engaged in the lessons; they found them interesting. They covered curriculum content in ways which really motivated them. I'm certainly not alone; there are thousands of teachers all over the country trying their best to stimulate their pupils day in and day out in state schools. I've met loads of great teachers and gained ideas like "modernising" Shakespeare from them. These creative teaching techniques are not "dumbed down": they are the opposite. They require high levels of cognitive skills.
But I am not the first victim of Toby's ill-informed wrath; there have been plenty before me, and no doubt many more to come. Why are you denigrating us all in the national media with your specious and unsubstantiated opinions? Why do you never tell us the overwhelmingly good news about our state schools today?
I really am concerned for the pupils at WFLS and, by extension, at free schools throughout the country. Ignoramuses like Toby Young are being allowed carte blanche to impose their redundant educational ideas on our children at the taxpayer's expense. At WFLS, it's already clear that celebrating sexual diversity is completely off the cards, as are any attempts to make lessons creative and "child-centred". Innovation is out, and drudgery is the order of the day. So much for them being "free" schools: Toby Young's school sounds more like a mental prison than a place to explore the human intellect.
We know your approach doesn't work, Toby; it was tried out in the 1950s and it failed. If you want to read an excellent book on the matter, look at Adrian Elliot's State Schools Since The 1950s -- The Good News