All the world’s a stage: Celebrating and reflecting on primary school life through leavers’ musical productions
With Year 6 pupils across the UK preparing to move on to secondary school, Andrew Oxspring, director of Edgy Productions, talks to teachers about why end-of-year and Year 6 leavers’ musicals are so important, and shares his own experiences of staging school productions.
It’s not always easy, is it? As a former Year 6 teacher, I can completely relate to the stresses that primary school teachers face when tasked with putting on a musical production. While certainly not without humorous moments during the planning and rehearsal stages, in my experience the whole process could be frustrating at times. But when it all comes together, and it always did, the thrill of hearing an audience laugh, sometimes cry, and applaud the combined efforts of you and the children is wonderful. I found that this was never truer than with end-of-year or leavers’ musicals, particularly those written to celebrate school life.
The chance to say goodbye and look back on the last chapter is vital in every transition we make in life – none more so than leaving primary school to start secondary school. It marks the end of the first phase of childhood and the move into adolescence and in that respect it’s an important rite of passage. Using productions that celebrate the primary school years, as well as being a lot of fun, helps focus the thoughts and feelings that this transition can evoke in pupils. Judith Starkey, teacher at Heaton St Barnabus C of E Primary in Bradford agrees. “Leavers’ musicals enable students and teachers alike to reflect on the past year in a positive and humorous way, and are a great end to the year and to their seven years at primary school.”
Ending the year on a high
This is especially important in Year 6 as many friendship groups may be split if children move on to different secondary schools, so the production can often be the last time everyone is brought together in front of the community. The celebratory sense of closure it offers gives the chance to end the academic year on a real high note, reinforcing relationships and bonds in quite a powerful way, as David Morley, deputy head teacher at Long Meadow Primary School, Milton Keynes points out. “Giving the children a chance to relate to their peers and teachers through connection with the characters or story is often a very compelling way to end the school year.”
The way in which our productions about school life resonated with children was one of the things that really stood out to me when I was a teacher. I wrote and produced leavers’ musicals for eight consecutive years for my Year 6 classes and quickly learned the importance of using the students’, teachers’ and parents’ experiences of their time at primary school to inform what I wrote. When we used real-life material, children were keen to be involved and the audiences’ reactions were always overwhelming. The productions were always designed to make all those involved think, “I remember when that happened to me” and so many moments can be brought into the script and songs to give a real sense of shared experience and camaraderie. Getting a dose of nits, being sick on the bus during a school trip (never underestimate children’s appetite for a bit of toilet humour), having to delve through the lost-property box to find a pair of shorts for PE, or taking an undignified tumble in the sack race on sports day – these experiences were and are common to all. To be able to break some of the sillier taboos of childhood with a bit of drama provided a huge release for everyone involved.
Not just a song and dance
Rounding off primary school life with a fun and nostalgic look back was never just a chance to muck around; it can require as much commitment as any academic project and helps children develop some incredibly useful skills to help them through a challenging period of transition.
Throughout my time as a teacher I was always surprised how some children, not necessarily the gregarious ones, found a voice through performing. Musical productions can help boost the confidence of the shyer pupils and can engender skills that are crucial for those about to make the transition to secondary school. The collaborative nature of school performances is an obvious thing to point out, but productions also require self-discipline and focus. They can be a prime example of learning by stealth too – put children in a classroom test situation and few will find it fun. Put them in a production that allows them to shrug off some of the parameters of primary school life and it’s a different story entirely.
Then there’s the importance of the celebratory aspect of this type of production. Especially in Year 6 there are plenty of measures for assessing ability in core academic subjects, and children who do well in standardised testing get weekly (if not daily) chances to demonstrate their achievements. This is why less-academic tasks and projects, like sporting, dramatic and musical ones are so important. They allow other students their moment in the spotlight, to get a rare ‘well done’ and some much-needed recognition. As well as those with acting and singing ability, school productions shine a spotlight on the children with a flair for art and craft; poster design, scenery painting, prop making and costume creation are all crucial to the success of a show. Also, the experience of being involved may spark an interest that extends beyond school. “Pupils’ attitudes towards school productions have changed since programmes like Glee or films like High School Musical”, says Peta Ackerley, Year 3 teacher, Austhorpe Primary School in Leeds. “Many more now take musical theatre classes outside of school and enjoy being involved in their own school’s productions.”
It’s not just about the children…
Primary school teachers and teaching assistants are creative people; the job of delivering lessons in a wide variety of subjects demands this. Many can sing, play a musical instrument or make things like would-be Blue Peter presenters! They are the unsung masters in arts, crafts and drama as well as the core subjects and, unfortunately, they are not given enough credit for their outstanding work, nor enough opportunity to have fun while flexing these skills. There is no denying that the feeling which follows a roof-raising performance is, for many children, every bit as important as doing well in formal assessment and this is true for the teachers too. In our school we always found that staging an end-of-year production showed off the creativity that teachers had injected into lessons all year round, and gave them some of the congratulatory recognition they deserved, something that Natasha Clemitshaw, a teacher at Canon Popham CE Primary School in Doncaster sees with their productions. “The night of the production is always fantastic as it’s a hugely rewarding moment for everyone involved. Seeing parents so proud of their children is priceless but it’s also being part of a bigger, creative story that raises a wry smile as much as it prompts a belly laugh that we love.”
Challenging but rewarding
The biggest challenges of staging a production are time and space constraints. Hall time is a valuable resource and many classes have to give up activities like PE to accommodate rehearsals. Teachers also have to manage large groups in a pressured situation, ensuring children have learned their lines and lyrics. The frustration of shouting “Sing up!”, “Don’t mumble!” and “For goodness’ sake, smile!” ad nauseam can take its toll!
To overcome these hurdles it’s crucial teachers plan ahead and delegate as much as possible; as mentioned, there’s a great deal of musical and artistic talent amongst teaching assistants and it’s worth getting help from willing parents too. Teachers also need to prioritise what needs to be done, like spending a couple of weeks just learning the songs before even thinking about the script. Setting short-term goals, for example, by week two, all songs to be learned, parts assigned and scripts given out, can really help. It is also a good idea to hold auditions to establish which children suit which parts. Most importantly of all though, teachers must involve children in the choice of musical, especially if they’re staging a leavers’ one as it needs to be something children will enjoy and want to actively participate in during the last weeks of term. As David Morley points out, “Make sure all students have a role, even if it’s backstage. Some children don’t seek the limelight but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to shine.”
End-of-year and leavers’ productions are a great way to explore the diversity of children’s talents beyond the classroom and are an excellent vehicle for artistic expression and personal development. When the content is specifically about school life, students are able to bring something of themselves to the parts they play and the lyrics they sing. They get to be a bit cheeky, sending up teachers, school staff and parents in a light-hearted way. It’s this chance to reflect and to take on a slightly more adult role that makes these sorts of school musicals such a valuable way to round off the primary school years. And crucially, since a happy ending should always carry a bit of emotional heft, they also give us all the chance to say goodbye.