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Reflecting on a visit from Schools Consent Project

In our latest blog post, Teacher of English Mark Belassie-McCourt, discusses what happened when Schools Consent Project, a charity that sends lawyers into schools to deliver workshops on the legal definition of consent, visited Bryanston at the end of May...

Suzie Miller’s play, 'Prima Facie', led by a staggering one-woman performance from the irrepressible Jodie Comer, has collected award after award this season, with its West End iteration winning Oliviers for Best Play and Best Actress, and its Broadway production already mentioned in the Tony Award nominations. For those of our English A Level pupils who are studying it, this is only one reason that the play feels so current – urgent, even. 'Prima Facie' is unashamedly confronting, placing the issue of sexual consent at its very centre, and asking its audiences to consider the shortcomings of the legal systems on whom it falls to defend the – usually female – victims of sexual assault. This frank, unapologetic approach, this refusal to address an uncomfortable topic euphemistically, is another reason the play is so contemporary.

In our English classes it has been fascinating to apply the tools of literary analysis to a text that is written for and about this particular generation. What kinds of voices are we celebrating on contemporary stages? What are the best writers of today interested in writing about? How do recent events like the #MeToo movement, or the rise of professional misogynists on social media, influence our reading of this material? What kinds of language are today’s authors reaching for as they seek to address one of today’s most important issues?

This is where our pupils have decisively taken ownership of the play they are reading. They understand the need to explore this terrain proactively and with candour, and they will not settle for platitudes because the language of sexual consent is their language, refined in spaces that really belong to their generation. In short, they are not afraid of this topic, and I have been consistently impressed by the patience and sensitivity that they bring to our discussions.

However, as Suzie Miller would tell you, this is not where the work ends. Our pupils are endlessly impressive in their maturity and compassion, but they need and deserve guidance. This is where the Schools Consent Project came in on a recent visit to Bryanston. Run by lawyers who volunteer their time to deliver workshops on the legal definition of consent, the Schools Consent Project has encouraged discussions about the topic with over 30,000 young people nationwide. Partnering with the producers of 'Prima Facie', this charity is taking responsibility for meeting young people in the middle: our pupils have the will to engage with the topic of consent; our challenge is to help them uncover the language to do so.

It was uplifting but not surprising, then, that when Carolyn Kenyon, in-house counsel for Amazon, came to run a workshop with our A Level pupils, they covered themselves in glory throughout, asking thoughtful questions and showing both sensitivity and courage in discussion. They picked through the legal definitions of different sexual offences, adding nuance and detail to conversations which they have been having in PSRE lessons for years. It was encouraging, in fact, when Ms Kenyon had to switch gears as she realised that this group was much more literate on sexual consent than she had expected.

And this is really the point. One of Miller’s most trenchant lines in 'Prima Facie' insists that ‘when a woman says “no”, / when her actions say “no”, / it is not a subtle unreadable thing at all’. Our students of literature might comment on the powerful simplicity of Miller’s language, the way the logic of her claim is reflected in uncomplicated vocabulary and the insistent rhythm of anaphora. However, they are not satisfied with powerful simplicity. This is a landscape that they must actually navigate, and it is anything but simple. With Ms Kenyon they worked towards an understanding of sexual consent that uses more sophisticated language, and in doing so they took a few more steps in their progress from children with open minds and willing spirits to adults who can lead a compassionate and intelligent approach to sexual consent.

Later in the term we will welcome 'Prima Facie'’s award-winning Broadway director, Justin Martin, to a webinar at Bryanston, when our pupils will have the amazing opportunity to ask him direct questions. In the meantime, they have proved why they are the audience that Miller’s confronting play, and Comer’s brave, vulnerable performance, deserve.

Tagged  Values  Reflection