Not only is it an exceptional production, brilliantly performed, it is a timely assessment of the values of community, education and aspiration that ought to fundamentally challenge political thinking in some of our most vital public services (as well as being a total hoot!)
The story, in a nutshell, concerns a group of miners in 1930s Ashington who engage in an art appreciation course through the Workers Education Association (the economics lecturer was unavailable!)
The WEA still operates today, providing opportunities for workplace and community learning in incredibly creative ways.
During the course it becomes apparent that these ordinary working men have a real talent for artistic expression that amazes both them and their tutor. They go on to exhibit their work, even selling some pieces, although there are some interesting exchanges about who owns the product of their collective labour.
Sharp contrast is made between the cramped, dark and tough experience that mining is and the open, creative phenomenon of expressive painting.
I won’t spoil the plot for those about to enjoy the play, but there is a real message in it about the liberating dynamism of education and learning.
The Pitmen Painters sought not a career path out of the mine, but a chance to feel something different from the toil. Education can have that power.
Contrast this optimism and appreciation of personal growth with the ever more economic focus which learning is getting. Employers should have good links with schools, it is right that children learn to understand what is expected of them from the world of work and education should help to properly prepare the next generation of workers.
But we do need to caution against work and employment entirely dominating education. Last week’s report from Cambridge University showed real concerns about the pressure children aged between seven and 11 are feeling from constant testing and the challenge to perform well or risk a grim future.
The Government’s City Academies policy also risks giving employers too much influence over education, focusing learning on specific sectors. Taken too far, this could result in schools being reduced to the production lines of future workers.
Kevin Rowan, Regional Secretary, Northern TUC