Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Making a Drama Out of Drama

Making a Drama Out of Drama

 

Who’d have thought that the Head of the National Youth Theatre could create such a storm? But Paul Roseby did just that when he suggested at a London arts conference that school drama lessons should be scrapped. GCSE Drama is, he said, “irrelevant” and does drama no favours because, as a subject, it is characterised as “soft and easy”. Bad for the theatre, bad for everyone. Scrap it.  

Unsurprisingly these comments were greeted by quite an outcry. Drama teachers, represented by National Drama Chair Patrice Baldwin, were furious, describing his comments as “extremely disturbing”. You can see her point: drama is already under severe threat in schools. Michael Gove didn’t rate it, so excluded it from the English Bacc. Applications to drama teacher training courses are falling. Drama doesn’t have its own programme of study in the new National Curriculum. Yes, you can understand why drama educators would be “disturbed”.  

Now, let’s be fair to Mr Roseby. What he actually said was that GCSE Drama isn’t working in the current school set-up. He’s not against teaching drama. On the contrary, he was quite clear that he thinks more drama should happen in school: “I would love to see schools become more like creative hubs and revolutionise the way we learn. They would create formulas and ideas that would stimulate subjects by actioning stories – Alan Turing, for example, or Marie Curie, or re-enacting the cabinet war rooms. It’s taking the practical side of what theatre is and applying it to all subjects”.  

Oh dear! I see his point, of course. But, in secondary schools at any rate, though we talk earnestly about developing cross-curricular links, about focussing a whole school on a theme for a few days, I’m not sure many of us do it very well. Certainly I’ve never managed to achieve it in a school I’ve run – and, hell, I’m a musician by training, with a passion for drama, so should be better placed than some.  

Ian Kellgren, Chief Executive of Drama UK, emphasised the need for drama-teaching to lead to a GCSE. He said, “Ideas of integrated inter-core subjects are hopelessly unrealistic in the current climate. A drama GCSE is essential for developing the passion, skills and knowledge needed to become both producers and audiences for theatre”.  

It seems to me that these two opposing views precisely encapsulate what’s wrong: not just with attitudes to drama in schools, but to so much of the way we do education.  

Mr Roseby loves drama, and feels schools should be doing it, even if I find his view of how it might be done less than entirely practical. He was trying to say, I think, that GCSE Drama is not the be-all-and-end-all in terms of validating and protecting drama in schools. His opponents on the other hand are convinced that the only way you get drama taken seriously is to have a GCSE in it.  

How wrong both views are!  

Educational debates always end up with opposing sides adopting black-and-white views. Throughout my 25 years as a head I have been regularly embroiled in arguments about how to protect particular subjects and see that they are valued. In the late 90s, I lost the battle against advocates of Citizenship Education (which I supported) who insisted that, if there weren’t formal assessment in it, it would never be valued. Maybe we were both right: it’s since fallen by the wayside under the current government’s ruthless drive to what it sees as standard and “important” subjects.  

So Mr Roseby’s insistence that GCSE Drama isn’t the most important part of it is sharply observed: but it’s not acceptable to those who see the only way of protecting the subject as giving it exam points. Even at school level, proponents of arguably minority subjects or fringe activities frequently say they will only be taken seriously if there is some kind of formal assessment or reporting process. Otherwise they are not seen as “real”.  

They’re probably right. Ever since the first National Curriculum was imposed in 1988 the UK education system has been cursed by the hard fact that it (I guess I really mean policymakers) values only those things that it can measure - and measure with relative ease. In effect, this argument over drama merely reignites that same old debate. As it happens, I think GCSE Drama is an excellent course. I love the way that boys and girls emerge from it having thoroughly learnt the mechanics and technical vocabulary of what is a highly complex operation (and if you’ve never tried to get a performance on stage, don’t make glib judgements!). Soft and easy? It’s damned hard work.  

Equally important, though, is what is learnt in those “general” drama lessons long before GCSE courses begin. Improvisation, empathy, listening, responding, body language, preparation, teamwork: they are all there, and if we didn’t teach them in drama someone would soon be insisting that schools gave children such opportunities to develop them elsewhere.  

So three morals emerge from this tale. First, a reminder that we shouldn’t value only what we can easily measure.  

Second, drama is a subject of immense importance and, if we downgrade it in any way, we hammer another nail into the coffin of creativity in education. (Coincidentally this week education guru Professor Guy Claxton, nowadays visiting Professor of Education at Kings College London, criticised schools for discouraging children from being creative in schools because “it makes them ask awkward questions and stray from the curriculum”. Schools only pay lip service to creativity, he said, as they are “addicted to ideas of certainty and routine”. He overstates it – but has a point).

Finally, it’s not the qualification that’s important, but the subject.  

So this recent furore, too quickly over in my view, was more than a spat between a few luvvies. It actually raised some fundamental questions about education. But collectively we won’t go there: it’s just too difficult: and policymakers, as ever, want swift, simple answers.

Bernard Trafford
Headmaster