There is a current argument that the arts are soft skills, not what universities are looking for. But they are vital for developing hugely important life-skills: team-work, empathy, communication, confidence – particularly drama. If you are going for an interview, no matter what industry, these are the skills that will put you above the rest.
There is a lot of pressure in schools to offer the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which prescribes English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and one language. My school, Southborough High (a boys’ school), does offer it, and we are very proud of our EBacc score: 42 per cent, which is more than double the 2013 national average for boys.
However, it doesn’t leave you with a huge amount of choice regarding the arts, squeezing resources in the opposite direction.
I have been at Southborough six years. To begin with we didn’t offer GCSE drama. With support from my head I have built it up over the years. Our current year 10 class is formed of 20 students and we offer BTEC production arts at Level 3.
There is a lot you can do to increase students’ cultural awareness. We have had the Royal Court providing student workshops on a play called Pigeons and Splendid Productions do Greek theatre in Brechtian style, with excellent workshops for the older kids.
The performing arts group Kazzum is a brilliant team. We worked with them on a project about refugees and their experiences, and exploring how to use apps in the classroom, like Vine and Instagram, as starting points to create drama.
However, this development has to be fostered within the school, not just brought in and teachers need support in developing skills to do this.
Staff need CPD that is creative and ignites our enthusiasm. But CPD programmes are often quite dry – simply “this is the syllabus, these are some ways to explore it”. It is especially hard to find suitable CPD for drama teachers and there is very little hands-on support offered by the exam boards.
In my first year at Southborough I got the school involved in Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank, the education project from Shakespeare’s Globe.
The school actively offered training and ways in which to up-skill you – and the Playing Shakespeare CPD was free because of the funding for the project.
It was a completely brilliant experience. I was only in my second year of teaching, still getting my head around the syllabus, rather than thinking “how can I make my teaching exciting?” – it invigorated my practice.
The exercises we did were all developed from actors’ rehearsal room techniques and experiences of being on the Globe stage: tools put in practice by professionals every day to get behind Shakespeare’s words, characters and stories, but tailored specifically for the key stage 3 and 4 classroom.
I have used the exercises again and again. Once you are shown these activities by a practitioner you can see how transferable they are, and the benefits they can have in other subjects. Having the confidence with the boys to explore Shakespeare so physically in my English lessons was a real bonus.
It was a shock to the system at first – for all of us: breaking down the plot into tableaux, moving around the room, drumming out iambic pentameter on their chests like Tarzan – but now it’s no problem!
And there was a noticeable difference in their engagement; they responded to this active approach much better than reading the text. It was incredibly influential on my early teaching career, and showed me how I can do both – enthuse my students and help them get their grades.
Now as head of drama, I have established that our new teachers are sent on the Playing Shakespeare CPD as a matter of course. Engaging students in Shakespeare is particularly important to us, and we know that it is vital that our teachers are “tooled up” to do that job.
I want these new teachers to be inspired by these skills, and take them throughout their career.
Drama-based CPD gives you skills to apply across the board: poise, projection, a different way of unpacking a text – be it a novel or a history book. It makes you rethink the classroom and, crucially, gives you confidence to try new approaches.
You can ask your students to be active in their lessons, feeling confident and in control. The learning becomes more holistic. I know the English teacher we sent along last year is using it across the subject, because she keeps borrowing my drama spaces for her English lessons!
A crucial step we have implemented is that the benefits of any useful training are shared across the school in comprehensive feedback to other staff members, so there is a ripple effect of practice throughout the school.
Southborough’s drama education now extends way beyond my classroom. We have six performances a year, involving the whole school, ages 11 through to 18, which is something we feel strongly about.
We recently performed James and the Giant Peach – with puppets! Year 11 made the puppets as part of their coursework, our BTEC students did the sound, set, and all the technical production. Year 7 and 8 are studying the script in English, so they voiced the puppets. Catering and food tech students provided the peach-themed smoothies and cakes.
It’s a real event and everybody comes together. It is difficult to instigate and integrate a whole-school production. However, I find that most staff welcome the chance to do something out of the ordinary, especially when there is a clear educational outcome.
Every year we have a themed murder mystery, evening – last year it was Wild West, another year we did a Blitz Christmas with the history department. The students are in character all night, improvising and “hot-seating” as the audience interrogates them. This requires a multi-layered skill-set and a collective investment in the drama. I am always impressed with how all the students throw themselves into it.
Recently year 11 performed a physical theatre piece called Blackout by Davey Anderson for year 9s who were studying it. The year 11s completed that part of their drama course, and year 9 PSHE also focuses on knife crime, so watching the play gave them a further understanding. We will be doing the same thing with Blood Brothers in January, performed by year 10s for year 8.
This cross-pollination obviously has educational benefits, but the impact these whole-school productions have on the social life of the school is massive. It’s one of my favourite things about my school: all the kids get on so well. With more than 900 teenage boys from a complete mixture of backgrounds, there is very little bullying, very little division of year groups – everyone works together. And the prominence of inclusive creative projects, I believe, has a large part to play in that.
In the secondary phase, non-drama specialists often forget the power of using theatre skills as a cross-curricular tool.
Students who kinaesthetically and empathically engage with an experience are far more likely to recall this experience and be able to apply their knowledge when it comes to an examination or controlled assessment.
Going to the theatre allows students to develop a personal response to the performance and place themselves in the context of the plays.
It is difficult to quantify arts impact but it is clearly demonstrated in real world outcomes, in the grades of students who have been involved in Playing Shakespeare.
They have been in the theatre and experienced it; they have thought about the way the drama works with the audience and developed a personal response and relationship to the text and to Shakespeare. The effect is palpable in their essays.
Less quantifiable because of the timescale, will be the change in the students as people: in their attitudes and inclinations, the way they stand or introduce themselves, the paths they choose – and people they become.
Morgan Melhuish is head of drama at Southborough High School in south London.
Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank
For the last eight years, Globe Education, in partnership with Deutsche Bank, has staged a contemporary Shakespeare play at the iconic Shakespeare’s Globe in London, created especially for young people with accompanying resources.
The productions have been praised for their edgy interpretation, appealing to teenagers while retaining Shakespeare’s own language and without being dumbed-down.
To date, more than 100,000 students have seen a production and many more have had free access to the online resources on the dedicated website.
For 2015, Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe will be free for all state secondary schools in London and Birmingham. It runs from February 26 to March 12.
Othello raises many themes to which young people will relate such as friendship, misogyny, envy, jealousy, and honour.
Free tickets are offered to all state secondary schools in London and Birmingham as well as free supporting resources – student workshops, extensive online resources, and CPD training for teachers.
All other schools can attend at greatly reduced rates between March 13 and 20.
Patrick Spottiswoode, director at Globe Education, said: “The positive response of both students and teachers to The Merchant of Venice last year led us to choose Othello – another bold choice – enriching and broadening the experience of Shakespeare for 11 to 16-year-olds. Thanks to Deutsche Bank’s support we are able to offer free tickets to every state secondary school in London and, in 2015, extend this offer to schools in Birmingham.”
Teachers in London are enthusiastic about the project. Natalie Jim, drama curriculum leader at Sarah Bonnell School in London, said: “Every time I have attended at the Globe I have never failed to come away inspired and full of ideas to help open up the language and world of Shakespeare to my students.
“They have been enthralled by some of the most amazing productions that have excited them about live theatre and the unique atmosphere of this wonderful space – it really is a remarkable and valuable experience for all involved.”
For further details on this year’s Playing Shakespeare production and related resources and CPD, visit www.playingshakespeare.org
CAPTION: Engaging: The 2014 Playing Shakespeare production was The Merchant of Venice. This year, it is Othello. Photo: Amit Lennon/Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank