History of Drama in Education Part 3: Drama and the Tripartite System

This is part three of a series of articles chronicling the history of Drama and Theatre in Education. It is important. It is important to understand where the subject of Drama has come from. What baggage it comes with. How perceptions of the subject have changed over the years. How that baggage and perceptions effect the subject today.

If you missed part one you can read it here, or if you missed part two you can read it here.

In this blog we are going to explore the major education acts of the 20th Century and their impact on Drama. Why do this? Because they have created a surprising hang over. One that we, Drama Teachers and Education in general, are still feeling.

The origins of the English and Welsh education system come from three Education Acts. The Balfour Act of 1902, the Fisher Act of 1918, and the 1944 Education Act.

The Balfour Act established Local Education Authorities. In doing so it created a centralised funding body for all schools.

The Fisher Act made education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 14. It also introduced qualifications for those who were able to remain in education to take. At 16 children could take the School Certificate (SC). And at 18 they could take the Higher School Certificate (HSC). For both, students needed to gain a pass in a combination of six subjects, including English and Maths. Other subjects included Humanities, Languages, Sciences, Art, Religious Instruction and Music.

The 1944 Education Act continued the changes that the Fisher and Balfour Acts began. It raised the leaving age to 15. It split education into two phases; Primary and Secondary. And it introduced the tripartite system into the Secondary phase.

The tripartite system based itself on who was able to pass the 11+ exam. Those who did went on to a Grammar School and those who did not went to either a secondary modern or a technical school.

The purpose of Technical Schools was to meet the needs of industry and science. They aimed to teach young people mechanics, science, and engineering. Despite good intentions, they were not funded well and few were set up.

Secondary Modern Schools were a more popular alternative to Technical Schools. They were, in most cases, existing schools that had their status changed. They offered a broad range of subjects. From vocational subjects such as cookery, laundry, and metalwork. To academic subjects like humanities, English and Maths. The more able students could go on to do their Secondary Certificates if they chose to remain at school and do so.

Grammar Schools offered an academic education. It focused on the study of Latin, Greek, English, Languages, Humanities and Sciences. Although some scholarships were available, entry into Grammar Schools based on exam entry. This meant that the children of wealthy middle-class parents dominated the system. The majority children continued on to get their School Certificates. Many more stayed on to achieve their High School Certificates.

The aim of the tripartite system was to offer a free education to all young people. At a basic level, it aimed to create a literate and numerate workforce. Yet, it was also an attempt at much more than that. It was an attempt at creating an equality of educational opportunity. Focusing on the individual child’s development was a step closer to a more egalitarian society. Making sure that every young person got an education that was appropriate to their ability, aspirations, and ambitions.

What has this got to do with the study of Drama and Theatre in schools? Well, a lot! There is a lot here for the perception of Drama then and how it is still perceived today.

Let us start with Drama in the tripartite system.

The true trouble with the tripartite system was not in its failure to create a classless society. But in the way it attempted to manufacture this outcome. Instead of creating unity the three types of school created division. Particularly between the Grammar School and the rest, highlighted by the 11+ exam.

The purpose of the exam was to sort young people into the right place. So that they might receive the right level of education according to their ability. The reality is that it actually created a system of pass and fail. A culture where those who were ‘able’ went to Grammar School and everyone else did not. A culture focused on whether you are ‘able’ enough to go to Grammar School or not.

Of course, in reality, for most young people the thought of going to Grammar School did not cross their minds. But to society it created a gap, a label and, for some, huge psychological complexes.

But still what has this got to do with Drama? Well, it is how Drama manifested in this culture that explains a lot about how we perceive Drama today.

Let us start by looking at grammar schools. Many grammar schools focused on a very academic approach as a response to this culture. While putting on plays was still considered important for many grammar schools. Drama was not a subject that contributed to School Certificates. Nor was it included as a subject for the General Certificate of Education. The qualification which replaced the School Certificates in 1951.

Like the School Certificates, the GCE also had two levels. The Ordinary (‘O’) Level for 16-year old’s and Advanced (‘A’) Level for 18 year old’s. They focused on individual subjects rather than attaining a pass in a suite of subjects. They were also intended for the most able of the country to take. This created the view that Drama was not a subject worthy of academic study at secondary school. A view that still haunts us today.

Let us turn our attention to the secondary modern schools.

Some schools offered their more able students to take either the SC or GCE qualification. But the vast majority were not offered the opportunity. So most went to school knowing that they would leave school without any qualifications. Thus, the focus of their education was vastly different. The focus was on making young people work ready. Most young people left school at 15 and entered into some form of employment. Their education was as focused on vocational learning as it was on Maths and English. The exciting methods of teaching established by Peter Slade flourished in this environment. Using Drama and play as a pedagogy to teach and develop life skills found a welcome home here.

1965 brought a new qualification for those students attending Secondary Modern Schools. The Certificate of Secondary Education. The CSE was a much broader and accessible qualification. It covered a range of academic and vocational subjects. And it combined an assessment of both coursework and exams.

Drama was of the subjects that gained a CSE qualification. The Drama CSE was very influenced by the work of Peter Slade and Brian Way. It was broad and focused on using Drama as an explorative tool. A mix of making theatre, using it to explore issues and improving soft skills. The assessment was teacher led. It assessed their participation in Drama and their understanding of using drama.

The whole focus of the CSE was hugely different to the GCE. Not only the focus but the whole method of teaching and assessment was different. They were not designed to be equals. The highest grade achievable in a CSE (Grade 1) was equal to a pass (Grade C) at GCE.  From the start the perception of the CSE was that it was an easier and softer option. A perception that extended to the subjects, like Drama, which one could take at CSE.

So, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s Drama gained ground from the tripartite system. But different ground to what one might have expected if you were looking at the future from the early 1900’s. What looked like what might become an academic subject became something quite different.

We are still haunted today by the view that Drama is not an academic subject worthy of study. And the view that that Drama is a soft and easy option as well. And this view would only get wider and more cemented into the English and Welsh education. Which we will explore in my next blog.