History of Drama in Education Part 4: Mantle of the Expert and the National Curriculum

This is part four 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, part two here and part three here.

Dorothy Heathcote was a teacher who has had a lot of influence on Drama, not only in the UK but around the world. The approach she become known for was Mantle of the Expert. An approach which uses acting in role to explore imaginary contexts. It is much more complex than I how describe it here. But for this article, I need to be brief. At the most basic level, within the Drama, the participants take on the role of experts. Then, as experts, they to work through a series of activities or tasks to using their expertise. Mantle of the expert is a pedagogy. It is a method of teaching.

As a method it become popular in both primary and secondary phases during the 1970s and 80s. Mantle of the expert has many roots which are like the ideas of Brian Way and The Playway. The central key to the success of both ideas was the child’s capacity and propensity to play. Yet, whilst The Playway was very loose and unstructured in its approach. Mantle of the expert works best as a very well-planned series of scenarios and situations. Not only that, but Mantle of the expert developed into a method that’s repeated and emulated. Mantle of the expert developed its own terminology and ways of working. For many, Mantle of the expert was much more accessible and approachable than The Playway. Indeed, much of Heathcote’s aim was to support teachers with a way that would help them use drama in their teaching.

I will not go into detail of the methods and key terminology. Instead I will let Dorothy and others explain them to you via this YouTube video;

I’ve curated a short YouTube playlist that you can watch here.

This was my first introduction to Drama as a child. I remember being part of a lesson where we all had roles as part of an exploration team. Sent to some remote part of the world to investigate and document it. Except we did not make it. The plane we were in crashed landed on an island. Instead of documenting a remote part of the world we used the expertise to stay alive and escape. I cannot deny it, I enjoyed the lesson.

There is nothing wrong with Mantle of the Expert. It was then, and it is still now, a valid and good method of using drama to teach. Mantle of the Expert is a pedagogy. But inherent in that statement is a question. Is Mantle of the Export Drama?

I will not attempt to answer that question until I finish my anecdote about my experiences.

This lesson was in secondary school. Run by a Drama Teacher, in a Drama lesson which was part of a carousel of Drama, Art and Music. In this format, the Mantle of the Expert lesson is being taught to students across the UK as the subject of Drama. Teaching students that Mantle of the Expert was what Drama was. Not exploring characters and developing performance. Not learning about different theatre genres or practitioners. Not watching and learning about theatre.

Timetabled into the curriculum as a Drama lesson was Drama as a pedagogy. It was this that gave the wider world the definition of what Drama was. Drama as a pedagogy got confused with the idea of Drama as a subject of academic study. In some ways this would have been fine, if it were not for what was on the winds of change.

Up until 1988, schools had complete autonomy on both what they taught and how they taught. Some schools and local authorities established their own curriculum. Some bought into larger schemes. Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s politicians became uncomfortable with this situation. Tension mounted between the ‘educational establishment’ and the government.

Tension between the two had rumbled for decades. Governments on both sides of the political divide talked of change from the early 1960’s. Yet, it wasn’t until 1980’s when things changed. Margaret Thatcher changed the future of education in England and Wales forever.

Thatcher wanted to promote free market in education. She saw this as a way of raising standards of education. She wanted a common curriculum and standardised testing regime. This would both normalise the education of young people and provide a way of judging schools. And so, as part of the Education Act of 1988, the National Curriculum came into law.

The emphasis was on subjects. Made up of the 3 core subjects of Maths, Science and English (and Welsh for Wales) and 7 foundation subjects of Art and Design, History, Geography, Technology, Music, Languages and Physical Education.

The emphasis on subjects was at odds with the generalisation of previous curriculum. The curriculum became about learning specific and detailed subject based knowledge.

This was at odds with the definition of Drama which policy makers were working with at the time. That Drama was Mantle of the Expert. Policy makers did not see this form of Drama working in their vision of a subject based regime.
The only people to voice their objection were those who supported this view of Drama. Voices who the policy makers had already disregarded. And, despite the list of famous artists, dancers and musicians who came to the defense of Music, Art and Dance. No famous actors came to voice their support for the inclusion of a theatre or acting based subject.

This mess of definitions of Drama was a major, if not the only, contributor to the omission of Drama from the National Curriculum.

So, is Mantle of the Expert Drama?

The answer to that is about how you define subjects and education . The definition of education changed with the National Curriculum. It became about subject specific knowledge, assessment, and accountability. But Drama was not this. This type of Drama had not been central to the curriculum since pre-war Britain. Instead, it was Drama as a pedagogy, in the form of Mantle of the Expert, wrapped up as a subject.

So, is Mantle of the Expert Drama? Yes of course it is. But that isn’t the most important question to ask. The real question is; is the form of Drama that is Mantle of the Expert a subject for study at school?

The answer to that question, in the context of the 21st Century, has to be no.

In the next blog we will explore how the subject of “Drama” has developed developed in the 21st Century.


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