History of Drama in Education Part 5: Process Drama

This is part fifth 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, part three here and finally part four here.

In his 1997 book, The GCSE Drama Coursebook, Andy Kempe writes about the excellent health of Drama. He estimates that about 70,000 young people were choosing to take GCSE Drama by the late 1990’s. Drama appeared to be booming 10 years into the National Curriculum.  Ten years after it appeared and feared that Drama  lost forever.  Kempe attributes this change to a shift in thinking. A shift in thinking about the purpose of drama in the curriculum. A shift that saw drama’s main purpose move away from being a pedagogy. And “towards regarding it as an art form in its own right, with its own corpus of knowledge and skills”.

So, what had happened in those ten years?

In 1987 there was a consultation phase for the National Curriculum. During that consultation, they received 1600 responses  from high profile musicians defending music. For drama they received about a dozen. Whilst the luminaries of the music world drafted in to help. The same did not happen for Drama.

David Hornbrook suggests that drama teachers and associations felt  that they weren’t needed. That they felt that the work of Drama was all they needed and any link to the theatre industry was superfluous. Indeed, Jonathan Neelands wrote in his book, Making Sense of Drama, (1984) that drama “is not a subject or a distinct curriculum area. It is not quantifiable or academic, nor is it seen has having specifiable inputs and outputs. It is instead as a classroom resource that should be available to every learner and teacher to make use of the same was as art and craft materials are available”.

Although there was silence during the consultation phase of the National Curriculum. They were quick to get angry afterwards. In 1992 the National Association for the Teaching of Drama held a conference called Education or catastrophe? Which way do we go?” During the conference they launched an ambitious attempt to repeal the Education Act. They were, of course, supported by Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton.

But life, in reality, went on. Teachers working in schools had to carry on. They were closer to the act of teaching rather than contemplating the purpose of drama. As such, teachers continued to be sensitive and respectful of their students. In particular their desire to make and perform theatre. So, teaching in schools shifted away from the child centred theory of Heathcote. Instead, shifting towards teaching drama as an end in itself.

Several factors went into that shift. First was that the demands for the new GCSE qualification lead change at Key Stage 3. Andy Kempe defined Drama as being “about how to make, perform and appreciate plays”. He started his GCSE textbook,  The GCSE Drama Coursebook, with this definition. Teachers not only had to teach to the specification, but they also had to prepare students for it. And as a result, what was being taught at Key Stage 3 started to mirror the demands of the GCSE course.

The work of  Cecily O’Neil also gave another helping hand for this gradual change. Her work was an unintentional middle ground. Somewhere where drama as theatre making and drama as a pedagogy could meet. She saw her work as a genre of theatre. She identified the learners in her approach were active agents in making theatre. Her approach was as happy working with scripts as it was with teacher in role. As happy with improvisation as with whole group decision making. She put distance between her work and the idea of learning through drama.  She felt the term ‘learning’ was too narrow and limiting to the young people participating.

A popular form of Drama, Process Drama has influences on the way we teach Drama today.

The clearest influence is on the Edexcel GCSE Drama specification. The 1698 and 1699 specifications from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The focus of the specification was on “the exploration of ideas, issues and play scripts”. A holistic approach that attempted to teach and assess all forms of process drama. Edexcel split the course  between exploration and performance. The first part of the course used drama to explore themes and texts. Exploration facilitated through the explorative strategies, drama mediums and drama elements. The second part creating and performing either a devised or scripted performance.

Edexcel stated at the time,  “the nature of drama as an explorative medium was familiar to [drama teachers]” and so this approach was commonplace. There is a clear inference in term explorative strategies to refer to using drama as a tool for learning. And it wasn’t a simple case of using rehearsal strategies. It was about using drama to explore themes and issues relating to a stimulus and a text. As a teacher of this, there was encouragement for me to choose content that the students would learn from. They criticised centres who used these units as rehearsal or research for performance.

Compare this approach to Drama GCSE to the one Pearson Edexcel now offer us and the difference is stark. Now very much focused on making, performing, and evaluating theatre. Students are no longer exploring a theme using Hotseating and Narration. Instead they are creating a character for a performance. They are studying different plays, genres and styles of theatre. Not exploring but studying.

There is a small but very important distinction in that last sentence.  Not exploring but studying. The focus is on the academic practice of intellectual interrogation. The study of the theatre is an end in itself. This is best expressed in the assessment of the specification. The performance element is an internal teacher assessment. Whereas there is an external assessor for the written exam.

So the content, approach and assessment are all very different in the space of less than 20 years. What happened in the last 20 years to steer Drama away from Progress Drama and back to an academic subject? This is something which I will cover in my final article.

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