History of Drama in Education Part 6: Differences, arguments and existential crises.

This is the sixth part in a series of 7 articles looking back at the history of Drama 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, part four here and finally part five here.

A few years into the start of my career as a teacher, I think it was about 2002 or 2003, my school led an INSET session on Assessment for Learning. The session did not start well and a lot of the “old guard” had to be pulled out of the smoking room. This was always a bad sign. There was a lot of tension in the room and a lot of backchat. We all knew that this was a hard sell. But there was uproar at the suggestion that maybe giving the students the assessment criteria before they did the assessment could prove helpful in their understanding.

This argument has dominated the majority of my career in teaching. Assessment and accountability. At first it was how should we assess our students work and then it became about what we should be assessing. But throughout it has been centred on the accountability of the teacher.

Having no official assessment criteria from the National Curriculum, several came to light in the 1990’s. Three that influenced me most when I started teaching was The Arts Councils 2nd edition of Drama in Schools, Andy Kempe and Marigold Ashwell’s one  in Progression in Secondary Drama and Jonathan Neelands one in Drama 11-14. There were others as well. But none of them were validated by The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. This meant that none of them for really valid or accountable.

Without that official guidance from the QCA, individual drama departments were able to adopt the assessment criteria they felt fitted their practice best. In the years since the early 1990’s a myriad of different versions built by teachers themselves. Some which combine the best elements of ones I have already mentioned and other published ones. Some of these totally specific to the school, some which are drawn from the GCSE criteria and some which draw on all three of these influences. That variety in assessment criteria made the situation even less accountable and meant that standardisation across the country for Key Stage 3 Drama impossible.

This was a toxic situation for Drama to be in. A situation toxic situation that could on continue and grow. Schools and teachers were able to freely adapt their assessment criteria to fit the Drama that they taught. The freedom to define and create their curriculum, assessment criteria and method of assessment is tremendous. So much freedom is more of a curse than an advantage. It meant that different teachers and different schools used different criteria. This opened up huge uncertainties with regards standardisation across the country. In 2005 Ofsted extremely critical of this situation. Ofsted felt that there was too much conflict between the various published assessment criteria.

Rather than support the cause of Drama at Key Stage 3, this undermined it. The bitter truth is that it is not a compulsory subject at Key Stage 3. And these uncertainties only weakened any justification for its inclusion. Instead of a unified subject, which mirrored other subjects, Drama remained fractured and spread across too many bases. Instead of asking “why we should teach drama?”, the question become “should we teach drama?”.

But this is the background to another argument that has dominated my career. One between collective drama teachers and exam boards, government, Ofqual, Ofsted and many others. For every new initiative that came into existence there seemed to be an argument about why it was not appropriate for Drama or it needed adapting to meet the needs to Drama.

There have been a lot of developments in education in the last 10 years, especially at Key Stage 3 and within the National Curriculum. Changes which have a massive knock on effect on Drama. Yet regardless of how vigorous, reasoned, or passionate any argument from the Drama Teaching establishment was, all protests fell on deaf ears. A harsh reality needs to be remembered here. From the very moment Drama was left out of the National Curriculum, there has been no reason for the Government to include Drama in any of its plans.

There is no doubt that the EBACC and Progress 8 are having a negative effect on the Arts in Schools, including (but not exclusive to) Drama. We are right to argue against this. But the we have ‘fought’ against this brings me to another argument. A much bigger argument which has dominated my time in teaching much more than anything else. And that is the existential crisis of what drama is. Ask a group of Drama Teachers why Drama should in the curriculum and chances are their answers will all be different. The chances of their answer including the words “soft skills” are even higher!

These answers continue to be at odds with the obvious direction of passage that the QCA and exam board specifications are going. The first specification I taught, the 1699 Edexcel specification at the turn of the century bears no relation to the one I teach today, other than that they are both called GCSE Drama. Now the focus is on learning and understanding the work of practitioners. On emulating them in performance. And on analysing and evaluating performance work. There is now a specific focus on knowledge, on learning the subject of Drama. On learning the subject of theatre.

And so, we arrive to the now. 2020. The journey from the origins of secondary school Drama to where we are now is a winding road. A road that has forked in many different directions whilst we were travelling along it. And what of those difference forks? The focus of these articles was very much on Drama in secondary school. In the modern era we have not heard much from Mantle of the Expert and Process Drama. But they are still very much alive and well. Mantle of the Expert in the hands of practitioners like Tim Taylor. Progress Drama in the hands of Pamela Bowell. Both are doing what they were probably best designed to do. Purpose and bespoke workshops using Drama to explore issues and topics.  

But what of Secondary School Drama in the 2020’s? Well, I shall be drawing my conclusions to this in my next and final article of this series on the history of Drama in Education.