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The Arts in Schools: Drama in schools

Sally Bacon and Pauline Tambling talked to Geoff Readman, Chair of National Drama, and Secretary of the DTEA, about the role of drama in schools.


31 May 2023 - Read the full interview at A New Direction

The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future looks back at the seminal 1982 Gulbenkian Foundation publication, The Arts in Schools: Principles, practice and provision. Between June and September 2022, we convened a series of virtual roundtables with school leaders, teachers, arts education practitioners, academics and policy makers on nine themes in the original report. The new report covers the context in which the original report was written; the practice and provision it envisioned; the immediate impact it had; and how society, education policy and the arts have changed over the past 40 years, concluding with recommendations and guidance for the future.

You are chair of National Drama and have been a member since its formation and so you have an excellent sense of the long view of drama in schools. How would you describe the four decades?

In the four decades since the Arts in Schools report drama, as with other arts, has been at the centre of a multitude of reductionist education and political priorities. National Drama regrets the fact that the importance of learning about drama and theatre should be defined by economic and party-political policies. Although there have been times for optimism, in the main drama has been under-resourced and under-valued to such an extent that there is a risk that in the future it will become the sole preserve of the privileged and wealthy. National Drama believes that all children and young people should have opportunities to learn about and through drama and theatre within a broad, balanced and coherent curriculum: a curriculum taught by teachers who have appropriate levels of subject knowledge and have received relevant training.


Drama suffered from the start. It was in the National Curriculum but only as part of the English curriculum. Drama and English are not interchangeable? Drama is an art form in its own right. It deserves equal subject status to the other arts. The fact that it was placed within English simply indicates the view of the politicians who drafted the first National Curriculum Documents; a decision that has never been explained or adequately justified. English and Drama share some common ground in relation to text, reading and oral work, but drama reflects a far more complex identity than this. Drama is an essentially an artistic and practical subject with its own distinct concepts, knowledge, skills and forms. Its pedagogical qualities need to be celebrated as unique dimensions of the process and not, as is sometimes the case, used as a pejorative descriptor to diminish its curriculum status. Drama can indeed be a powerful cross curricular learning medium, but it will only be truly effective in that role when such aesthetic elements of fictional role, narrative, audience, context, focus, tension, movement and language are present.

This confusion of critical definitions was most likely the reason that it was placed within English in 1988.

Over the years provision by theatre companies has grown hugely. When I started working in a professional theatre there was a clear distinction between the importance of drama education as a pedagogy which was a different thing from learning about theatre. The ‘clear distinction’ that you identify as having existed between ‘drama education’ and ‘learning about theatre’ created an unhelpful divide. It began with the highly influential publication of Development through Drama (1967) in which Brian Way claimed , ‘there are two activities which should not be confused – one is theatre, the other is drama’ (1967:02). The consequences of this rift are still apparent; particularly at secondary level, when ‘drama as learning medium’ is often described in a pejorative way, compared to the study of theatre.

My plea is that an inclusive definition of the activities that constitute drama should be adopted. Drama teachers and theatre practitioners need to articulate a 3-16 curriculum which recognizes the importance of imaginative play in the early years as well as written plays that take place in theatres.

The study of theatre does, of course, have an important contribution to make to a child’s educational entitlement. It should not be seen as an expensive ‘curriculum extra’. Theatre companies with established learning departments that collaborate with schools in order to enrich and complement learning are to be celebrated. Schools and theatre companies should form educational partnerships in which each contribution is valued. Participation in workshops or annual theatre visits cannot replace the benefits of sustained curriculum learning experiences. All children and young people are entitled to both professional theatre and to drama as a curriculum subject. Governments should not use the economy as a reason to deny them this right. We say in the report that the core entitlement has to be curriculum work. Any contribution from professional arts organisations must be extra because it can never be a universal entitlement. We chart the demise of much of the excellent practice in the 1970s and 1980s (before Local Management in Schools) when Local Education Authorities (LEA) had drama advisers and budgets, and when they could fund things beyond individual school budgets such as Theatre in Education by local theatre companies. In 1976, I was appointed to lead a team of four teacher-actors who were responsible only to Wakefield LEA schools and, in 1983, I became Drama Inspector for Nottinghamshire which eventually had a comprehensive Drama and Dance Support Service. I mention this to indicate my direct experience of LEA drama development.

The 1970s witnessed a growing recognition of drama and theatre’s important learning role, as argued in the writing of Bolton, O’Toole, Heathcote and O’Neil. These practitioners were highly influential in professional development (CPD) and teacher training. At the same time, there was also a growth in the Youth Theatre movement, with funding for national festivals. The youth theatre ‘director-teachers’ were exploring more innovative theatre practices and Theatre in Education teams were exploring participatory theatre techniques.

In the 1980s, during the years that followed The Arts in Schools report there were: increasing numbers for GCSE and A Level drama; new and more diverse university drama and theatre degrees; a highly popular teacher’s Diploma, validated by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which facilitated a period of pedagogical innovation in both primary and secondary drama practice. Much of this work was informed by Jonothan Neelands. In addition, many mainstream theatres founded their own youth theatres. Community drama centres were seen as a ‘jewel in the LEA crown’ (Hampshire, Redbridge, Leicestershire and Greenwich). Advisory drama teachers and inspectors continued to be appointed to support LEA priorities. The growth in theatre companies which devoted their professional skills to age-appropriate theatre for children and young people was remarkable (Theatre Centre, Perspectives and Breakout).

However, the policies contained within the 1988 Education Reform Act (ERA) and the fact that drama was not designated as a Foundation Subject prevented these innovatory initiatives from developing further. Although many drama teachers may have welcomed the freedom to select curriculum content, due to the fact that Drama was not a Foundation subject, the long-term impact of this decision has been considerable in marginalising the subject. Yes, and Drama sitting within English has not been a good thing? Various reviews of the National Curriculum, particularly 2010, have reduced drama to a couple of descriptive paragraphs. This undermines the status of a subject. As a result, Ofsted rarely reports on teaching and learning in drama, even when inspecting English. There have been limited opportunities to attract funds for drama research and teacher development, all as a result of drama not being a Foundation Subject. This has also resulted in lessening mandatory responsibility to include drama in teacher training courses, which has further restricted the development of informed teacher-specialists. The closure of Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) drama specialist courses and the advent of school-based training have created a reliance on theatre practitioners rather than drama education specialists. The decision to place drama within English resulted in Drama Departments becoming undervalued and thus easy targets when schools were compelled to make cuts in order to focus on EBacc subjects. We heard about drama in the Independent sector where there are schools with amazing theatres and staff who had been professional actors and directors. The negative consequences of political policies and financial cut-backs almost always focus on state schools and such cuts are rarely evident in the private sector. Whilst investment in funding and staffing resources for drama and theatre in state schools has been reduced consistently since 2010, private education continues to value the importance of drama and theatre. Many independent schools have invested heavily in theatre buildings as well as in professional partnerships with the industry (Ashton and Ashton, 2022). The seriousness of this inequality is now fully evident. Even in the creative industries there is a concern that so many actors and directors are emerging from privileged backgrounds.

National Drama not only wants drama and theatre education to be the right of all children and young people but a drama curriculum that reflects the diversity of the UK population; primary, secondary and SEND. And the dismantling of LEAs hit drama particularly badly? In the years following the ERA (1988), the government’s intention to reduce the influence of LEAs became fully apparent. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), once seen as a ‘crucible of theoretical development’ and a productive source of arts funding, was abolished. Ofsted was established. The full implications of Statutory Assessment (SATs) and Local Management of Schools (LMS) began to be felt. For many in the drama profession, the new emphasis on ‘competition’ and ‘marketing’ was in direct contradiction to established drama education values.

However, it should be remembered that not all LEAs funded drama adequately, provision was always patchy and dependent on local politicians. But there were models of excellence and these gave drama teachers a sense of identity, a sense of community and leadership. As the years have passed, the decrease in drama education expertise has resulted in schools turning to theatre practitioners for their CPD. However, one of the greatest losses created by the decline of the LEA has been the lack of opportunity to network and share practice. It’s hard not to say that dance and drama have fared least well of the arts subjects? Both subjects are at the bottom of the ‘hierarchy of arts’, which was endorsed by the National Curriculum. However, the arts as a whole have been further downgraded by the dominant profile of EBacc and STEAM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths), which is part of the reason Ofsted pays little attention to drama and dance and why they do not appoint inspectors with appropriate drama subject expertise.

In fairness, the Labour government of 1997 brought a ‘cosmetic’ expansion with their policy of designating particular schools as specialists in Performing Arts. They also provided funds to establish ‘Creative Partnerships’ between schools and professional artists, with the laudable intention of promoting innovation and learning. Their investment in vocational courses for performing arts in Further and Higher Education was welcomed and the expansion of theatre work with young people, prompted by Arts Council England, was to be applauded. However, the reality was that there was more funding for a ‘few’ but still insufficient funding for ‘all’.

There have been other ‘lost opportunities’ such as the rejection of the Rose Review (2009), which would have given the arts mandatory status in primary education, thanks to the influence of Patrice Baldwin. The biggest obstacle for drama and dance remains, in my view, the fact that drama was located in English and dance was located in PE. We say in our report that many of these initiatives, good as they were, were symptomatic of the fact that arts subjects were not embedded in the curriculum and that when schools felt under more and more pressure from OfSted it was too easy to downgrade arts provision. I agree. In 2010 the so-called ‘reforms’ of the coalition government had a devastating impact on drama and theatre education, in terms of funding and subject status. Since then, arts education has been ‘progressively marginalised and devalued’ (Ashton and Ashton, 2022).

There is a more implicit, pervasive factor which is contained within your phrase ‘too easy to downgrade’. The vision of excellence in education has changed. Imposed curriculum constraints and summative assessment procedures have created a seismic shift in the culture of drama teaching, learning values and artistic expectations. Education has become more functional, individually orientated and assessment-driven. The identity of many subjects has changed. Drama departments, Examination Boards and theatre participation departments have radically re-appraised what is possible. This change of perspective, when combined with the impact of the pandemic and major funding cuts, has affected all phases of drama and theatre education. The present government’s view of ‘effective teaching and learning’ reflects values that threaten drama and theatre pedagogy. And the EBacc didn’t help? GR: The introduction of the EBacc in 2011 has created a major obstacle to growth and a profound influence on how teachers and children view learning. Evidence of the decline in the arts since the introduction of EBacc can be found in the decline in the number of drama teachers, whilst the number of teachers for subjects included in the EBacc has increased.

Correspondingly, there is a drop in the number of teaching hours with arts-based subjects seeing a decline of 7,181 teaching hours in a school year as opposed to an increase of 89,728 hours for EBacc subjects (DfE 2016). What’s your assessment of the current position? In summary, whilst there remains excellent practice in some primary schools, the majority are finding it difficult to achieve more than the annual school production or Nativity play. They are finding it difficult to provide subject-specialist CPD, afford theatre visits or visiting artists and the majority cannot find time to teach drama amidst all other requirements. A brief scan of the curriculum section of primary schools’ websites will reveal few mention the teaching of drama.

In secondary education a Cultural Learning Alliance survey provides evidence that there has been an 18% reduction in drama specialist teachers since 2010. Teachers are so pressured to achieve high results they feel compelled to design their curriculum around the syllabus requirements of one of the four Examination Boards, rather than the needs of young people. Subject options are sometimes made as early as Year 8, preventing opportunities for all students to access a genuinely broad and balanced curriculum at KS3. The very identity of drama and theatre as a practical arts process is being undermined by the amount of written work assessment: 70% at GCSE and 60% at A Level. The loss of educational drama expertise nationally, due to retirement, redundancy and enforced stringency measures, has led to teachers relying on theatre practitioners for CPD. This is creating an imbalance between theatre and drama processes.

In Teacher Education the proliferation of ‘school-based’ routes into teaching is resulting in a narrow and functional training experience. Learning how to teach drama requires more than learning ‘subject knowledge’ and more than a restrictive focus on the practice of one or two schools. It needs well-resourced courses that are taught by experienced practitioners. Early Career Teachers need opportunities to engage in practical work that exemplifies key aspects of pedagogy and theory. It requires time for practical exploration, critical reflection and the assimilation of relevant theory and research. We talk a lot about Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in our report. The marginalization and neglect of the education of children and young people with particular learning needs must be addressed. There is an urgent need for CPD for drama teachers, and support staff, in SEND schools and resources that develop classroom practice and theoretical understanding.

There needs to be a more representative curriculum and theatre repertoire that engages all children and young people. Too many are excluded by content that is inappropriate. The exclusion cannot be rectified by simply changing play texts. Teachers need support resources and strategies that will support a more representative pedagogical process. How would you sum up the value of a good drama education? Drama in school will always reflect a changing, ephemeral and evolvable identity. It is in the very nature of the subject to respond and critique contemporary events. It is a responsive and dynamic art form. Its contribution to children and young peoples’ education is social, communal, academic and artistic. It is ‘social’ in that it facilitates and questions the development of personal self-esteem, social health and wellbeing. It is ‘communal’ because it celebrates the values and ethos of the school; as the Secondary Heads Association once claimed ‘a school without Drama is a school without a soul’ (1998). It is academic because it develops skills in planning and generating ideas; imagining; negotiating; collaborating; exploring; rehearsing; questioning; interpreting; researching; reflecting; problem-solving; presenting. It is ‘artistic’, as theatre forms enable children not only to explore their world but to also comment on the kind of world they wish to see. All drama and theatre practices that facilitate learning should be recognized in a curriculum that reflects ‘good drama education’, not simply those that can be easily assessed. Theatre-making, imaginative play, role-taking, rituals, digital and fictional narratives, social and communal game-playing, the practical interpretation and performance of written texts are all part of a drama learning spectrum.

In summary, drama is a subject that can be transformational, enabling children, teachers and young people to understand what it is to be human in local, national and global communities. Perhaps most import of all is the need to place children and young people’s academic, social and cultural identities at the centre of their curriculum and learning.


References 1. Ashton, H and Ashton, D (2022) Creativity and the Curriculum: educational apartheid in 21st Century England, a European outlier. International Journal of Cultural Policy, DOf. Informa UK 2. Secondary Heads Association (1998) DRAMA SETS YOU FREE Central Press Bristol 3. Way, B. (1967) Development through Drama Longman London

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