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Acting for peace

Liverpool nine-year-olds are challenging attitudes to domestic violence. Chris Ball and John Airs report. Two pupils are standing as if in freeze-frame. George, the "father", has just hit his "wife", Linda. Other pupils have been watching and commenting on the unfolding story and are suggesting possible causes of the fictional incident.

Their explanations of why a man might be violent towards his wife and children cover most of the hypotheses that professional students of this frighteningly common crime might have proffered: "He didn't really want to hurt her. He just thought it was fun"; "He was just showing off. Had to prove he was tough"; "You have to take out your anger on someone. He was looking for an excuse to lash out"; "He had no self control. Some people can't control their tempers"; "I think he gets a buzz out of controlling people. It's power"; "Sometimes you have to fight to get your way"; "Maybe his dad was violent"; "He's disturbed. He needs to show a bit of love. The coldness in his heart put out the warmth"; "George has got no respect."

Domestic violence might seem an appropriate subject for secondary personal and social education, but these pupils in an inner city Liverpool school are nine and 10 years old. They are part of a term-long project on challenging attitudes to violence.

The story of George, Linda and their two children, Max and Anna, has been depicted and explored over half a term by this stage. George, however, is no inner-city, gun-wielding drug dealer but a suburban businessman. That background had been the pupils' choice, without any teacher influence. Intuitively, they were acknowledging that domestic violence is a crime that recognises no boundaries of class or status.

In each of the eight primaries involved, there are two teachers working on the project - the class teacher and a drama adviser (one of the authors). Behind them is a team of advisers and specialists from the local authority, voluntary agencies and the Liverpool Domestic Violence Forum. The project, funded from the Dingle 2000 Partnership's Single Regeneration Budget, and directed by Liverpool assistant education officer Sylvia Brown, is now in its second year.

Chris Ball and John Airs are drama advisers. For further information on the project, contact Sylvia Brown, 14 Sir Thomas Street, Liverpool 1. Tel: 0151 225 2161.

Initiating the drama

The aim of the project is to teach young people about non-violent relationships by examining how violent attitudes and behaviour develop, and how they can be challenged and changed. A dramatic narrative has been created in which a monk, Brother Richard (a teacher), has been sent out to investigate life outside the monastery gates.

Richard has been in the monastery since the age of nine (or whatever age the participating pupils are), sheltered from the influences of modern life, cocooned in a non-violent environment. The pupils help Richard make sense of their world by analysing, reflecting on and challenging the violence that pervades society. They have to bridge the gap for him and, in so doing, they come to understand it better themselves.

There are a number of steps to which pupils respond from their own experiences and viewpoints: * At the beginning we write on a board what the word "violence" means to the pupils. This helps the teachers to identify and assess their pupils' understanding of the concept.

* "Brother Richard" is introduced. He is in a state of alarm. Before investigating the cause of his distress, pupils are encouraged to question Richard about his monastic life. This helps them appreciate the extent of his culture shock.

* The specific reason for Richard's alarm is then outlined. The day before, he came out into the community and stayed at the house of a friend of the monastery. While sitting alone in the living room, he happened to pick up a TV remote control, pressed some of the buttons, and images appeared on the screen. The pupils are then asked to reconstruct these images for Richard and help him make sense of them.

* Several weeks into his stay Richard hears the sounds of argument and breaking glass coming from his bedroom. He sees the children of the family the next morning and they are silent. What has happened? What can the people involved do? Where can they go? What can be done to prevent the same things happening again? Collectively the story is constructed, explored and reconstructed.

Care has been taken to emphasise that the context for our analysis and examination is fictional. The drama has enabled us to focus on difficult issues in a way that avoids risk to the participants. The teachers involved believe it provided real and practical strategies for facing and overcoming violent situations.

Teachers' comments

"One child's mother was killed. That child took a great deal of interest in this project - amazing how they do this in fiction - they don't see it as personal."

"The class were able to speak out about a bully and steps were taken to change his attitude."

"There's a particular bully in class. It did him some good. Bullies can change."

"We're planning new class rules. The project has helped the children clarify these rules. They're beginning to understand that there's a better way of doing things."

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