Darling, you were just marvellous

A London theatre company is providing an alternative solution to the teacher crisis, reports Martin Whittaker

At St Andrew's primary school in the London borough of Lambeth, a supply teacher is taking Year 4, and the children are acting like a bunch of wild animals. It's an all too common scenario - except that this teacher is encouraging the children to be beastly. To background music with a jungle beat, the children are acting out how animals move - how giraffes gallop, how elephants stomp, how tigers stalk their prey. They sit in circles, eyes closed, trying to imagine what sounds they would hear if they were in the jungle. Then come more games and role playing, including a clapping game called the Minister's Cat, in which each child has to think of a word beginning with the letter "s". They are asked to describe their wild animals and make up poems. The day ends with them making animal masks from paper plates.

Even more unusually, their supply teacher, Hayley Radford, isn't a qualified teacher - she's an actress who specialises in school drama workshops. She was called in to help cover for staff who were busy moving into newly built classrooms. Ms Radford is on the books of a new supply agency run by Bigfoot Theatre Company, a London-based charity that provides drama workshops for after-school clubs and summer schools. The company says it aims to provide an alternative to traditional supply cover for primary schools, offering staff from its pool of actors and drama tutors.

Viv Grant, head of St Andrew's, says: "The children have enjoyed it. Children are often aware that they are being taught by a supply teacher, and it gets them off on a negative track. But it's different if they know they're going to be involved in something creative and fun. They love acting, they love drama, so it's a bonus. Some of our boys who are quite challenging love it. It is a good way of channelling their energies."

Bigfoot Theatre Company was set up three years ago by actor Karl Wozny, providing drama workshops for schools in London's East End. The idea of a teacher supply agency was a logical extension, he says. The company had a ready pool of actors and trained drama tutors, and he believes primary schools are crying out for an alternative solution to the staffing crisis. "It's taken us three years to know we can do this," he says. "It's not just creating yourself as a provider; we're education specialists. We're not a theatre company with an educational outreach attached to get some funding; we've built the foundations to run such a project." The company consulted the Department for Education and Skills and Ofsted before it launched the agency.

Bigfoot's supply agency is less than three months old, and has a core of a dozen supply staff on its books, but it is growing. The theatre company has set up in Brighton and aims to offer supply teaching there, as well as in Bristol and Birmingham, from September.

All the agency's supply staff are checked by police and references taken up. Scott Smith, the company's supply co-ordinator, is a former actor who has worked as a supply. "I already had this mentality in place, where we need to check references, we need clearance; their qualifications need to be verified," he says, They have to have a degree and drama workshop experience - although only a few are qualified teachers - and the company trains them to deliver drama exercises based on the national curriculum.

"We put our teachers through their paces," says Karl Wozny. "They enjoy their work, but at the same time they have to send in monitoring report forms about their classes, and they send their lesson plans in, detailing their aims and objectives. We also spot-check them."

Mr Wozny admits he was worried about how schools would receive the agency, given the controversy following the case of Amy Gehring, the supply teacher acquitted earlier this year of indecently assaulting two pupils. But he insists it has had a good response from London education authorities, including Hackney, Lewisham, Camden and Bromley.

Bigfoot's prices are favourable compared with other, more traditional, supply agencies, says Scott Smith. It charges schools pound;165 a day, and pays its staff pound;100 - which, he insists, is "a lot of money for actors". They get pound;30 extra if they have to do any extra research, and some expenses.

"Some supply agencies are paying people to sit in front of a class and keep the kids quiet for a day," he says. "My daughter will come home from school and I'll say, 'What did you do today?' and she'll reply, 'Oh, we had a supply teacher in'. 'What did you do?' 'Not much'.

"We keep the literacy and numeracy stuff, but it's drama-based. All the schools I've spoken to have said they would much rather have that than some teacher they pay pound;165 for, who can't control the class."

Ms Radford, 24, divides her time between acting and giving children's drama workshops. "I've thought about doing a PGCE, but I wouldn't like to be based in one school the whole time. I've learned a lot working with children from range of backgrounds and areas.

"The agency is fantastic. At most of the other London teaching agencies you have to be a qualified teacher, so people like myself, with a lot of experience, wouldn't be able to go into schools because we haven't got a PGCE.

"We do training sessions every few months in which we can explore new ideas that might have worked with the children, and we have a drama therapist who's trained in child psychology. It means everything we do is kept fresh."

For further information see Bigfoot Theatre Company's website: www.bigfoot-theatre.co.uk

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