Children from inner London primaries achieved better-than-expected results in maths and reading tests after their schools took part in an outreach project run by the National Theatre.
Although the study was small, the academics behind it believe it challenges the idea that the best way for primaries to improve academic results is a relentless focus on English and maths.
Under the "Transformation" project professional actors and undergraduate theatre and drama students worked with Year 3, 4 and 5 pupils from schools in Tower Hamlets, east London, over two terms.
Pupils attended drama workshops throughout the first term, and in a two-week block in the second term. They went on three theatre visits. The project, which began in 1999, culminated in an event for all schools in which pupils put on short performances.
Researchers from Durham university compared the academic performance of Year 3 pupils at two schools which took part in the scheme with those at two similar schools nearby which did not.
Pupils were set tests in reading and maths at the beginning of Year 3, before the project had begun, and at the end of Year 4.
Children's results at all four schools were roughly similar when they were tested at the start of Year 3. But by the end of Year 4, maths results of those at the "Transformation" primaries were significantly higher than those at non-participating schools. In reading, the results of those schools which took part in the project were better, but not significantly higher.
The results should be treated with caution, say the researchers, who offered no detailed analysis of why pupils' academic work might have benefited. At the end of Year 4, pupils' creative writing was also tested and youngsters at one "Transformation" school achieved the worst results of the four in the project.
But Dr Mike Fleming, who led the research, said: "Many teachers worry that devoting teaching time to such activities as classroom drama may detract from progress in the basics.
"Our research showed that far from being a distraction, pupils' work in drama actually improved their performance in other subjects, including mathematics."