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Dramatic power

... can switch pupils on to learning, conclude Berry Mayall and Helen Turner, after examining the National Theatre's project in primary schools over three years

Complex cultural activity... is at the heart of what it means to be a fully developed human being," argues Tessa Jowell in her recent essay, "Government and the value of culture". Everyone is entitled to engage with complex art forms so that their experience is enriched and their potential realised.

In recent years, educationists have sought to justify the arts' place in the national curriculum. But it is critical to hold firmly on to their intrinsic benefits, and not to justify the arts in terms of something else.

They are not a means to an end, but self-justifying, satisfying and life-enhancing.

Drama is making a comeback as a tool to improve speaking and listening. But why is it still regarded with such caution? As a TES correspondent suggested recently (Letters, August 6), perhaps "our masters" fear it, because it encourages children to develop their own authentic voice. Like philosophy - another under-rated enterprise in schools - drama teaches children to consider moral and aesthetic issues, and thereby to make sense of human relations. And, of course, drama is an active and interactive enterprise, where pupils are engaged participants - a far cry from children as objects of the education system.

In our recent study we demonstrate the benefits children derive from drama.

We studied children from 10 schools participating in National Theatre drama and storytelling programmes over three years. The programmes, included 10 or 12 half-day in-school workshops, children's own performances and visits to the theatre.

The programmes were devised by the company's staff and delivered by its artists. In the first year seven-year-olds worked with The Tempest; in the second the same group looked at a story-making and story-telling programme and then in the third as nine-year-olds they worked with Dr Faustus. "I've learned how to do stories out of nowhere. You can even make your own words up - it only needs a beginning, a middle and an end," was one verdict.

We considered a large range of possible impacts and benefits to the children's educational, personal and social and aesthetic development, and collected data with children and their teachers. What shines through children's comments (in interviews and questionnaires), is that they learned to do drama and engaged with it as an art form. "I think I've learned to work with other people; you can use their ideas to make up a big thing like a play, or a scene," was a typical comment.

As creative participants they especially enjoyed music, movement and puppet-making. Compared to children in 10 similar schools not on the programme, they showed greater gains: enjoyment of painting, making things and participating in school assemblies; acting out a story, and they had greater enjoyment of school generally.

By the third year, when they had performed their own shows and attended three shows at the National Theatre, they made sophisticated comments about plays.

An artist commented: "Their understanding of dramatic and theatrical concepts was quite staggering... Add to that their ability to create and then analyse and keep improving."

We know, from our research and from a study published by the National Foundation for Educational Research last year (Saving a place for the arts) that schools generally are keen on the arts, recognising their intrinsic value and the increased self-confidence they give children - a crucial element in enabling pupils to learn.

Things are slowly loosening up - enjoyment as well as excellence at school is recommended, drama is endorsed as a tool for teaching literacy and "creativity" accepted as being necessary for a flexible workforce. But more is required.

The Government should actively support drama in schools, not just for the disadvantaged, but as a universal policy for the enrichment of children's lives. There should be support for new arts groups and measures to ensure that teacher-training courses recognise the importance of schools' in-house drama work with children.

Children engaging with drama. An evaluation of the National Theatre's drama work in primary schools 2002-2004, by Helen Turner, Berry Mayall, Alison Clark, Rachel Dickinson, Suzanne Hood, Julia Samuels and Meg Wiggins, Social science research unit, institute of education, University of London.

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