Innovative practice - Shipshape

A new play unites schools from both sides of the Irish Sea to learn about the creation and fate of the Titanic

Jo Knowsley

The background

To mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, two primary schools on different sides of the Irish Sea have been working on a production of a new play about the fated ship.

Written by Belfast actor Dan Gordon, the play was commissioned by the Ulster-Scots Agency in association with the Lyric Theatre as part of a successful four-year series of children's plays called Pat and Plain. This year, for the first time, the project expanded outside Northern Ireland to include an English school.

Both schools are in regions that were once heavily involved in shipbuilding. Dundonald Primary School is in Belfast, where the Titanic was built, while Bidston Avenue Primary School is in Birkenhead, home of Bruce Ismay, chairman of the shipping company that owned the Titanic, White Star Line.

The play, She Was Alright When She Left Us, focuses on the lives of the people who commissioned and built the Titanic, bringing the association with Belfast and Birkenhead alive for both groups of children.

The project

Since January, both schools have studied the history of the Titanic and workshopped scenes from the 45-minute play. The children also began blogging and emailing each other about the similarities and differences in their lives.

Two months ago, the 43 Birkenhead pupils watched Dundonald Primary School perform the play through a live stream on the internet, and on 18 June, they flew to Belfast to meet each other and act scenes with their partner school.

The trip culminated in a visit to the new Titanic Belfast centre, on the site where the doomed vessel was built. Pupils were given a tour and encouraged to make use of interactive learning.

Stuart Brady, headteacher of Bidston Avenue Primary, says that he was motivated to take part because of the needs of his pupils - half the ward is one of the poorest in the country, while the other is affluent. "Ofsted said what we did locally was outstanding, but they wanted pupils to have wider access to greater cultural and ethnic diversity," he says. Dundonald has a greater number of pupils from ethnic minorities, so was seen as the ideal partner.

Bidston is looking to continue the partnership on a similar project with the Lyric Theatre next year.

Tips from the scheme

Brady says:

"Working with another school gives children an 'audience'. There was great delight as they watched each other do scenes from the play."

Give children something "real and pertinent to them" to work with. "The connection between the two shipbuilding communities was important."

Drama workshops build confidence. "It was great that Philip from the Lyric came over to work with us, too. It made the children feel important."

Evidence that it works?

"Workshopping" the play with another school built pupils' confidence and their listening and speaking skills improved immensely, Brady says. "We saw a real and sustained improvement in their writing, and the artwork they produced was excellent," he adds. Brady also says that the school found it to be a beneficial cross-curricular exercise.

The project

Approach: Two primary schools work on a production of She Was Alright When She Left Us, a play about the Titanic, in the ship's centenary year

Number of pupils taking part: 131, aged 10-11

Set up by: Philip Crawford, creative learning director of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

The schools

Name: Dundonald Primary School

Location: Belfast

Name: Bidston Avenue Primary School Location Birkenhead.

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Jo Knowsley

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