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Pupils get their act together

Dorothy Stiven visits a school which found 'a bit of magic' after it appointed a drama teacher

Catherine McKelvey, drama teacher at Manor High in Oadby, near Leicester, knows what her subject means to the school. "Drama is the one thing that unites everyone and makes a bit of magic happen."

It is a sentiment that is echoed by the 800 pupils as well as the teaching staff at Manor High, a middle school serving a pleasant Midlands suburb. The school is well placed to see the difference drama makes as, for some years in the late Eighties and early Nineties, it disappeared from the curriculum.

According to acting headteacher Shirley Brandwood: "Drama had been a quality experience for all the children at Manor High - not because they all wanted to be actors but because its effect was to instil confidence and self-awareness. When it went we noticed a significant change in the attitude of the children overall, particularly in the early years." This effect was most evident at the bottom end of the school, which takes 10 to 14-year-olds. teacher Ian Wilson says: "The younger children particularly were less well organised in class and found it difficult to cope with the pragmatic side of classroom activity. "

Many of the staff felt that drama helped these young children not only with confidence but with organisation and control. Fortunately, as the national curriculum settled down, Manor High was able to claw back a bit of time for drama and last year appointed Catherine McKelvey as a full-time subject specialist.

Many drama teachers throughout the country feel their work is undervalued; this is far from the case in Oadby. The school's commitment is apparent as soon as you walk into the building. Pictures of past productions adorn the walls; the art department is already making plans for a Victorian tableau in the foyer for the school's autumn production of Oliver!

The children, a third of whom are Asian, now have three chances to experience drama. The foundations are laid for GCSE drama in twice-weekly lessons; at lunch time there is a drama club; or the school can enter them for the Trinity College external examinations in public speaking or speech and drama.

In all, the music and drama department at Manor High puts on about 20 public performances a year. But whereas many schools see drama as just the vehicle to deliver the school show, Manor High promotes its importance as a method of learning.

Some of the work also overlaps with subjects in personal and social education. Earlier this year, members of the lower school drama group, which meets once a week after school, put on a public performance of David Calcutt's The Terrible Fate of Humpty Dumpty - a play about bullying. The pupils, both actors and audience, feel this way of dealing with an emotive issue like bullying is far more accessible than a classroom talk.

Role play is often used in other departments, a feature that senior tutor Jane Wightman feels is important. "Using drama in this way has the added benefit that it meets the whole ability range. It gives weaker children an extra layer of confidence," she says.

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