A question of ethics

Heather Neill

How would you react to unusual, threatening or odd situations? One theatre group is visiting schools with a new play that addresses such wide-ranging issues. Heather Neill reports

How should you react when someone behaves oddly in the street? When might a frightening stranger be ill rather than sinister? What is happening to an old person diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease? Is someone who commits a crime while drunk or on drugs responsible for his or her actions? What if a person cannot control changes in the brain? Does that excuse their behaviour? How should society deal with the mentally ill? Is "care in the community" a sensible policy? Is it always wrong to use drugs that might improve your chance of success as well as your health?

Y Touring is a north London theatre company that visits schools to perform plays, usually with scientific themes, for which it receives funding from the Wellcome Trust. But scientific subjects often raise ethical questions as well. Genetic modification, cloning, using animal organs to treat human illness -these are obvious subjects where science, RE, PSHE and philosophy overlap.

Mind the Gap, Y Touring's latest play, contains information about the workings of the brain, but the plot is at least as much about social interaction, especially involving people who have conditions that affect the brain. The action takes place on the platform of a tube station. Vijay appears nervous when he enters; he is travelling alone to a court and fears he might suffer a panic attack.

A delay at the station throws him into conversation with Maya, an elderly woman who can no longer rely on her memory and frequently becomes confused.

She set off some months ago to meet her estranged son, but is now not sure whether she did or not. She returns to the station frequently just in case.

Dino, a homeless drug addict, also finds himself on the platform where these two and Silas the wise kiosk man wait.

It's gradually revealed that they are all connected: Vijay's girlfriend was murdered by Dino, who pushed her under a train while high on drugs. Maya was there too, and the ensuing outcry, she eventually remembers, stopped her from keeping her appointment with her son.

At St Martin-in-the-Fields High School for Girls, a secondary school in Tulse Hill, south London, Year 11 drama and RE students face questions put to them for discussion before and after the performance. If you could choose to remember everything, would you? If you could take a pill to improve your memory before an exam, would you? If you did, would you share it with friends? If it were possible to scan the brains of students to monitor their behaviour, would that be a good thing? Is alcoholism a disease?

The responses are intelligent and thoughtful. Here are a few: being able to remember all facts might be helpful for exams, but there might be things it would be more comfortable to forget. And besides, facts alone do not bring you exam success. If it is cheating for athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs, it must be for students too. It might be fair enough if a student suffering from dyslexia were helped by drugs. As for the brain scans which might improve behaviour in schools, what about privacy? Who would have the right to use the information and how? Alcoholism can be the result of circumstances. No one is forced to drink, so it must be a matter for personal responsibility.

Afterwards, Allison Boreham, St Martin's head of RE, said she found a number of helpful leads for class discussion in Mind the Gap. Her students are mainly Christian and Muslim, most study RE, and she also teaches an AS-level philosophy course. She thought the questions raised would be especially useful for AS-level ethics and the GCSE moral issues paper which has a unit about relationships and caring for less fortunate people.

But couldn't she put the questions to her students without the help of drama? Clearly, a good deal of discussion happens in lessons at St Martin's - that is obvious from the enthusiastic way the students enter into debate - but Allison says they respond well to the acting out of stories, putting the questions into context. And they seemed to be enjoying the characterisation which helped them personalise theoretical questions. A case of turning a crisis into a drama - to make sense of it.

* Mind the Gap by Abi Brown will tour schools again in the spring. The Y Touring website provides discussion suggestions raised by Mind the Gap and information about the Pulse Project, where a scientist and a playwright were brought together to consider four subjects which the company has turned into scripts for use by school and youth groups. The subjects are: risk and GM foods; genes and behaviour; the history of eugenics; and the ethics of preimplantation diagnosis. These will soon be available on the website.

For information on all Y Touring projects: Tel: 020 7272 5755 www.ytouring.org.uk

www.geneticfutures.com (part of the national curriculum grid for learning)

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Heather Neill

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