A new report calls for drama to be a subject in its own right and for its positive impact to be recognised. Peter Miller reports
A nation whose priorities include tackling disaffection, improving creativity and raising standards must consider the huge benefits offered by educational drama. Drama Sets You Free, a report to be published next week, calls for drama to be included as a national curriculum subject on a similar basis to art and music.
The Secondary Heads Association has analysed responses from 700 schools across the UK and established that drama is well-established in most of them, despite the pressures of the national curriculum and difficulties with accommodation, staffing and resourcing.
It is not so secure in other schools, especially boys' single-sex schools - where it might be argued that it is needed most. The report argues for a stronger position for drama, though it warns that inclusion in the national curriculum, with all its bureaucratic requirements, might stifle creativity.
The inclusion of drama as a sub-set of English within the national curriculum has discouraged some secondary schools from setting up a distinct drama department with its own head. This report shows that drama is most likely to be successful where there are specialist teachers led by a designated head, who has a voice on issues of accommodation and timetabling.
The Teacher Training Agency considered requiring all drama initial teacher-training students to learn the full national curriculum for English. However, the report argues that schools should have specialist drama teachers drama rather than English teachers who "do a bit of drama".
School leaders who responded to the survey put forward cogent arguments for drama in secondary education. Benefit quoted included followed by communication skills, teamwork and understanding.
A developing theme is concern for young people's social well-being, sometimes negatively expressed as keeping them off drugs or away from crime. Those who appreciate that social well-being is founded on personal maturity and emotional literacy know the value of drama when dealing with such topics as social pressure, bullying, parenting and citizenship.
Morality and civic responsibility cannot be taught didactically; to be effective they have to be felt. What better vehicle could there be than educational drama? Many schools use drama techniques in a wide range of subject areas where affective education is relevant. This is particularly prevalent in personal and social education.
One respondent wrote of drama in their school: "Incalculably beneficial. It enhances pupils' self-belief. It encourages and nurtures the basic skills of co-operation, commitment and control. It allows and encourage pupils to see through others' eyes and develops their empathetic understanding. It has the power to explore, shape and change feelings and ideas."
Drama also makes a significant impact on literacy through the development of oracy, and has recently been used to tackle the problem of male underachievement in Northamptonshire.
Another relevant theme is the concern to maintain and develop our nation's creativity, as evidenced by the Government's new committee on creative and cultural education. Drama, alongside the other arts, can play a vital role in stimulating that national spirit of creativity.
There are costs, of course, not least staff pressure and tensions. The benefits were generally seen as outweighing them, however. Many gave general statements such as "huge, immense, priceless, unique, endless, a forever experience". Others saw the benefits of production in terms of publicity, prestige and public relations, pupil involvement, staffpupil co-operation, relationships with parents and the wider community school ethos.
Case studies of good practice in drama and school productions in the report illustrate the richness and variety of experience offered in secondary schools.
The theme which probably recurs most often, however, is the importance of the people concerned - the active support of senior staff and governors added to the impact of enthusiastic staff supported by willing parents - real partnerships in action.
Peter Miller is deputy head of Wrenn School, Northamptonshire and past president of the Secondary Heads Association. "Drama Sets You Free", published by the Secondary Heads Association, was supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Esme Fairbairn Trust