Different in Devon
Zoe is on the floor, reading from a large piece of white paper spread out before her. "We should never have come," she cries. "They don't want us here. They just want us to do their dirty jobs."
A ramshackle ring of young people lounge on comfy chairs around her, watching intently. Behind Zoe stand Anjli, Faye and Anneka, making graphic gestures of disgust, anger and amazement. They creep forward until they are leaning over her, crowding her as she struggles to read on.
Anjli stretches her fingers towards Zoe's slicked-back hair, like someone testing wet paint, and recoils in horror.
"Okay, hold it," someone shouts. And they freeze. Then: "Okay, relax. That was great. Well done." A small round of applause breaks from the loungers.
It's 4pm on Friday and we're at the South Devon Professional Centre in Dartington, near Totnes, in "leafy" Devon. Zoe and her classmates from City of Leicester school have just completed their latest piece of improvised theatre, under the guiding eye of their drama teacher, Rachel Dickinson. They're a long way from home - some of them further than they've ever been.
But their journey from the streets of Leicester to this far-off rural haven is more than just a school trip to see how the other half lives. The drama lesson is for the benefit of the 18 students enrolled on the Devon teacher training course in performing arts. It is the culmination of a day-long session on drama and multicultural education.
Course manager Jackie Taylor explains: "Devon is a secure place to train to be a teacher. The schools we work with are places where trainees can safely start to develop their craft and their skills. But they are training to work in all kinds of schools and to teach people from many kinds of backgrounds. They need the opportunity to see what it might be like elsewhere and learn how to tackle the tensions and difficulties they'll find in more multicultural inner-city areas."
Now in its second year, the course was set up with funding from the Teacher Training Agency to train secondary teachers in drama and music, subjects Jackie Taylor, a former drama adviser with Devon LEA, considered in decline.
"When the national curriculum came on board people were worried about training to be drama or music teachers in case there was no future in it," she says. "So they went for English, maybe with drama as an extra."
The arts have always been strong in Devon, she says, but because the nearest specialist course was in Reading, local schools believed they weren't getting the best choice of new teachers. The solution was to help provide the training themselves.
Trainees on this PGCE course - who specialise in drama or music but learn to teach both - are based in schools from week two of their first term, and spend 140 days in schools over the 36-week year. Ms Taylor says it is the first school-centred initiative in teacher training for drama in the United Kingdom.
But while the emphasis is on learning through practice, the students spend every second Friday at the professional centre, focusing on a particular aspect of teaching, often with the help of outside speakers and tutors.
"It is important they get a chance to hone their skills, but they must also become aware of other challenges they might face," says Ms Taylor.
Devon, as she points out, has a small proportion of ethnic minority pupils. What's more, the course's nine partner schools are academically successful and free of the more severe social problems that afflict many inner-city secondaries.
The contrast with City of Leicester school could hardly be sharper. Based in one of Leicester's poorer areas, the school draws its pupils from predominantly Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities. And 65 per cent of its children have English as an additional language.
"The children I work with have dual lives," says Rachel Dickinson. "They carry so much baggage because of who they are supposed to be - to their families, at school, with their friends. They have to keep changing. It's a complicated game that they learn to play well."
For Ms Dickinson, drama is a way of exploring "the endless possibility" of pupils' identities and cultures; "a way forward, not an answer". It is this approach to culture, using and working from the experiences of her pupils, that she is trying to pass on.
"I told the children we've come here because we have a kind of knowledge that's valuable," she says. "It's important not to make these kids exotic; they just have something to share."
Although some of the trainees will end up teaching in relatively monocultural areas such as Devon, Rachel Dickinson and Jackie Taylor insist they should still be able to expose the children they teach to other kinds of environments and develop understanding of Britain's cultural diversity.
This is something that student teacher Lucy Dix has already been grappling with. She grew up in Bradford and is struggling to get her Devon pupils to take multicultural issues seriously.
"Even as a white girl in Bradford, things like Diwali were a normal part of my life," she says. "But talking to the kids here about it is impossible. I am trying to do a drama piece about Diwali with them, but they just treat it as a joke.
"I love being able to teach kids who are fairly well behaved," she says. "It gives me the opportunity to test myself. But it is quite scary to think that we might teach in inner-city schools without any experience. It makes days like today important."
Another trainee says: "When you ask white kids what their culture is about, you draw a blank."
"Isn't it just about individuality?" asks another. "Some of them try to take the piss out of me," says the course's only black trainee. "I just respond by asking questions."
"Yes, it is about asking questions," says Ms Dickinson. "As drama teachers that's what we do. You think you need to teach them about something, yet drama is not about telling but sharing. It uses stories, it's not didactic. Otherwise you end up stereotyping."
The discussion illustrates what this day is about, says Ms Taylor. "It's good that they're feeling uncomfortable now, because they should be. There's a lot of talk about multicultural education at the moment, but these are the people who've actually got to do it. They can't go bowling into classes thinking they've got all the answers."
The link between the course and the school will continue beyond this brief visit - by email for example - while Ms Taylor hopes to raise funds so the students on next year's course can go to Leicester and see the pupils in their home environment.
Not that they seem overawed by this strange setting, or the trainees who sit awkwardly watching them perform knowing that the next day it will be their turn to impart the same enthusiasm.
At the end of the session Zoe and her friends find relaxing difficult. Adrenalin still pumping, they swap stories about the places they stayed the night before with the families of pupils from South Dartmoor community college, one of the course's partner schools. They talk of the animals and the countryside, and of the school they visited that morning with its "amazing" facilities.
"It's so different to ours," says Anjli. "Everything looks new." It has been a learning experience for them too.
For more information about the South Devon PGCE in performing arts (drama and music), contact the Devon Secondary Teacher Training Group, South Devon Professional Centre, Foxhole, Dartington, Totnes, Devon TQ9 6EB. Tel: 01803 863067
PARTNERS IN PRACTICE
The close relationship between the South Devon PGCE in performing arts and local schools helps it to avoid some of the problems that hindered earlier school-centred training schemes, says Jackie Taylor (pictured).
The course's nine partner schools, two of which "rest" each year, are all known for high-quality teaching in drama and music. To become partners, they each have to provide a drama mentor and a music mentor for the trainees, plus a professional development adviser.
Most trainees are also experienced dramatists or musicians in their own right. "One of this year's group is a very good guitarist," says Ms Taylor. "Others are composers or have run student drama societies. They have to be committed to their subjects, as well as to teaching, because it is a very challenging course."
The course won praise from Ofsted in its first year report, particularly for its school-based approach, something that attracted many of the current trainees. "I like the fact that we're in school so early in the course," says trainee Sarah Wilmot. "There's time to try, fail and then put what I learn into practice."
The trainees are continually assessed by their mentors and professional development advisers in the schools, while Jackie Taylor formally assesses one lesson each term. There are links with professionals too, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company and Glyndebourne Opera, as well as visiting tutors and groups such as that from City of Leicester school.
"It gives them a sense that the course is innovative, rather than sticking with the tried and tested ways of doing things," says Ms Taylor.
But while the emphasis is on the practical side, the trainees have a heavy load of what one calls "pointless paperwork" and "token tasks" to ensure they meet standards in literacy, numeracy and ICT. They also have to complete a raft of personal development modules, study units, and four written or audio-visual assignments.
One trainee says it's much harder than a degree. "The workload is life-embracing. All the teaching is brilliant, but I think the course should be run over 18 months."
"It is a hell of a lot of work, and one or two of us have cracked up a bit," says another. "But we know if we get through it we'll be fine; we'll be the best qualified teachers around."