Finding confidence in war-torn streets

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Success through the challenge of drama is helping to build pupils'

self-esteem, reports Brian Hayward

If you could teach your class only one thing, what would it be? One favourite answer is a sense of self-worth. Without that, many say, positive social values or the pursuit of any kind of excellence is a non-starter.

The snag for teachers is that self-worth is often a fragile construct in a child and as easily damaged as fostered.

How do you teach the right kind of self-esteem - the kind that comes from successfully meeting a challenge, the kind that secures the respect of peer groups, parents and strangers - but at the same time minimise the risk of failure? More and more, educationists are finding the answer in the arts, particularly in drama.

A good case in point is the 2U4U arts projects of Renfrewshire Council's Out of School Learning initiative (which is nearing the end of its three-year programme). Ignore the project's modern name; the company is firmly traditional, in its solid production and educational values.

Among its many aims is supporting pupils through the primarysecondary transition. Last term, freelance workers in drama, music, dance, the visual arts and digital arts worked with P6 and P7 pupils from eight primary schools and S1 and S2 pupils from two secondaries in Paisley on a production that had its grand finale at the Paisley Arts Centre.

The primary schools were paired, Heriot with Landcraigs and Gallowhill with Williamsburgh in performances of Madness and Mayhem at Mountjoy Manor, and Ferguslie with Craigielea and Mossvale with South in Lady Mountjoy and the Tartan Terror.

The pupils at Paisley Grammar and Gleniffer High were, naturally, made of sterner stuff. When Joey Cooper, writer and director of the 2U4U drama team, asked what they wanted to do, they asked for a play about the Second World War. It seemed a strange choice, but they explained that although they were taught about it at school and had seen old films, they had no close understanding of it.

In response, Cooper wrote Casey's War, dedicated to the memory of Mattie Cooper. He readily admits that Mattie is his mother, whose memories of life in Glasgow during the war supplied most of the moving stories he wove around the bombing, the rationing and the family disruption in his drama.

There were tales of children returning illicitly from evacuation to Kilmarnock, of a father captured at Dunkirk, of community singing in the air-raid shelters and of mind wars with the bullying munitions factory owner and the uncivil civil servant.

The cast of 18 acquitted themselves most creditably. Some had that instinctive mimetic skill that marks an actor; others had to put on an act.

Indeed, one drama worker explained that the pupils were of two kinds: those who had volunteered and those who had been volunteered by their school for the benefits of the teamwork, the communication skills and, yes, the self-confidence. The show programme listed their names in alphabetical order, without roles. This project was for education, not for fame.

The performance started with Glenn Miller in the foyer and carried on with a stage set full of period detail: war-time headscarves and skirts, a National Dried Milk tin on the shelf, a gas mask on everyone's shoulder and the dreaded telegram.

Possibly the winning trick in the production was the well-integrated video.

Mixing film with live acting is a temptation that often betrays a director but in this case the large screen over the stage was perfect for the filmed scenes in the air-raid shelter, for the cleverly inserted clips from Ministry of Information films and wartime newsreels of the Blitz, and memorably the "outdoor" scenes, with the young cast filmed in the 1930s street at Glasgow's Museum of Transport.

As one lady in the audience said: "It's nothing like a school play, is it?"

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