Obituary - Dorothy Heathcote 1926-2011

21st October 2011 at 01:00

Effective drama, Dorothy Heathcote insisted, required neither script nor audience. Her pioneering methods, now adopted across the globe, revolutionised drama in education, taking acting off the stage and into the classroom.

Born into Yorkshire poverty in August 1926, Dorothy Shutt developed a love of reading early on: every day, she would walk to school with a book held in front of her. At the age of 14, she left school and went to work for a nearby wool mill. But she continued to read: a wealthy local spinster allowed her free access to her private library. And, spurred by a love of drama, the teenager scraped together money for elocution lessons.

In 1945, she won a scholarship to Northern Theatre School, in Bradford. She was drawn to acting, directing and producing, but she did not have a leading lady's figure and returned to academia. In 1950, aged 24, she was appointed lecturer on drama in education at Durham University's Newcastle campus.

Drama, for her, was not just about staging plays: it was a way of making sense of the world. Pupils could learn through dramatic role play. For example, a lesson about conservation might involve children acting the part of foresters.

The teaching method that she became most famous for was Mantle of the Expert, in which the teacher surrendered the mantle of expertise to the pupils. For example, children might become executives in a biscuit factory, using mathematical and report-writing skills to ensure its smooth functioning.

Her day began at 4am, when she would sit working by her Aga, while a cat purred nearby. She and her husband, Raymond, had one child, Marianne. But Mrs Heathcote would routinely offer up spare bedrooms to visiting students, cooking their meals and driving them to campus, often for an entire year. The line between personal and professional life was always blurred: the majority of her close friends were former students.

Despite the international travel that her work required, family remained a priority. All Marianne's clothes were homemade, two enormous freezers were full of home-grown vegetables and she left labelled dinners behind when she travelled overseas.

Just as Mantle of the Expert could be used by teachers of any subject, so too could it be used outside schools. As well as spreading overseas - in Soweto townships and Maori communities - the method was adopted by the NHS, the Crown Prosecution Service, and British Gas senior managers.

She received honorary doctorates from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Derby universities. And she was awarded an MBE in the Queen's birthday honours this year.

Addressing a gathering of teachers, Mrs Heathcote once remarked: "I shall look forward to death ... as the greatest and most mysterious adventure of all." She died on 8 October.

A celebration of Dorothy Heathcote's life will be held on 11 December at 1pm, at St Werburgh's church in Spondon, Derby.

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