Players take the lead

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
The development of a let's pretend system can have far-reaching results, report Iona Towler-Evans and Claire Armstrong-Mills.

As part of Dudley LEA's Early Years and Childcare Partnership training programme, we have been using a system of teaching and learning which capitalises on children's natural inclination to play. The system, known as Mantle of the Expert, was invented by Dorothy Heathcote, a leading drama theorist and practitioner and the president of The National Association of Teachers of Drama.

Our project, in which fictional play created by carefully planned curriculum tasks is set within a rich context, is aimed at early years practitioners. In the training programme, teachers learn within a fictional context at their own level. Through their own experience they identify the impact of play on their own learning.

None of the participants is a drama specialist and none attended the training course expecting to use drama.

Mel Elsby, reception teacher at Milking Bank primary school in Dudley, has adapted her own approach since the course. Her children are running a boarding kennel for dogs. Each child has a "kennel" which signals their responsibility for a particular "dog". Through their concern for their own "dog" and their responsibility to the "dog owner" they learn the importance of feeding, exercise, grooming and various dog ailments as well as their behavioural problems.

In this way, they experience a range of language and address early learning goals within a context where their own efforts and commitment sustain the work. Mel Elsby says: "My new intake reception class loved the fact that the teacher and child appeared to be equal when solving problems. Less confident children blossomed, speaking and listening was at its best and we all worked together to get the big job done.

"One child, Katy, came up with the idea of a picture-list of jobs to be done and suggested: 'let's tick off when we've done each job.' Mason said enthusiastically: 'I'm going to play this at home.' Ruth said: 'A lady came in and she'd lost her dog, we had to help her.' The 'lady' was the class's nursery nurse Sally Mansell.

"When designing a dog collage, including portraits of their imaginary 'dogs', Bradley asked: 'Can we sit next to our dog to copy him?' " Richard Mason, headteacher of Milking Bank, says: "The quality of role play developed by children so young was remarkable."

Hasbury Primary School in Dudley is one of the schools that has won a best practice research grant to investigate the system. The course has recently been accredited for classroom assistants at level 3 (with the Open College Network) and plans are in place to accredit the course as part of a foundation degree.

The Mantle of the Expert system has also been implemented as part of the new citizenship curriculum at Cradley High School, in Dudley, where a group of year 8 pupils were "commissioned" to plan a new facility for a school for the blind. This led the pupils into the implications of a change of use for an old barn, problems with a cemetery, access for the blind and the views of the community, as well as the added pressure of a documentary being made of their work.

Claire Armstrong-Mills gave voice to an old gravestone which had seen vandalism. A pupil, Rachel, said: "I thought it was real, you were so convincing. I wondered how the gravestone knew so much." Reece added: "It made me realise that in real life it must be really hard for the people to do what we were doing."

The project enabled them to learn about citizenship, the power of the media, community views, decision-making and policies from the point of view of people in positions of power. Real roles and fictional roles operate within the system, for example we involved a freelance media person and a local council member who accepted the fictional play and contributed authentically to it. Year 9 pupils contributed as community members including local parents, parents of the blind children and a teacher.

Sean sensed the different way that people were functioning in this work and commented, "The documentary maker was class - the way he told us what to do - not like a teacher. We had a big job to do and we got it done".

Teachers in the school joined in their fictional world in appropriate roles and noticed a difference in attitude from inside the work. Sarah Hughes, an English teacher said: "I felt that these were the very children who are perhaps marginalised in the classroom, yet they reacted to the work as though their status had been raised. A definite strength of the work was the plethora of skills employed by the children."

As a result of a DfES Best Practice research grant Sarah is now working with Caslon Primary School to implement the system as part of the school's transition programme. The school's headteacher Toni Fowler supports creative approaches to teaching and learning for the pupils of Cradley High School: "We feel that this kind of work is an excellent way of motivating pupils in their learning in several curriculum areas and will support our work on teaching and learning particularly at key stage 3."

The High Arcal School in Dudley will be piloting the materials next term as part of their citizenship curriculum. As a result of the interest shown and support offered by the Neighbourhood Initiatives Foundation this work will form a citizenship pack for teachers at key stage 3.

Claire Armstrong Mills and Iona Towler-Evans of Dimension Associates have both been trained by Dorothy Heathcote in the use of the Mantle of the Expert system and are experienced teachers and trainers. They offer a variety of projects for different learning contexts. Email: and Email:

A key stage 3 pack outlining the project will be published by the Neigbourhood Initiative Foundation in the summer term. Details are available from Helen Foster Email: A detailed description of the system can be found in Drama for Learning by Dorothy Heathcote and Gavin Bolton (1995) Heinemann ISBN 0-435-08643-X The Dorothy Heathcote archive can be accessed via

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