Polishing her act

4th April 2003 at 01:00
LEAs are teaming up with theatres to help teachers add a touch of drama to their classroom routine. Elaine Williams treads the boards.

Ged Cooper has always been a dedicated follower of her subject. As a head of drama, she has written sketches for school productions, sweated extra hours and days in rehearsals, organised regular theatre trips and grabbed at chances for her students to work with professional playwrights in real theatres.

But this year she is working with the professionals herself, spending half her working week in York's Theatre Royal as education liaison officer. She sits in on rehearsals and production meetings, and organises and directs workshops for the region's schools, bringing in groups of teachers and pupils to work with professional actors and directors pre- and post-production.

Ms Cooper, 52, has taught at All Saints RC secondary in York for 14 years and is glad of the chance to "see a different world". She says: "When you are teaching, everything is so rushed, you feel you never have time to do anything properly, that you are never quite finished. At the theatre, we hold meetings one week for workshops that will take place in the next, and meetings are part of working time. That's a bonus. At the theatre we also have more time to talk through ideas. In school you are so much on your own because you are working at such a pace."

This is the second year the Theatre Royal has run the teacher secondment scheme, which is funded with a pound;20,000 grant from York LEA. Ms Cooper had to persuade her school that releasing her would be of benefit to everybody. All Saints was reluctant to let go of a senior teacher who had just set up an A-level theatre studies course, but relented when Ms Cooper showed that she could keep this going alongside her secondment. Now, halfway through the posting, the school is an enthusiastic supporter, seeing the advantages for both teacher and pupils, who enjoy a "special relationship" with the theatre.

Last term, the cast from Kay Mellor's comedy A Passionate Woman worked with sixth-formers on a reminiscence project. Taking the play's theme of reliving memories, they wrote sketches based on interviews with elderly York residents. Pupils performed the sketches to the public, with two of the cast of A Passionate Woman. Ms Cooper says: "It was fantastic for our kids to work with, and be encouraged by, real actors and perform alongside them before a public audience."

This spring, she is working with Pilot Youth Theatre, which has a base at the Theatre Royal, and All Saints pupils to produce Brokenville, a play by Philip Ridley. Pupils will perform this in the theatre's studio as part of the regional heats for the National Theatre Shell National Connections festival. They will also take part in the Theatre Royal's Young Ambassadors scheme, which involves young volunteers working as front of house guides, as well as being invited to press nights and workshops on reviewing with professional critics. Ms Cooper has also helped to set up writing workshops for adults and young people.

She says secondment has given her a new hunger for teaching. "As a teacher, you tend to do everything, but working here has given me the confidence to delegate and to realise that I needn't be doing everything. Everyone can have a role and be left to get on with it. It's nice to get back to school and down to the hands-on stuff."

Ms Cooper is working alongside Helen Cadbury, the theatre's education director with responsibility for schools, who has been a teacher and an actor. Together they hold workshops on storytelling for key stage 1 pupils and Macbeth workshops for key stage 2. They are also planning a series of drama and citizenship workshops.

Ms Cadbury says: "It's useful to be able to work with somebody who is in schools because teaching is changing so much all the time. It's great to have somebody taking workshops who has the skills to hold students'

attention and knows how to pace things."

Few theatres can afford to take teachers on, though Sheffield Theatres runs such a scheme to serve the Crucible, Lyceum and Studio, funded, like the York project, by the local education authority.

Colin Jackson, drama consultant for York, believes schools benefit greatly from such schemes, and that at the end of the year the authority gains a revitalised teacher. Although the two York secondments have both gone to drama teachers, it is open to any teacher - primary or secondary - of any subject.

"To spend a year working in an environment where performing art is the total focus is a marvellous opportunity," says Mr Jackson. "As a former drama teacher who has spent most of my professional life fighting my corner for the subject, I speak from experience. The workshops these teachers run in the theatre are valued and valid."

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