There is a bundle of Year 7s on the floor, all twisted and contorted and utterly still, apart from the occasional muted giggle. If you look closely at each group of four, using a dollop of imagination, you can just make out that they are formed into the word "ant". A few minutes later, when they are told to form the word "frog" with their bodies, fevered discussions ensue. How do you do "o" without breaking your back? Are there enough of us for "g"? Within seconds, they have worked it out: teamwork. Two bodies forming a "C" come together to make an "o" and for "g" they compromise, curling bodies around each other with greater suppleness than artistry, but with a lot of hopefulness all the same. And there you have it: lots of frogs all over the floor, very happy with themselves.
This is a warm-up session during the weekly drama lesson in the specially adapted studio that all Year 7, 8 and 9 pupils attend at Hillside high school in Bootle, Liverpool. The school believes that drama is a powerful vehicle for developing social and communication skills. These 11 and 12-year-olds have only known each other for a half a term, but they are trusting, co-operative and able to exchange ideas and thoughts in constructive, respectful ways because of having to collaborate in drama. They have fun, too.
The recent RSA report, Arts Education in Secondary Schools, bears out what these young people know for themselves: that arts experience in school is enjoyable and fulfilling and increases their knowledge and skills in the particular art forms they are engaged with. What their teacher knows, even if they do not, is that it contributes to their personal and social development as well enhancing their thinking, creativity and communication skills. The report, carried out by the National Foundation for Education Research, concludes that where students do not have sufficient access to the arts, schools can expect many pupils to be more bored and disaffected.
At key stage 3, drama features as part of national curriculum English rather than as a separate subject. But a growing number of schools now run it as a discrete subject, in a number of ways: through performing arts, expressive arts or even as part of humanities. They are recognising that, to borrow the title of the Secondary Heads Association's report on a 1999 survey of its members, "drama sets you free". Hillside's headteacher Laetitia Schemilt puts it like this: "Some of our children go home to lives that you can't imagine. Families that have known unemployment for three generations and all that that suggests. So bringing drama in at Year 7 when I started here four years ago was an important part of our vision to raise pupils' self esteem. And I do think that doing drama has changed some of our kids' lives. There are those who would have left school but because of doing drama from the beginning they've gained confidence and a sense of their own worth. You can't put a price on the vital role of drama to help bring children out and to give them essential life skills."
Head of drama Carmel Carey-Shields believes in the power of drama to open pupils' minds, to fire their imaginations and to help nurture social and emotional maturity. "They get such a sense of achievement from their drama work, as well as learning how to organise and take responsibility for themselves, how to control their impulses and be disciplined, and how to concentrate. These are skills that go way beyond the drama studio. They're things that they'll need the rest of their lives."
Her approach to teaching the subject is friendly yet firm, informal but rigorous. She insists that they all change out of their school uniforms into black T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms once they enter the drama stdio for their lesson, to distinguish this session from everything else they do. The style is pacy, challenging, warm. Warmth, of course, is a prerequisite for getting down to things, which is why warm-up exercises - breaking down barriers between people in amusing ways such as forming words with your bodies - are so crucial and, particularly at the beginning of Year 7, can take up a lot of time. Carmel Carey-Shields reads her pupils well and knows that physical theatre is a great leveller, particularly with boys whose poor literacy skills may be gnawing away at their self-esteem at KS3. So she gets them doing "call and response" activities, which involve listening to and then performing simple rhymes or songs to movement. It can be a bit of a shambles at first, but after a few runs they are all singing an "African" equivalent of heads, shoulders, knees and toes, complete with shoulder and hip-wiggling movements as if they had been doing it for years.
She encourages them to practise different physical theatre techniques by incorporating them into short, improvised vignettes, so the pupils become accustomed to using mime, freeze frames, movement and gesture in all their work. Self-criticism and a critical review of other's work are built into her approach. After each group shows their version of a caterpillar singing a song, the rest of the class give their perspectives. Although not hard on each other they are honest and, most importantly, are learning about their performance.
Later Carmel Carey-Shields will introduce issues into the drama sessions, for improvisation pieces. Recently, the Year 8s did work on joyriding, an activity not unknown in Bootle. As well as other well-worn topics such as teenage pregnancy and bullying, she has led some work on the Triangular Trade and racism, particularly relevant subjects in a city that was once the European capital of the slave trade.
In addition to the compulsory drama at KS3, Ms Carey-Shields runs an after-school drama group and a theatre club. Dean Quinn, in Year 11, is not the average drama group type. By his own admission "naughty" when he came to the school, he found the drama class a place where he could grow emotionally and mentally. "It's helped me calm down. When I was younger, I was trying to show off all the time. Now, I just want to be seen for who I am. And I'm a lot more organised than I was when I first came. I think a lot has to do with the way Miss teaches us. She's like your friend but at the same time she's a teacher too and can be very strict."
Carmel Carey-Shields radiates a belief that the children can do whatever they want if they put their minds to it. That, together with the fact that she is a trained drama specialist, makes her pretty special. The SHA survey of drama provision last year found that 25 per cent of schools have no head of department for drama; that only 70 per cent of drama teachers teaching it as a specialist subject are trained to do so; that only 55 per cent of schools teach drama as a compulsory, separate subject at KS3 and that almost half of schools have no drama studio.
Hillside's decision to prioritise drama for the social and psychological benefits it carries with it has been worth the expense, the timetable-juggling and the raised eyebrows among some in the school community.
Although it is not possible to attribute a rise in exam scores to a single factor, it is true that GCSE results in the four years that drama has been compulsory at the school have more than trebled, from 9.8 per cent of pupils achieving five or more A to Cs in 1996 to 30 per cent last summer. But as far as Laetitia Schemilt is concerned: "I haven't brought drama in to improve exam results. I knew that would happen anyway. My main concern is that drama raises pupils' self-esteem and expectations and equips them for life. I know that it really changes them"