Carolyn O'Grady sees a special school's drama troupe trailblazing new ways of teaching pupils to look after themselves.
A new pupil walks along a school corridor and is suddenly and violently shoved. "You shrimp," someone hisses. A boy is offered a sweet which is spitefully withdrawn as he reaches out his hand. "There's a party this weekend," a girl tells a new pupil, whose eyes light up. Then the informant delivers a killer punch: "But you're not invited."
This looks like cruelty run riot. Fortunately, however, it is not real. The incidents described were part of a recent assembly at Wood End primary school in Wolverhampton during which Year 5 children illustrated work they had been doing in personal and social education. The presentation went on to explore more friendly ways of treating a new pupil.
Along with 29 other Wolverhampton schools, Wood End is participating in Safer Children, a project to generate ideas on themes and approaches in PSE. Drama and role plays are the main ingredients and five themes which come broadly under the heading of personal safety are explored.
Year 5 was chosen as a good age at which to introduce concepts such as choice and risk because it is both the starting point for the transition to secondary schools and the time when children begin to gravitate towards their peer group.
Safer Children is funded (so far to the tune of Pounds 35,000) by Wolverhampton City Challenge, the city's community safety partnership (a group of agencies including the local council, police and the probationary service which seeks to promote crime reduction) and the area child protection committee. The project is now looking for funding from companies and charities to disseminate the work.
Using drama, role play, discussion and artwork the participating schools tackle five themes: friends, adults, risks, rules and touches. Not that these Wolverhampton primary schools are unpracticed in bringing these sort of issues into the curriculum. Many of them have been involved in the first part of the project, Safer Schools, which looked specifically at bullying and gave rise to a pack sponsored by the Department for Education which is now used in around 30,000 UK schools.
Both parts of the project were coordinated and directed by Dialogue, an education television company which again will eventually produce a video-based resource pack to disseminate the project's work.
Enthusiasm for the use of drama and role play in Safer Children came from the educational psychologists who see it as an effective way of exploring issues in PSE, says Jeremy Brown of Dialogue.
In an imaginative move, it was decided that the drama production would be put on not by pupils from primary schools but by young people from Westcroft School, a local special school for children with moderate learning difficulties.
In line with the ethos of the project, it gave children in mainstream schools a chance to see what special schools can do. Westcroft already had an interesting and full PSE programme and for some years Westcroft teacher John Bird has been sponsored to do drama work on personal safety in schools in the area.
"Rather than auditioning across the borough for bright young starlets, we wanted to say to teachers, you can do it in your school; look these kids have done it - and well," says Jeremy Brown.
The drama production they put on - they visited six schools a week - was devised over a 12-week period with Dialogue staff and three actors from the Red Socks and Docs Theatre and is fast, funny and thought-provoking with catchy music.
In 10-minute slots, with time for discussion in between, the production explores the five key issues. It demonstrates bullying, looks at friends falling out and how they might make up; suggests how parents and children might negotiate rather than quarrel and, in a monologue by one of the actresses tackles the difficult subject of good and bad touching: a young girl describes how "Uncle Andrew" touches her in a way with which she feels uncomfortable and asks her to keep it a secret.
In another sequence, three children - Risky Rachel, Sensible Sarah and Nervous Nelly - demonstrate different attitudes to risk-taking.
Following the performance, each participating school was offered workshops on two of the main issues, in which they were encouraged to do role-playing exercises in small groups and discuss the questions involved. The schools have since drawn on the work done and incorporated it into their own PSE programme.
The approach is to encourage pupils to discuss their feelings and to take their problems to friends, teachers, parents or others. It is one they seem to respond to readily. "When you start a discussion on, say, how it feels to fall out with your friends, they grab at the opportunity to talk," says Jill Eley of Dialogue.
She emphasises that: "We're not attempting counselling, but we're trying to get across that it's not a bad thing to talk and work out problems with your friends."
"Most of the input must come from the children," says Jon Hopkins, coordinator of East Park junior school's full programme of PSE. "The knack is to find strategies for facilitating what the children have to say. When the PSE scheme of work was begun some staff were initially a bit uncertain of how to approach it."
However, the project raised teachers' awareness of the issues and gave ideas on how to tackle them. The play was an inspiring stimulus to discussion and gave them something to emulate and role plays enable the children to work out some of their own ideas.
Though issues are treated in a general rather than personal way in PSE, Jon Hopkins argues that it must be backed up by a whole-school policy on the issues. "You can be opening up a whole can of worms if you don't know what you are doing. You must have a whole- school ethos of openness and clear guidelines on issues such as bullying, racism and abuse."
Wood End pupils were enthusiastic. "It's like real life," said one. "The hardest thing is learning to say sorry," said another. How had they arrived at the content of their small group's role? "We discussed it in the playground and practised different roles," said a boy.
I wondered if I had heard right. But yes, the topics had been avidly discussed in the playground, said teacher Robert Baker, adding that in order to work, the issues have to be "personalised by the children. The project has to belong to them".
Edited by Diane Hofkins