Setting the stage for life

19th November 2004 at 00:00
By developing dramatic skills across the curriculum, students can become more active citizens, Jonothan Neelands

Totus mundus agit historionem was the motto Shakespeare and his partners chose for the entrance to their new theatre, the Globe, in 1599. The motto is often casually translated as "All the world's a stage", but literally the phrase is closer to "the whole world is playing" or "everybody is acting".

Four hundred years later, there is a new Globe and, in schools at least, we are closer to realising Shakespeare's axiom that everybody is acting. New drama initiatives from QCA, DfES, Ofsted and Arts Council England during the past two years have included the framing of drama objectives for each term from Years 1 to 6 as part of the national primary strategy, and for each year of key stage 3 as part of the national KS3 strategy. Taken together with the expectation that KS4 pupils will continue to experience drama as part of their core English entitlement this means that, in theory, everybody between the ages of five and 16 is acting in school.

There will always be a vocal and passionate chorus of teachers who yearn for drama to be given full subject status in the national curriculum, but this is as close to being a recognised "subject" as drama is likely to get.

In addition to the new DfES drama objectives, Ofsted and Arts Council England have produced key documents that define how drama is to be inspected as a discrete subject and how it should be taught and assessed in all four key stages.

However, current policy thinking in education is tending towards integration of subjects, cross-curricular themes and developing high-quality teaching and learning processes that are not tied to particular subject specialisms. In this climate, talk of establishing new subjects and creating subject boundaries sounds anachronistic.

In the new policy context, much emphasis is being placed instead on drama as a cross-curricular learning process with the potential to bring active and dynamic teaching and learning to subjects as diverse as science and religious education.

In his latest annual report (2002-2003), the Chief HMI, David Bell, argues that every pupil deserves to experience the stimulus and challenge offered to the mind and the imagination by studying the arts and the humanities to a satisfying level and reports on the positive effects drama has on the achievements of urban youth in general and black boys in particular.

While drama's subject claims have in part been satisfied by the new frameworks of objectives and assessment, it appears that the real policy interest is in using drama as a cross-curricular teaching tool leading to more engaged, inclusive, creative and concrete learning.

But in stressing drama as both subject and process is there a danger of overload for teachers? Will primary teachers welcome a new set of subject objectives as well as the encouragement to use simple drama techniques as part of literacy and other subject teaching? Will secondary drama specialists welcome the opportunity to share drama techniques with colleagues in other subject areas as well as Arts Council England's exhortation that drama should be developed as a discrete subject within the arts?

Which brings us back to Shakespeare. Our relationship with Shakespeare and his legacy mirrors some of the dilemmas now facing drama in schools.

Shakespeare's works are at the heart of the idea of an English theatre tradition, but the same works continue to have a profound influence beyond theatre, in English literature studies and in the shaping of philosophers, artists, entrepreneurs and politicians.

Shakespeare was first and foremost a progressive dramatist inventing new forms of theatre to reflect the rapidly changing Elizabethan world-view.

But his works continue to enhance human understanding in other fields of learning and cultural practice. They remain in the tensions between language and action, between the arts and humanities, and between cultural tradition and progress - tensions that continue to dominate debates about drama's place in the curriculum, about whether the drama curriculum should focus on heritage and the traditional acting skills of voice and movement, or whether it should be a progressive and transforming influence in the broader fields of human learning and knowledge.

Perhaps, in looking to a new golden age of drama in our schools, we should remember Shakespeare's insistence that it is the world itself that is the substance of drama. Drama is, as it was in Shakespeare's world, one of the principal means that we have of engaging with, commenting on and re-imagining our world. In a profound sense we are all social actors with the possibility of being artistic actors.

Through developing the skills of artistic actors we may also develop pupils' skills and potential to be more effective social actors in the world beyond the stage. Through their actions, Shakespeare's characters forged their own destinies. Through drama, pupils may be encouraged to become more active citizens, shaping their own worlds through their actions.

This is a view of drama as a means of shaping and making the world accessible and relevant to the lives of young people and as a means of giving them the confidence and motivation not only to act in drama, but to act in the social world in order to make it a more humane and just place.

This bolder vision of drama acknowledges the need for drama specialists who can develop the skills young people need to be effective dramatists, but it also embraces the vitality of drama's potential to illuminate other fields of learning.

What would Shakespeare, whose Hamlet was offended to hear a rumbustious, periwigged fellow tear a passion to tatters, make of the Arts Council's suggestion that the highest achievement in school drama is to show subtlety as well as panache in their dramatic interpretation of texts?

In broadening the role of drama in schools it would be a pity if the subject of drama itself became diluted to developing the skills of flamboyant performance, however subtle. It is only by focusing, as Shakespeare did, on the symbiotic relationship between the content and form of drama that we can ensure that drama takes its substance seriously and that the uses of drama in other subjects seek an aesthetic as well as a functional purpose.

l Jonothan Neelands is reader in drama and theatre education at the Institute of Education, University of Warwick. He is the author of Structuring Drama Work, Beginning Drama 11-14 (David Fulton, 2nd edition, based on the new guidance), Key Shakespeare 1 and 2 and Drama and Theatre Studies at AS and A-level. He will give the keynote address at Shakespeare in the Contemporary Classroom, a one-day practical conference, Shakespeare's Globe (in partnership with the London Institute of Education) on January 22

* National Drama organises events and conferences to support teachers at all key stages:

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