Theatre is an ideal medium for exploring sensitive subjects with pupils, writes Paul Gibbins
Guidelines from government and educational bodies on how to teach sex and relationships education are plentiful, and tend to concentrate on teaching pupils "healthy" attitudes to both.
South Wales is an area high in teenage pregnancies, sexually-transmitted diseases and incidents of homophobic bullying, all of which agencies responsible for young people want to eliminate.
However, the classroom is not the natural venue to air issues which we find difficult to discuss. It is often embarrassing when a teacher exposes the concerns and emotions of children in such a setting, and yet schools in Wales and England are required to teach sex and relationships to children of compulsory school age.
Guidance warns that teachers should establish clear parameters of what is appropriate in a whole-class setting. Yet the topic can only be pursued effectively with courageous openness, which is understandably difficult in the modern classroom.
When a school hall is transformed into a theatre, the prevalent cautions of school are, to some degree, discarded. The extent to which theatre can usefully deal with sex and relationships is central to a project currently being run by Gwent Theatre, an Abergavenny-based, theatre-in-education company.
Health agencies were consulted at an early stage, and organisations such as the NSPCC have also been involved.
In Gwent Theatre's latest production, Refuse, directed by Jain Boon, children are invited to enter a world inhabited by characters with similar concerns to their own about teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, STDs and bullying.
The play tells the story of Jacko, a young refuse collector who finds an abandoned baby in a dustbin and conducts his own investigation to find its young parents. The audiences are asked to help Jacko.
During the performance he invites audience members to share their concerns for the other characters and, in so doing, explore their own fears and uncertainties. Each performance is followed by a workshop for the young people, allowing further opportunities to develop an understanding of these difficult areas.
The playwright, Louise Osborn, has developed a story which uses information given by real people, drawing heavily on her research with youngsters in the area.
What the audience sees is a fantasy, but one woven from real experiences, feelings and values, and expressed in the language of actual people.
So what is being taught in Refuse? It's certainly not the facts of life, or a series of skills to deal with sex and relationships. Factual information about the incidence of STDs and the best ways to avoid them can be presented to young people very easily, but the nature of relationships is a far more complex area.
The guidance given in the national curriculum is a minefield, trodden very carefully by teachers in the classroom. It is interesting to see how they deal with the requirement that pupils should be taught "to recognise some of the cultural norms in society", and "how to make and keep friends". The recommendations pre-suppose an accepted agenda for what is right and wrong in sexual behaviour.
In participating in the play, pupils attain knowledge through a social interpretation of the meaning of the narrative. The characters portrayed direct the story through their behaviour. The audience then analyses that behaviour, and is encouraged to comment upon it and discuss the possibilities within the plot. Certain preconceptions about human behaviour and personality are revealed and questioned.
In entering the arena of theatrical performance, the children enter a different world with its own culturally-established conventions of presenting reality.
The classroom similarly has its own conventions, but they are different and the pupils are aware of this.
In lessons there is a strict code of behaviour, and the way in which we participate in activities is artificially imposed. The teacher manages that space.
The theatrical space has a different organisational system. The central focus is usually with the actors, but their behaviour is fired by a different role from that of the teacher.
Here a world is created which is comprehensible to the audience in a different domain, where children can analyse human behaviour more closely.
And with actors as the centre of attention, children realise a change in the process of learning.
It is important, in watching Refuse, that the young people are involved emotionally and intellectually. They are not merely recipients of information or guidance. they need to involve themselves in a process that transforms them.
The text has many dilemmas, which members of the audience will be solving individually. It questions preconceptions and encourages self-analysis.
The theatrical arena is a perfect situation in which to do this because the social nature of performance means the issues can be presented in an interactive way.
Paul Gibbins is Gwent Theatre's education officer. For information about performances of Refuse tel: 01873 853167