Analysing the fury of Medea is the first step for some Liverpool children towards understanding and controlling the violence that may affect their own lives. Wendy Wallace reports.
Drama adviser Chris Ball reaches into his bag of props. Like a conjurer he pulls out two blank white masks and asks a group of Year 5s from Our Lady Immaculate RC primary school in Liverpool to warm up by remembering their previous work on the story of Medea.
"Why is Medea dangerous?" "She cut up her brother and threw his limbs into the sea."
Oh yes, they remember it well - and they haven't even got to where she murders her sons. Now he wants words from them to describe Medea.
"Psychopath," offers one. "Maniac. Twisted. Infatuated."
He has the children as the Greek chorus, leaning one way then the other as they echo the words around the school hall. "Infatuated, infatuated, infatuated," go up the whispers.
It's drama, but not as we know it. Chris Ball is here as part of Liverpool's work on violence prevention, and Euripedes' drama on the murderous passions aroused by love seems absolutely germane to these nine and 10-year-olds. "Setting up a drama makes it fictional, so you can look at it in a non-threatening way," explains Ball.
A call for volunteers sends hands shooting into the air, children eager to don the expressionless masks and white sheets. "This Medea feels beautiful, powerful and wonderful," he tells them. "And this Medea feels really down and low and sad. And they're going to talk to each other."
The kids huddle and confer, feeding the two Medeas lines. "Why does no one have feelings for me?" "I don't need Jason, I'm strong enough without him." "I'm an ugly old witch." "I'm still strong in this town." They're analysing the complexity of people and relationships, investigating a tragedy that doesn't cast heroes and villains simplistically.
Most of these children will have some personal experience of family conflict; and some,according to national statistics, are likely to have seen one of their parents battered. While measures against bullying, racism, homophobia and anti-social behaviour all figure to some extent on schools' moral maps, the catch-all theme of violence prevention has been lacking.
"Schools are very moral institutions," says Sylvia Brown of Liverpool local education authority. "The work is being done, but it's not being named and focused on." Liverpool has put Single Regeneration Budget funding into work which aims to help children come to terms with violence in their own lives and begin to change their behaviour.
Headteacher Aine Brodie of Our Lady Immaculate reports visible changes in Year 3 pupils, who worked with Chris Ball last year. "It's stayed with them - the idea of verbalising issues and situations rather than lashing out."
The drama work is backed up by extra training for staff on child protection. They may well need it, because the powerful emotions let loose by the role-playing can prompt children to tell teachers what's happening at home. Aine Brodie says this is no bad thing. "Children will often protect staff from what is going on. Talking about conflict and violence gives them a chance to say - yes, this is happening."
Part of the impetus for the Liverpool work came from local umbrella group the Domestic Violence Forum. "To break the mould we have to start with young people," says Lily Hopkins, chair of the forum. "Anger has to come out in some way, but we need to teach them it's no excuse for violence."
Research has shown that domestic violence cuts across regional and class boundaries, but Home Office findings indicate the part that deprivation has to play. Women in households with an annual income of less than pound;5,000 are most at risk, according to the most recent British Crime Survey figures. Women with children in the household also face increased risk. In total, 26 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men have been victims of assault or threat. "In Liverpool there is a lot of unemployment and ill-health," says Hopkins. "Sometimes men just feel trapped, and the easiest target to lay into is the little woman."
More schools will be keeping violence prevention in mind with next Tuesday's launch of Checkpoints for Schools, compiled by the Forum on Children and Violence based at the National Children's Bureau in London.
The checkpoints, says forum co-ordinator Janet Convery, are not a prescription but a way for schools to audit what they are doing and what more they might do on violence prevention. Former headteacher George Varnava, author of the document, says: "Violence is endemic in our society. It is highly damaging and the people most vulnerable are children."
The checkpoints - which range over values, organisation, environment, curriculum and homeschool issues - have been piloted in schools including Hope Valley, an inner-city Liverpool primary. "We believe you can't improve standards until you are providing a calm environment for learning," says headteacher Elva Boutflower.
Violence prevention measures at Hope Valley have included improving the school environment by planting trees and a beech hedge, widening the range of lunchtime and after-school clubs, creating a meaningful school council, helping schoolfamily communication and focusing on language. "We're helping children look at words they use, and what it means to say something like 'I'll kill you'," says Ms Boutflower.
Janet Convery says: "We've produced something concise and practical. And we're not saying the whole solution lies in schools. The solution lies in the whole society but schools are the starting place."
'Towards A Non-Violent Society - Checkpoints for Schools' is available free for the first copy from Janet Convery, The Forum on Children and Violence, National Children's Bureau, 8 Wakley Street , London EC1V 7QE.Tel: 0171 843 6309, or e-mail email@example.comThe checkpoints can also be downloaded from the forum's website at www.ncb.org.uk
WHO PUSHES WHO
* British Crime Survey findings reveal more than 4 per cent of women and men were physically assaulted by a partner in the past year
* Twice as many women as men were injured by a partner and three times as many suffered frightening threats
* Pushing, shoving and grabbing were the most common types of assault. Assailants kicked, slapped or hit victims with their fists in nearly half of incidents
* Women with children were at highest risk