Over the course of the past decade, the teaching of drama to children and young people in Britain’s state schools has been quietly throttled, sacrificed at the altar of GCSE and A-level “results.”
But its widespread removal from the curriculum is likely to prove painfully unhelpful, even disastrous, for an entire generation already locked in a struggle to make themselves properly understood in a texting, sexting social media world where the default mode of communication is typing, not speaking.
Under pressure from a succession of governments of all political persuasions to deliver “measurable improvements” in academic performance, schools have resorted to axing drama lessons – and often abandoned the practise of termly school drama productions for multiple age groups in favour of an annual piece of “musical theatre”, with casting reserved largely for students taking Drama at A-level. The number of pupils studying drama at GCSE has fallen from 80,700 in 2009-10 to just 67,900 in 2015-16 – 11.6% of the student population, representing a decline of 16% in just seven years.
The process parallels the massively short-sighted downgrading of foreign language teaching in British schools on the grounds that learning to think like someone else, or experience any culture other than your own, is apparently “unnecessary.” French as a GCSE subject has fallen at the same rate as drama, and German by over 26% since 2009.
Governments, education departments and schools have lost sight of the simple proposition that fostering intelligence (or even, if you prefer, creating an “effective workforce”) requires exposure to multiple modes of thought.
Just as no one is born able to write clearly, balance books, or conduct a proper scientific experiment, so too the art of communicating ideas in speech is something that must be taught. Politicians are not hatched as glib manipulators of the truth, or as charismatic leaders – they have to learn. How do they learn? Drama, debating, the practise of law, public speaking and, famously in Margaret Thatcher’s case (or Robin Cook’s), by hiring a voice coach or a personal acting coach.
How can this be important at fee-paying schools and not in the state sector?
If we kill youth drama, we are doing three very worrying things.
First, as should now be clear, we are denying young people the chance to learn to communicate properly face-to-face. Look at the criteria for almost any job from a high-level post at a FTSE 100 company to a starting job in the retail or service industries, and “good communication skills’ will be high on the list. Communicate badly, and you will fail every interview you go for. Why then are we limiting the chances of building those skills for so many of the future workforce?
Secondly, of course, we are adding to the perceived exclusiveness of the Arts. Much has been said and written about the dwindling numbers of “ordinary” non-public-school-educated people entering the world of theatre and TV. Taking drama teaching out of state schools can only make this situation worse. Acting and directing are learned skills. And like any other skills the best time to start learning them is early in life. It makes no sense to complain about the preponderance of “public school actors” if we are not laying the foundations in state schools. Worse, without any experience of theatre at school, even going to watch theatre will get classed by many as “too expensive and not for me.”
Thirdly, and most worryingly of all, we are sending the message that creativity is not important. Not worth exploring or investigating. We don’t believe in you. Please go out and get a dull job, using your (non-existent) communications skills to advance your career. Don’t invent anything. Don’t come up with new ideas. Don’t argue for change, or start your own business. Don’t become a politician, or a thought leader, or any kind of public figure. Don’t try to change the world. It’s not important.
Firecracker, the youth arm of theatre company Hydrocracker, spent the summer running drama workshops with young people aged fifteen to seventeen, as part of a project run by NCS – National Citizenship Service http://www.ncsyes.co.uk/what-is-ncs.
As the small teams of four-to-five participants pitched their social action projects to judges at the climax of the workshops (projects they would actually deliver in their communities the week after) the energy, creativity, practical skills and sheer courage on display was stunning to see. It was especially rewarding to see those without an immediate ‘gift of the gab’ find a way to conquer their nerves and put their ideas across with such confidence with the support of their team.
To quote one of our participants: “Normally I get really jittery and anxious if I have to speak in public but this made me forget about the nerves and say what I wanted to say. Felt so good to do it.”Here was living proof of how central an experience of drama can be to young people. Fantastic, too, that they were doing this as part of the NCS scheme – that made it feel that drama was genuinely being recognised as a part of what we think, as a nation, young people need in order to be citizens.
Why then are the ambitions of the NCS not mirrored in the state education system?
People lucky enough already to work in the Arts can respond to these issues in two ways. We can give in to pessimism – or we can use that very creativity we’ve been allowed to develop in order to fight back. It’s our strongest weapon.
And fighting back is more than possible. When we think back to the work Hydrocracker-Firecracker has done this year, with nearly 400 young people at NCS, and then with a 24-strong ensemble of adults and students who made up the cast of the Hydrocracker-Blast Theory production Operation Black Antler, we find many reasons to be positive.
And we at aim to do even more. We’ll be running more Master Classes for young people this year at Brighton Dome (starting with Stage Fighting, Mastering An Accent and Audition Technique this autumn); we will be building a new ensemble to perform Operation Black Antler in Manchester in summer 2017; and we’re already talking to NCS about running more workshops for them.
Whatever our state education system is forced to say and do we can make it clear that drama and creativity is part of being a fully rounded citizen.