Performance is an art. It is also a way of learning – about yourself, about the world and about working with others. Emma Clegg talks to some local educationalists to find out why drama and education are a perfect fit

Drama is part of the human experience. Indeed observing any young child at play demonstrates how role-playing and make-believe is a natural part of children’s lives, and an important aspect of their development before they even start their formal education.

EDUCATIONAL PHILOSOPHIES

As far back as Ancient Greece, where theatre was a quintessential part of the culture, Plato saw the value of using play in education – he maintained that by organising and structuring children’s games, it was possible to create a sense of rules. He also recognised that play influences the way children develop as adults. Aristotle, too, believed that theatre provided people with a way to release emotions, with drama effective for its emphasis on doing, rather than memorising. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget – whose 20th-century theories on child development are still used in educational theory today – justified dramatic play as important in a child’s social, creative, cognitive, moral and affective development.King Edward’s School A level drama performance 

DEVELOPING UNDERSTANDING

For young children, dramatic play is about self-discovery, being able to explore and experiment for themselves and try out different roles. This allows children to create meanings and to create a sense of order in the world – it also supports language development. This idea of self-discovery through ‘pretending’ applies in equal measure to older age groups taking part in drama at school and can contribute significantly to their education, both in terms of developing good empathetic skills and working together, but also in terms of understanding and learning about the world.

“The study of drama is about so much more than performing – our students learn to be confident, resilient and to work collaboratively”

Hand in hand with dramatic play comes the idea that every person, every character that is adopted, is absolutely unique, and that everyone has a valuable place within the complex patterns of life. This is a crucial awareness as children accustomise themselves to the world around them. As Aristotle noted, drama is also an animated, not a passive, experience – it is about doing, creating and feeling. This gives children empathy and concentration. It also develops the ability to be able to work effectively in a group and to be able to communicate well.

Sarah Bird, head of drama and theatre studies at King Edward’s explains the school’s approach: “Drama is an exploration of life, the media, ourselves and our relationship with the world around us and with others. It’s considered to be one of the most collaborative of the arts, incorporating a range of skills and giving pupils the chance to explore their diverse interests and passions through performance, whether music, singing, acting, dancing, ICT, audio-visual, film, sound engineering, light design, set construction or costume design. It is a vital, exciting and inspiring subject that is constantly evolving.

“It really is a delight to watch the pupils discover their own artistic identities and find confidence in voicing their own opinions and ideas about the world through their dramatic endeavours.”Aladdin, Year 4, All Hallows Preparatory School

Andrew Psirides, head of performing arts at Saint Gregory’s, highlights the communication skills that are developed: “Drama is for all – the interaction with others, the growth of self esteem, the ability to negotiate and shape ideas and encourage others to do the same. Students learn to read body language and tone of voice and this equips them with the skills to adapt what they think about both the way they are perceived and the way they perceive others. At Saint Gregory’s, we see first-hand how the performing arts can bond individuals into a wonderful family unit that is supportive and rewarding and this, in turn, creates lasting friendships and memories.”

A SOFT OPTION?

For those placing emphasis on high academic achievement for their children, drama has been considered a ‘soft option’, seen as lacking the rigour of other core subjects in the curriculum. But you can’t compare biology or Latin or history with drama – it is a different form of learning, and practising drama offers students the sorts of skills that will benefit those of all types of academic potential.

Mrs Catherine Nash, head of drama at Kingswood School, remembers a time when the approach to drama in education was different: “When many parents of secondary school age children were at school themselves, ‘music and movement’ was very much in vogue, so drama meant being a tree or moving around vaguely in time to the melody. At Kingswood, pupils are taught that drama is serious fun and that it teaches transferable skills. The study of drama is about so much more than performing. Our students learn to be confident, resilient and to work collaboratively. They develop communication skills and creativity. These are the skills of the future, and drama is the best way of teaching them.”The Addams Family, All Hallows Preparatory School

Drama now has a high profile in many of our schools, in terms of subject study, the investment in regular school productions, and in the creative use of drama for classroom teaching. We all remember from our schooldays those teachers with charisma, who create drama as they speak and who encourage dramatic interaction as a way of learning – these are the teachers and the lessons that are remembered. This active learning style goes back to the famous Confucious proverb, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand.”

DRAMA AND ACTIVE PARTICIPATION

The collaborative, group experience of a drama lesson also serves to take the anxiety out of a classroom situation, particularly for those who are underconfident. And for those who are more nervous, it can encourage them to open up and try something new.

Kate Cross, director of the egg theatre in Bath, feels strongly that active participation in theatre can help children as they learn. Her perspective is that drama can help expression, but it can also help English and maths and history and geography and science – essentially, it can help learning. Kate says, “I believe in happy learners, children who feel as though they have a voice, their own creativity. They have licence to say and feel what they think and feel. And to find different creative outlets for those feelings and responses in humans. If through the arts and through the theatre children can find that happy space, then maybe all those other targets that schools need to reach will be met, maybe we are going to become better learners, maybe we are going to find maths easier. Because we can express what it is we feel uncomfortable about. Because we find a sense of our own identity.”

“We always put the pupils participating in our shows at the heart of the creative process, drawing on their ideas and experiences”

Karen Cordon, headmistress at St Margaret’s Preparatory School in Calne, sees drama in school as offering children essential life skills. “I am a strong believer that much of life is a performance and so it stands to reason that children who have grown up in an environment where they are encouraged to perform in front of an audience of their peers, teachers, parents and family friends are in a strong position when they go out into the wider world.

“They develop the self-assurance that they will take with them into their adult lives. They go into interviews ready to speak up and are happy to deliver a presentation or a pitch in front of an audience. Children today are brought up on a diet of television programmes that make them think that success can be instantly achievable, with little hard work involved. But music and drama show pupils that you have to practise and rehearse if you want a positive outcome.”Stonar School

James Baddock, head of English, drama and media at Millfield School, explains how central drama is to the school’s educational ethos: “We pride ourselves on adventurous, risk-taking drama that teaches our pupils invaluable life skills. Our house style is collaborative, and we always put the pupils participating in our shows and other activities at the heart of the creative process, drawing on their ideas and experiences. Many of our shows entail a lot of ensemble work, which develops such skills as teamwork, resourcefulness and communication. We employ a director in residence whose job is to create exciting opportunities, such as promenade performances, site-specific work, happenings and installations. Many of our pupils have gone on to the world of theatre, both behind and in front of the curtain.”

Chris Walker, head of drama at Stonar School, explains how drama has a strong democratic and social aspect: “Drama is a unifying force. It does not know class or religion. It doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care about your gender, ethnicity, confidence, knowledge or even performing ability. One thing I always tell my younger classes is that drama is a social subject. It, quite literally, forces you to interact with people; to speak and to have a discussion, to play, to work together, to provoke, to mediate, to understand and to consider how to communicate with people on every level.”The Crucible, Millfield School

James Callow, head of drama at All Hallows Preparatory School, explains how drama forms a key part of every educational stage in the pupils’ lives: “At All Hallows, we believe children should be encouraged and given opportunities to stand on a stage and experience performing in front of others right from the start. Beginning with nativity plays and special assemblies and moving on to year group and class productions, every child has the opportunity to take the limelight on a regular basis. As a result, the children ­­­­quickly gain confidence in performance, often drawing strength from each other.

“Drama lessons explore concepts such as developing a willingness to embrace self-expression and creativity to looking at different genres of performance. An enrichment programme allows older pupils to get immersed in every aspect of a major dramatic production from helping with backstage lighting and sound to performing starring roles. Optional speech and drama lessons build on these dramatic skills and allow the pupils to take LAMDA examinations in which our pupils have had outstanding success.”

PERFORMING IN PUBLIC

Chris Walker from Stonar, talks about the value of performing: “Schools build a culture around drama. We forge a bond, a togetherness, from productions. We work together as a company to put on a show that maybe only ever plays once, to a small audience. But the experience of doing that, of feeling like you belong and you made a difference and you told someone a story can be life-altering for a child. Drama is all about make-believe, but principally, it is about making children believe in themselves.

Drama is a unifying force. It does not know class or religion. It doesn’t discriminate

Andrew Psirides from St Gregory’s explains how pupils change through their experience of drama: “It is as much of a delight to see a student blossom by being brave enough to share their first piece of work as it is to see an accomplished and confident performer deliver Shakespeare.”The Jungle Book, King Edward’s School

Many schools are increasingly taking on an ambitious programme of productions. King Edward’s Senior School, for example, has recently seen pupils tackle a diverse range of plays, including Carl Grose’s Gargantua (performed as part of the National Theatre’s ‘Connections’ initiative), Pride and Prejudice, Beauty and the Beast and a contemporary re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

DEVELOPING SKILLS FOR LIFE

Oliver Moore, a year 10 student at the Bath Studio School, has experienced the benefits of studying drama first hand: “Studying drama in schools has given me a confidence boost through collaborating with larger groups of people. It offers us opportunities to develop our imaginations by being able to access a creative curriculum studying subjects such as games development, photography, art and creative media.

“We recently interviewed Emmy award-winning cinematographer and underwater cameraman, Michael Pitts, who has worked on BBC productions such as Blue Planet. He gave us an insight into presenting from an autocue and how to use body language and eye contact to engage with an audience. I’ve seen how drama helps to develop open-minded, confident and forward-thinking pupils and equip students with skills which are transferable for life.”

Contacts and further information about all the schools mentioned here is included in the next section of the magazine.

Featured image: St Margaret’s Prep School