gender politics, drama and the boring organisational bits of teaching

This post is written by Chris Hall.

I’d last been to Ricards Lodge decades ago, when my old grammar school was closed and incorporated into the borough’s new girls’ comprehensive. I was 17 then, in Year 13, doing my A levels. I’d enjoyed being at my old school but I don’t remember feeling particularly upset or disrupted by the move to Ricards. Our teachers obviously did a good job, and we weren’t of an age to be nostalgic. We got on with things in the new setting and were mostly concerned about what was coming next – university in my case, thanks to teachers who believed in girls’ education and a university grant system that encouraged social mobility.

So I was tuned in to thinking about the politics of girls’ education as I waited in reception. Malala smiled down at me from a poster on the wall as I watched a stream of girls (and a few boys, from a much later, sixth form, merger) negotiate the morning routines.

Ric image in reception

The focus of my visit was Drama. Back in the day, we read plays in English lessons but Drama – if it involved moving out of your seat – was an exclusively extracurricular affair, an optional extra, a polite refinement. So it was interesting to see at first hand how much things had changed.

Drama is thoroughly embedded in the everyday life of Ricards: in the formal curriculum, through public performances of school plays and musicals, in the displays and invitations to extracurricular visits, in the schools’ collaborations with local and national theatre companies, in the conversations I overheard between teachers and students…

Ric PA display

Jack and Sarah, two of the lead drama teachers, explained to me the way they managed the GCSE and BTEC Drama options to allow students to follow their preferences for studying technical or design aspects of theatre, or to focus more on devising, acting and textual analysis. I observed classes working on costume and set design for the play that actors in another class were rehearsing, and then saw the classes excitedly bringing their work together. I heard about the way the curricular work fed the extracurricular performances; how visits to particular shows, and work experience backstage, inspired creative ideas that the girls brought into their designs and performances. I saw Year 9 girls finishing off a unit of work on women and comedy. They were taking it in turns to act out the birth scene from Gargantua,in which a surreally enormous but reluctant baby is being induced to enter the world and end his mother’s two-year pregnancy. The girls (and their heavily pregnant teacher) found it hilarious. Through comedy, they were learning to be at ease with their bodies, to understand something about the absurd, to work together to explore emotions. And they were also thoroughly enjoying an ordinary day at school.

Observing this, I was struck by the teachers’ commitment to orchestrating timings and syllabus requirements to bring together the curricular, the extracurricular and the cross- curricular. This is the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes kind of work of planning meetings and timetabling, particularly frustrating at the moment with all the changes to the syllabuses and assessment criteria. Managing it well is a high level professional skill. Done properly it energises students to bring ideas together, to explore perspectives and make meanings that are important to them and to their lives beyond school. Two quotations from a conversation with the Year 13 drama students give some insights into what a difference this makes.  It was a privilege to see how things had moved on.

We started homelessness. That was our devised [drama piece for the exam]. We were learning about it, you have to talk about it. In Sociology, you talk about issues in society, you talk about homelessness being an issue, that it’s the individual’s fault. But you come to Drama, you do the research and you form these characters. We wrote these characters ourselves. You come up with a backstory, you come up with how it is going to end, how it is going to begin and you realise these are real people. It brings it a lot closer to home, which is easy if you just need to learn it and write it for an exam, but when you’re doing it in Drama, you become a lot more – you look at it from a completely different perspective than you would’ve done if you were just learning it like a textbook.

I am involved in political activism and I have felt that using drama has made my activism and campaigning a lot easier for me. Messages that are really hard to campaign about, you can convey that message through drama to loads of different audiences. If you campaign or have a protest about homelessness, people won’t get it. But then you have four women characters who you can relate to in some type of way that makes it a lot more accessible. For me as well, I think drama has made political activism a lot more accessible. When we look at politics and sociology and social issues, we think of it as a vague issue rather than an ‘us’ issue, but through drama you have learnt so much. We talk about these things all the time. In Drama, it’s a drama lesson, but it does help us formulate our ideas.


tale survey completed

This post is written by Corinna Geppert


Some months ago I wrote a blog post called “When numbers turn into meaning…”. At this time we had just launched our WAVE 1 survey report . This report included data from over 2300 students in TALE schools all over the country. I was very excited about it and even more excited about the fact that there was to be another round of data collection. This second wave would tell us how good our early results were.

This time we had more students completing paper and pencil questionnaires rather than online surveys. This meant that there were many, many boxes filled with questionnaires stored in our office. And all this data had to be entered. This might sound to be a really boring task, but in fact, it is quite interesting. When I enter the data I already get a feeling about it.

Some patterns began to emerge while I was doing the data-entry, and I got to know each school even better. The data told me for instance that there are some areas where specific sports activities are really popular and students seem to be enthusiastic about them – regardless of their gender – like rugby or football. And there are some areas where students are really keen on getting involved in cultural activities in their hometown. And there are other areas where it seems to be hard for students to get involved in any cultural activities outside of school at all.

All of these insights are now combined in the final survey report. The final report uses data from 4.500 students, collected in 2016/17 and 2017/18, in TALE schools all over the country.

Some of the main findings are:

  1. Students are enthusiastic audience members – they attend live music events, cinemas, dance performances and art museums regularly and they are interested in arts learning out of school. Many join arts groups and enjoy performing.
  2. Students are creative in their spare time as they create stories, plays or poems on their own, write and create music or even create computer games. Photography, drawing or painting are quite popular activities and about one out of four students regularly engaged in crafts activities.
  3. One out of two students says that engagement in the arts promotes a sense of personal wellbeing. It helps them to relax and relieve stress.
  4. School has a significant impact on students’ engagement with the arts. One out of two students says that school supports their interest in the arts. School is also the place where almost all arts engagement takes place (more than one out of three students agreed to this proposition in the survey).
  5. Families are also important in encouraging young people’s engagement in the arts. Overall, more than one out of three students think their family supports their interest in the arts. However, about one out of four students do not receive encouragement from their families.
  6. The arts feature strongly in students’ plans for the future. More than one out of three students plan to continue to participate in the arts in their own time. More than one out of four students have plans to study an arts subject and another quarter hope to get a job in the arts.

You can download and read the full report hereOverall_School_Report_16_05_2018


life skills through performing arts

During my time in schools around the country I have met some amazing students. When I talk about the project informally, I constantly refer to the astute, confident, organised and focused young people I have met. I feel reassured about the future from meeting them.

During my time at King Ethelberts School near Margate in Kent, I spoke to a number of Performing Arts and Drama students. All the students were confident and forthcoming, not shy of talking to me, and were full of ideas. They explained to me that Drama and Performing Arts had taught them the confidence I witnessed:

In school I definitely learn the confidence and Mr Wall and Mr Morris want you to be able to build that confidence, be able to act in front of a big audience. You take back everything you learn at school I think.

Confidence is probably my main one. I used to do musical theatre outside of school and then I came to secondary school and stopped because I was like right, now it is time to focus on school work but then I got back into it in Year 10 and I am more confident now than I was when I was doing it outside of school and I’ve only been doing it for not even a year.

But, as the students explained, the performing arts subjects did more than simply build their confidence:

It definitely helps as well. It helps you to be able to accept that sometimes things go wrong and that is okay. Like with every yes, there is like 10 nos. That is what it has taught me, to not beat myself up about something if I get it wrong because there is stuff I’ve done in performing arts that I never thought I would do and I used to always be like no I can’t do that. It has taught me that if I work on it, I will get there eventually. It is determination and commitment. It has definitely helped.

I used to go to drama club in Year 7, 8 and 9 and I have got involved in presentation afternoon, some showcases. But I think they have been nice to help me build up to being able to be confident in performing arts lessons and not just sit there quietly because it helped me make a lot of friends. I am friends with everyone in there but I didn’t speak to half of the girls in there last year and I just think it brings everyone together and it is quite nice.

This self-awareness, and resilience to the potential harshness of the world was surprising to find in such young people.

 I think it is important that people are able to accept that not being the best at everything is okay. And there are some things that you’re not going to be good at but there are also things that you will be better than anyone else at which I think is important to know that everybody has a thing and a pathway set for them and people might not just have found it yet.

I think just be confident in yourself. That is all you can really do.

Finally, one student explained how her experience of performing arts subjects had influenced what she potentially wanted to do with her life.

I would like to teach some sort of performing arts or drama because I like being able to share what I know with other people because when I was younger I would constantly doubt myself so it would be nice to teach kids what I’ve been through. It is okay, you are good. You are amazing.


gallery visits, art work

The opportunities teachers have to take their students out of school to visit art galleries, museums, and theatres are growing smaller. There are many reasons for this, and in Year 11 (when students write GCSEs) and in Year 13 (when they are finishing their A-levels) such opportunities are even more limited. It is not that schools aren’t going out, it is just they are going out less, or only at certain times in the year.

At Upton Hall School near Liverpool, the art teachers have designed summer projects which require the girls to visit a gallery over the school holidays, take photographs, and begin making art pages to then connect with in the new term.

Mrs Pell, one of the art teachers explained the purpose of these projects:

It’s to start them off basically with their coursework and it is to make them take their own photographs to start working from. If we set that in September, we just wouldn’t have the time to do it so giving it to them over the summer, they always enjoy it because they have the time to make the pages and to think about their photographs and to go and visit the exhibition as well.

The students explained how this type of project made them go and see the artwork.

Like for example the one between Year 11 and 12, was we had to research Ella Kruglyanskaya. We had to go and look at all her work, take pictures, take notes. Then come back and do a page on her and a painting. It is useful to go and actually see the work. 

It was part of our summer project to go to some of the exhibitions, we looked around. So it was interesting to get a perspective.  

But the influence of exhibitions went further than simply a summer project. Mrs Pell explained:

The work that we start off with in September is always kind of influenced by a gallery visit. So Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 have all been to Tate Liverpool to see the Tracey Emin exhibition and they all had a theme of domestic environment. If there is anything really good going on we always encourage the girls to go to it and that might even change our schemes of work. Grayson Perry came to The Walker and we made Year 10 and 12 go and see that exhibition and from that we’ve come up with some really good pieces of work that we want them to do. Obviously we hadn’t planned that in September but once we saw that exhibition we kind of reacted to it and changed what we were doing.

The Grayson Perry exhibition had led to different projects completed by the Year 12s, including some beautiful pots that they were busy finishing when I visited.

Tell me about the pots? How did they come about? Where did the inspiration come from?

Grayson Perry. We got a homework to do Grayson Perry and then we suddenly got an idea, he does pots, why don’t we do pots and that is where it came from.

It just happens. Mrs Pell is very ‘oh I like that idea, let’s go with it’. She will research it and decide.

So we used inspiration from that and artist research. We did a dress project so we had to design a few dresses for him and then we’ve been doing pots alongside that as well.

We went on our own. They set us a project in school so we didn’t know about it and the school said that it was on.

Some students explained how the process of going to an exhibition and then creating art work developed:

Normally is what we do is we go to the exhibition, take photos. Do power drawings. Make a page and put our ideas down. Then we will go from there, construct things from what we’ve seen.

 And link it up to sketchbook work you’ve done before. Link it to colographic plates and the printing so it’s got a flow to it.

We started with a project, which was domestic environment. So everything linked back to that. All the Grayson Perry stuff we tried to link back to the domestic environment as well which was the first project we did.

Everything we do has a link to it.

And the teachers will go and make their own ones and then come back and say this has worked, this hasn’t worked, this is what we’re going to do.

It is trial and error.

By encouraging students to visit galleries, and basing their coursework on such gallery trips, the teachers were able to ensure students went out and saw artwork in real life, even if they did not have time, opportunity or resources to escort them there in person. It was an interesting example of how teachers are able to adapt their work in changing times.

art classrooms

Throughout the TALE project, I have been enthralled by art teachers’ classrooms. They are busy spaces, filled with pictures of student work, posters of art-related events and activities. There are piles of sketchbooks, jars with pencils, paintbrushes, sinks splattered with paint. There are large art books for students to reference. Often there is a kiln, sometimes a dark room too. There are trays for drying work on, or work is pegged up over the sink, like clothing on a washing line.

At Archbishop Tenison School in south London, Hannah King’s art class is similarly fascinating. The space is bright and airy. The art rooms are located right at the top of the school and so they make use of skylights, as well as a wall full of windows. The space is welcoming and busy, with posters on walls, a shelf full of reference books, and student artwork stacked deep against the walls.

The sense that the art spaces are somehow ‘different’ from the rest of the school though is not just something I have noticed. In my conversations with boys at ATS, they spoke of how being in the art space was different to being in other spaces in the school.

Is being in art similar or different to other lessons?

Completely different. Obviously the work is a lot different. But I think communication with the rest of my peers, it is also really nice to have because in this room it’s sort of like, I wouldn’t say family but it’s sort of that, the bond between all of us because we all have the same things we want to do. We all chose art for a reason. That just works perfectly in the workspace. Because of that bond that we have, I think that the space that we have is just… it’s just nice to be in the room with these people as well because they have the same interests as I do. It is friendly.

 You feel free because it’s just you sitting down, doing your work. No one is there to tell you what to do. It is just you, sitting there and expressing yourself, and sometimes we listen to music, which is helpful because you get new ideas.

The boys talked of how Hannah was different from other teachers too.

Miss is more free. She lets us do more creative stuff, like she lets us be in our zone. If you want to listen to music and get on and work, she’ll let us do that.

You have to be more creative. She lets you express yourself.

Moreover, approaches to work were different in art than they were in other lessons:

Art gives you a sense of freedom in this school. In our GCSE work in Year 11, we had 8 topics to choose from and I chose detail and with that you can just study three different artists and then create a final piece to do with your chosen theme and I think that is really good because the school doesn’t give us a fixed thing that we have to do. You can study different things, explore with arts, if it is sculpturing or if it is painting or if it is just tonal drawings. Ms King gives us the option to explore and try something new. You can mix two pieces of work together and it becomes your something good so I think it gives that sense of freedom so it also allows our creativity to just flow with the work.

The boys I spoke to at ATS put into words what I had only noticed – that being in an art classroom feels differently to other spaces at school. It was a space where they had freedom to express their ideas and thoughts, and spend time working creatively.