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.
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…
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.