The Importance of Drama in our Secondary School Curriculum
Katharine Drury, Head of Drama at Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School
I am sitting down to write this buoyed by the success of our recent Fourth Form devised theatre performances. Pupils worked in groups to create an original piece of drama, inspired by a stimulus and using the work of their chosen practitioner, mid-century German visionary Bertolt Brecht. Their dedication to the project was commendable, working with focus and verve in class and committing to countless extra rehearsals in their own time. The hard work was richly rewarded, and the pieces were a genuine pleasure to watch: bold, comedic and highly engaging. They crafted scripts, designed and made props, and even composed original music. I was struck by how well they had risen to the challenge and, indeed, what a very real challenge it was. To succeed, the boys were called upon to work collaboratively, to be playful and vulnerable and to interact with each other with generosity and honesty of spirit. Week after week, they engaged with our school ethos - not just intellectually - but in one of the most practical ways possible.
Beyond this, the benefits of having drama woven into a school curriculum are manifold and well evidenced. Drama develops oracy skills. Boys studying the subject at the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School become more confident public speakers; the advantages of gaining such skills will be felt throughout their education and into the world of work. Within a highly structured school day, drama also allows them to express themselves and articulate their emotional landscape. Arts Council England has identified that drama in secondary schools "can have a positive effect on the mental health and wellbeing of pupils, staff and the wider school community" (ACE, 2022, p.4). At a time when the mental health of the young people in our care is a growing concern this is all the more valuable.
These benefits are felt by all children but are potentially even more impactful for boys. English teacher Matt Pinkett uses an evidence-based approach to explain that underachievement in boys is linked to stereotyping and a subsequent lowering of expectations (2019, p.83). By providing a space within the curriculum for a subject which engages with emotional intelligence and the development of empathy, we can challenge preconceived notions. Drama allows boys to explore positive frameworks of masculinity.
The positive impact of drama can be felt across the whole school. Public performances bring our school community together, as anyone who has ever been in the audience for one of Miss O’Connell’s transcendent school musicals can attest. The subject also has the potential for greater inclusion and diversity: it allows for an "exploration of a wide range of cultures, experiences, perspectives, and the world in which we live" (ACE, 2022, p.4). The link between drama and improved literacy is also clear (LeftwichLloyd, 2022, p.71). Anecdotally, colleagues in the English Department have reported the positive impact the study of GCSE Drama has had on the quality of analysis of plays at both GCSE and A Level.
Increasing the cultural capital of the children we teach is essential: we know that it in an important component in breaking down inequalities and bridging the gap for disadvantaged children. Drama can have a huge role in this; in the last year GCSE drama pupils at the Vaughan have read a range of canonical plays, engaged with the work of leading practitioners and were taken to see five professional theatre productions. These experiences will allow pupils to flourish academically and engage in wider society (Riches, 2020).
A not insignificant factor in fostering creativity in schools is that the arts is now one of the few growth industries in the UK. The sector contributes £2.8 billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23 billion a year and 363,700 jobs. Productivity in the arts and culture industry between 2009 and 2016 was greater than that of the economy as a whole, with gross value added per worker at £62,000 for arts and culture, compared to £46,800 for the wider UK economy (CEBR, 2019). Despite this, many schools are reducing funding to drama and music. While other schools shelve their drama departments, Cardinal Vaughan created one. We have seen an excellent first set of results and a steadily increasing take up of the subject as a GCSE option. This year saw our inaugural lower school production of The Odyssey and next year the co-curricular offer will be even richer, including participation in the renowned Shakespeare Schools Festival. There is enormous potential here and I am so excited to see drama grow and flourish at the Vaughan.
Arts Council England (2022), Drama: a guide for governing boards, providing high quality drama education in schools. Manchester.
Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) (2019), Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the UK economy,
Department for Education (DfE) (2013), National Curriculum in England: Physical Education Programmes of Study: Key Stages 3 and 4. London: HMSO.
Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018), ‘Improving literacy in secondary schools’, (accessed 11th June 2023).
Hall, C and Thomson, P (2016) ‘Creativity in teaching: What can teachers learn from artists?’, Research Papers in Education.
Leftwich-Lloyd, S. (2022), ‘Developing literacy in the drama curriculum at Key Stages 4 and 5’, Impact from the Chartered College of Teaching, 16, pp.7072.
Pinkett, M and Roberts, M. (2019), Boys Don't Try? Rethinking Masculinity in Schools. London: Routledge.
Riches, A. (2020), ‘What does Ofsted mean by “cultural capital”?’, Times Educational Supplement (TES).
Read the full publication of SJS T&L Digest here.