Theatre in education can be a powerful tool in teaching sex and relationship education and other PSHE and citizenship topics. Chris Cowan explains

Last year theatre in education celebrated its 40th birthday. The use of theatre as a way to teach has become a familiar part of our cultural landscape with many successful productions delivered in schools each year.  However, the approach has yet to find a sustainable way to be recognised as a mainstream part of education in this country.

In this article I outline the contribution that drama can make to learning and discuss budgeting issues.

What can theatre in education contribute?

Drama can be a powerful tool for use in PSHE but is often perceived as either an expensive luxury or irrelevant. Unfortunately, there can be an element of truth in this image as some theatre work adds little value to the curriculum and does not help schools to meet important curriculum targets or pastoral care objectives. Yet, when the quality of the drama and the teaching are right this approach can be one of the most powerful ways to engage young people in education and a way for schools to meet the requirements of PSHE and citizenship curricula.

In 1994 I became one of the founder members of Loud Mouth Educational Theatre Company. The company’s aim was to develop well researched interactive theatre programmes with a strong educational focus such as:

  • My Mate Fancies You (puberty)
  • Trust Me (STIs and contraception)
  • Ben, Nat and Baby Jack (parenting and relationships)
  • Working for Marcus (teenage prostitution).

These and other programmes are available to schools nationally and throughout the year so as to fit in with calendars and timetables.

Our programmes are developed through research and consultation with young people and health and education professionals. Most are concerned with SRE and we ensure that all of our work meets the Every Child Matters outcomes and fits into Ofsted recommendations as well as national teenage pregnancy and sexual health strategies.

‘I learned without realising I was learning’

Loud Mouth’s programmes usually consist of a short piece of drama followed by a longer interactive, discussion-based workshop:

  • drama is used to raise issues in a down-to-earth, honest and often humorous way
  • workshops allow groups to discuss their reactions, views and feelings on what they have seen
  • small class-sized groups create a comfortable space in which to explore sensitive issues.

The workshops gradually increase the involvement of individuals. Audiences become increasingly engaged with the discussions and drama. One of the most popular techniques is where the audience has the chance to question the characters and offer advice on how to deal with a situation or how to act differently in the future. One of my favourite quotes from a pupil who took part in our work is ‘I learned without realising I was learning’. This rewarding and quite common reaction underscores our educational aim of making learning fun and accessible. Groups argue animatedly with characters telling them to ‘drop their attitude’ or ‘show respect’. Or they fall silent as a character relays a difficult experience or sensitively tries to get another character to see clearly the situation they are in. This simple structure allows us to tackle complex issues in an accessible and visual way. The characters and their relationships provide routes into many issues around feelings, self-esteem, communication and accessing support.

Theatre in education works best when delivered by experienced professionals with a mix of skills. All of our staff at Loud Mouth are trained in both drama and facilitation techniques so that they can support learning with effective classroom management and use inclusive, non-judgemental approaches to create safe, enjoyable spaces for learning.

Some schools use theatre work to start a programme of study whilst others use it later to consolidate PSHE modules. In either case it is important that theatre companies provide support and communicate clearly with schools on how the work can be effectively integrated with existing PSHE and citizenship curricula. Our programmes are accompanied by packs to support teachers in preparing for and following up the work using a series of simple-to-run classroom-based activities. We also offer training and support on using active learning techniques that can help to strengthen our programmes and give new ideas and skills that staff can use in all subjects.

A framework for budgeting

This approach can be expensive as it works with class-size groups and most schools need to buy in multiple sessions. Some theatre companies offer performances to large audiences which can be fine for the drama element but less so for workshop participation. Increasingly, schools are recognising the need for class-size groups and build the cost into their annual budget. Some have applied for grants, others have used school endowment funds but many simply pay from their core budget. Financial planning helps to build sustainability, consistency and collaboration as schools which regularly use theatre in education develop and improve the way they use programmes and companies learn from their feedback and evaluation.

Theatre in education can play an important role in educating young people in PSHE and citizenship issues. The traditional funding routes for schools are closing and so there is now more impetus for the schools which value the approach as a core activity to fund the work themselves. It will take time but as schools start to build the cost of such initiatives into their budgets, we can move away from the idea of theatre in education as being a luxury add-on and value it for the many positive contributions it brings to school life.

If you would like to discover more about Loud Mouth Educational Theatre Company or view short films of its work then see the website at www.loudmouth.co.uk or call tel: 0121 4464880.
Chris Cowan is director of Loud Mouth Educational Theatre Company.

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