The words ‘new’ and ‘national’ in relation to the primary national curriculum are misnomers. Much is similar to my primary school education in the 1950s, when there was a relentless focus on passing the 11+. Academies, free and independent schools don’t have to follow the ‘national’ curriculum anyway, so it is not national. With a rapidly increasing number of schools jumping (before being pushed) into academy status, soon most schools won’t have to follow it. Their curriculum ‘freedom’ could enable academy chains and individual schools to create something better than the retro, imbalanced national curriculum. A balanced arts curriculum would be an improvement but currently the increasingly high stakes national assessments in maths and English are what are actually shaping what is being taught for most of each day. What children learn, and the ways they learn it, influence the development of their brains, minds and attitudes. Education with insufficient arts is a form of deprivation.
I talk with teachers from many schools. I have been told, ‘We used to do drama but there just isn’t time now,’ and ‘We have been told that if we don’t have to teach something, then we mustn’t waste time on it.’ The curriculum is being shaped by fear of poor test results, with young children being overdosed on spelling, punctuation, grammar, phonics and maths. Art and design and music are at least in the national curriculum, so these subjects get some attention but drama is increasingly pushed to the wings.
Drama has always been a national curriculum casualty in England, locked safely and inappropriately inside English. Even when it was slightly more prominent in the last English national curriculum, the national strategies and Ofsted ignored it. Drama is now reduced to the odd bullet-point in the programme of study for English and defined mainly by its usefulness to reading comprehension and writing.
Drama has an extensive toolbox of interactive strategies and techniques that can be used to scaffold different types of thought and talk in any curriculum area. Many teachers know just two or three drama strategies and use them repeatedly, (e.g. hot-seating, freeze-frame, conscience alley). This is often a legacy from national strategies training. However, more recently trained teachers may not know any drama strategies at all and may not have had any drama training.
Drama is a main artform, not just a toolbox. The Cambridge Primary Review report positioned ‘Arts and Creativity’ (including drama), at the top of its list of eight curriculum domains. Jim Rose’s ill-fated curriculum also placed drama appropriately, within ‘Understanding the Arts’, where it had equal subject status alongside art, music and dance.
England used to lead the way internationally for drama in schools but no longer. Australia has its first national curriculum and dance, drama, media arts, music and visual arts have equal curriculum subject status within it. Ontario has had a statutory arts curriculum in its primary schools for almost a decade. Indeed, the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau was once a drama teacher.
Ironically, Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary coincides with drama in schools being diminished. England’s national curriculum has no programme of study or even appendix for drama, yet former Education Secretary Michael Gove agreed that all schools should receive a free copy of the Royal Shakespeare Company Toolkit for primary teachers. The press heralded his support for annual ‘Shakespeare Week’, but schools need a drama curriculum that has been fully consulted on, not just a free handbook about teaching Shakespeare and a ‘bolt-on’ Shakespeare Week.
For not a single question about drama was included in the national curriculum consultation. No DfE official was given responsibility for drama. Subject expert groups were set up, but none for drama, and the subject expert group for English invited a National Theatre representative to join but no representative from the professional drama teachers’ associations. Creative and cultural industry representatives were given prominence in the developing educational landscape, and DfE consulted the relatively new Cultural Learning Alliance (CLA) rather than arts teachers’ professional organisations such as National Drama.
Through Creative Partnerships (2002-2011) and also through Arts Council England initiatives such as Artsmark and Arts Awards, a large national database of artists and arts organisations has been compiled. It continues to grow and is not openly available to schools. The education work of artists and arts organisations is being channelled by ACE through their Regional Bridge organisations (jointly funded by the DfE). This infrastructure and database will be useful if and when the ‘Cultural Citizens’ initiative gets underway (proposed in ‘The Culture White Paper’ – March 2016). In this publication, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan says that she wants ‘every single young person to have the opportunity to discover how the arts can enrich their lives. Access to cultural education is a matter of social justice.’
Schools certainly should provide opportunities for children to work with artists and visit galleries, museums and theatres as part of their planned curriculum but these experiences and opportunities are no substitute for regular curriculum arts teaching in schools by qualified teachers with arts training. Meanwhile, in some academies there are teachers without qualified teacher status (QTS). At least this development benefits artists as contributors to the teaching workforce.
Ofsted expectations, too, reflect the changing landscape within which arts education could too easily become confused with and subsumed by ‘cultural education’. The 2015 school inspection handbook says (my italics):
Ofsted inspectors take account of pupils’ cultural development, including their willingness to participate in artistic, musical, sporting and other cultural opportunities. Inspectors expect schools to provide a broad and balanced curriculum and extra-curricular opportunities that extend pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills in a range of artistic, creative and sporting activities.
The arts must not be become an out-of-school-hours activity. Children need arts as part of a broad and balanced curriculum in school time and that should include art, music, dance and drama.
Patrice Baldwin is a drama for learning specialist, past Chair of National Drama and past President of the International Theatre, Drama and Education Association. www.patricebaldwin.com