Is Drama in education necessary?

Following recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the need for young people to have democratic spaces in which to understand, explore, challenge, test and consider what it means to live the world, continues to be a contentious issue for education in the United Kingdom (UK) and if we consider Jonathon Neelands’s (2010) call for a humanising curriculum and his assertion, that debates over curriculum have long been a distraction from the more important issue of what drama does for students, then the pressing nature of enabling democratic spaces in education for young people, is ever more urgent. This blog aims to theoretically contextualise Drama’s place in secondary education in the United Kingdom (UK) as a democratic process and explore issues facing drama teachers in facilitating these spaces, alongside a consideration of the consequences of these issues on students of drama, its aims and objectives.

In contextualising drama’s place in UK secondary education it is important to theoretically consider the influence of world events, as Henry Giroux points out that

                “… theory becomes important as a means of critically engaging and mapping the crucial relations among language, texts, everyday life, and structures of power as part of a broader effort to understand the conditions, contexts, and strategies of struggle that will lead to social       transformation.”

(Giroux 2007:29)

The potential for drama in education (DiE) as an educational process to enable participants to democratically and critically engage with the relationships described by Giroux, is perhaps one of its defining features, particularly when considering one potential result of DiE as social transformation for its participants. The results of the DICE project (2009) serve to demonstrate the potential of drama in enabling its participants to be more active in society. Through an educational process such as drama, participants are enabled to explore and understand existing conditions and contexts through the use of imagination as a humanising quality. As noted in previous blogs, Freire (1993) claimed that

                “Authentic education is not carried on by A for B or by A about B but rather by A with B, mediated by the world- a world which impresses and challenges both parties, giving rise to views or opinions about it”.


and this dialogic form of education, which naturally connects with one aim of DiE, is potentially at risk of being lost in the current UK educational climate as, amongst other things, many teachers of secondary drama in the UK want their students to pass their exams, as this denotes the teachers’ effectiveness and their students’ success. However, what this ‘results narrative’ is potentially doing is changing the nature of DiE; its quality. This could be viewed as a colonisation of the lifeworlds of both teacher and pupil (Habermas 1996) in that the aim of DiE as a process for social transformation is being altered by the education system. The result an exam focused educational process can, as Pring (2004:20) identifies, leave “little room for that transaction in which the teacher, rooted in a particular cultural tradition, responds to the needs of the learner”, which ultimately diminishes the potential for social change. The influence of assessment in UK education, both of teachers’ performance and pupil progress, can lead to a disconnection between the aims of DiE in exploring the world and it place in education as an assessed subject area.

The recent Paris attacks are a case in point. These events were claimed to be the work of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and claimed the lives of 129 people (Castillo et al 2015) with this event being preceded by the significant rise in the number of British people supporting ISIS. “The UK” has “some of the highest numbers of people making the journey” in Europe to support ISIS; estimated to be around 500 to 600 people (Saltman & Dow 2015). Despite the horrific nature of these events in European Union (EU) countries, sadly they are not alone, with other terrorist atrocities including the Madrid train bombing in 2004; the Irish Republican Army’s car bomb in Omagh 1998; the bus bombing in London 2005; two attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, Paris, giving rise to the infamous ‘Je suis Charlie’ mantra; the brutal public murder of Lee Rigby 2013; and the atrocities of Anders Brevik in Oslo and Utoya island, Norway, 2011. It seems that the world is on the edge of something yet un-imagined and that humanity is forgetting to remember itself. Perhaps one way to remember what it is to be human in this time of crisis and to explore what the world means, is to “turn to art” for a “necessary response” (Neelands 2010:121). However, if we turn to art we must consider its place in education and the challenges that it faces in existing in that structure.

As a pedagogical social act of meaning making (Facer 2011. Moss & Petrie 2002), whereby drama is used to learn about the world rather than a subject to learn about, DiE can be considered as a democratic process in itself. Through this process participants can connect to learn, in a public sphere (Habermas 1996), about the world in which they live (Bond 2014). As a result of this process the discursive space between political systems and the private lifeworld(s) of those taking part in the dramatic activity has the potential to be explored with new meanings being created democratically. However, one main challenge facing DiE in practice is the tension between the democratic process as a representative façade rather than a participatory one. How democratic is DiE in light of its existence within secondary education in the UK?

By using drama as pedagogy, participants are able to create meaning, understand and challenge the culture in which they operate, which is commensurate with non-statutory guidance for DiE in the UK (ACE 2003) and potentially take communicative action (Habermas 1996). This idea is supported by Bruner (1996:14) in that “a system of education must help those growing up in a culture find an identity within that culture” with the aim of education defined as “not only a transmission of culture but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them”. Implicit within this is the notion of democracy (Freire 1993, Habermas 1996). As a result of the dramatic process, participants can be enabled to explore, learn, test and challenge pre-existing knowledge and arguably arrive at “innerstandings”, which contradicts Hornbrook’s (1998) critique of DiE’s aims through history. However, given the current debates surrounding secondary education in the UK, which has seen an increase in testing, ever narrowing curricula through the rise of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and Progress 8 and a greater focus on measurable outcomes, DiE is ‘under attack’; not just being marginalised but trivialised. Consequently, “the most commonly withdrawn subjects” from UK schools in light of the EBacc “are drama and performing arts, which had been dropped in nearly a quarter of schools” (Greevy et al 2013:36). Being mindful of some of these current debates and controversies in the UK’s secondary educational system positions any research of drama and democracy in an interesting position and location. (

Clearly, the nature of school organisations is also changing in the UK, with the Conservative ‘academisation’ of 2,000 secondary schools in the UK from a possible 3,300 (OFSTED 2015) meaning that those academies are now accountable directly to the Department for Education. Interestingly, one un-democratic result of this process has been the ‘forced’ academisation of some schools made legal through the Education and Adoption Bill (2015). Aspects of this bill will see ‘coasting school’ forced into becoming academies, the silencing of parental voice and councilors and governors facing the acceptance of this ‘solution’ even if they believe it not to be in the best interest of children (Anti Academies Alliance Interestingly, this has enabled schools, and their curriculum design, more freedom over content and form. Still, given the higher levels of accountability married with this ‘freedom’ “organizations will concentrate their efforts on those things they are judged on” (Muijs & Chapman 2009:41), which means that DiE is facing some challenging circumstances.

Additionally, teachers are facing greater observation of their practice, heightened surveillance of their performance and an increased focus upon their performance outcomes in the classroom, which is supported through various dominating narratives. The claimed intention of these narratives is to improve the outcomes of teaching and learning, which is then measured quantitatively (Ball 2010). The threat of Ofsted inspections, in-house peer inspections, the publication of league tables and performance-related-pay all increase the focus upon educational outcomes and reinforce this quantitative results narrative. Arguably the impact of these technical adaptions within UK schools change “what is means to be a teacher” with these “technologies of reform” producing “new kinds of teacher subjects” (Ball 2010:217) potentially resulting with some teachers of drama adapting their practice to match the aims of the narrative rather than facilitating democratic spaces. For Foucault (1997a:294) those enforcing these transformations are called “technicians of behaviour” that “produce bodies that are docile and capable” and if this is taken to be true then one is alarmed by the opposition of this notion to the potential aims of DiE as a democratic process for social transformation, as it is primarily about the experience of its participants and their moral, social and cultural understanding. The misalignment with what the dominant UK educational narrative values, becomes concerning. These professional orthodoxies, such as grading lesson observations, are enforced from diverse places at different levels amongst individuals and institutions and can impact upon the quality of DiE.


Ultimately, drama is about stories, narratives and the plurality of meanings that arise from them. Often drama’s power comes from contradictory and rhizomatic interpretations arising from “social interactions” that are “conducted within a fictional circumstance” (Bolton 1997:11 in Davies 1997). Through DiE, drama students can think of numerous reasons why Macbeth is driven to behave the way he does or empathise with the characters in the story, for example, and it is from contradictory and contingent ideas that meaning and understanding can be created, expressed or internally understood. Through the use of stories drama students can explore the issues of slavery, for example, and arrive at an understanding of how this issue may or may not still exist through the use of drama, characters, plot, action and symbol. However, these notions can be critiqued if we consider Hornbrook’s (1998:77) position in pointing out that DiE has had a long history of developing “passive, internalised objectives” and that “innerstandings, awareness and making of meaning” are “products of traditional humanism”. Hornbrook’s criticism of these “transcendental views” has arguably had an influence on DiE, which is further strengthened by the influence of the educational conditions within which drama teachers are operating. Further to this, Hornbrook suggested that this view of DiE’s outcomes were beyond criticism as they were personal to the participant and difficult to measure. This view of DiE suggests that observing the impact of the meaning-making process as something personal and internal has led to a lack of clarity about DiE’s intention. Alternatively, one could argue that this lack of clarity has occurred as drama teachers seek to fulfill what they are ultimately judged on; it is difficult to ‘prove’ felt understanding. This has, he argues, had an impact on its value in educational terms. Put simply, the difficulty in measuring the personal development, internal understanding and empathy of a pupil in drama is problematic and therefore there is a risk that it loses its value in the current educational climate, which increasingly values measurable outcomes.

Despite the ACE’s (2003:4) assertion that “Good drama teaching will result in pupils learning about dramatic form and the content it explores” one consequence for students of drama in UK secondary schools is the effect of quantitative measurement of drama, which potentially results in the risk of an overt concentration on drama form, skills and techniques. As a result, meaningful and relevant drama content is potentially ignored, which limits drama students’ opportunities for social transformation; what use is learning about a still image without using that still image to learn about the world? The risk for drama students’ education in drama is that this way of measuring the ‘quality’ of drama learning becomes powerful as “legitimation of any sort is always an issue of power” (Woods 1999:21). What this means is that many lessons created by drama teachers could increasingly focus upon their learners’ acquisition of drama skills and techniques, such as successfully creating ‘still images’ or using ‘facial expressions’, rather than using drama techniques to explore fundamental questions such as ‘what it means to be human’, beyond traditional stereotypes, for instance, as the answer to this question would be difficult to measure using an objective and quantitative method. The cause for this is that the acquisition of those drama skills are much easier to facilitate and measure in terms of quantitative and measurable outcomes.

The idea of easily measurable drama lessons married with a teacher’s performance (Ball 2010) leads to the stripping away and removal of the rich and diverse possibilities for content-filled democratic drama lessons as drama teachers focus on performing elements of drama teaching, such as using a ‘mini-plenary’ or a ‘freeze frame’, to attain and prove certain standards. The argument here is that the performance of teaching, using all the ‘tricks in the box’, leads to a barren and formulaic learning experience, which is devoid of democracy, as the content of the lesson is absent. Potentially drama teachers, especially trainee drama teachers, focus upon, for example, the method of measuring progress without their learners actually making any educational progress to measure. Even worse, there is the potential to deny drama students opportunities for democratic meaning making.

In summary, DiE aims, through the use of story and narrative, to enable the learner to understand the world and culture in which they operate and therefore the outcomes of DiE are not easily measured; are personal to the participant; subjective and interpretational. However, the current debates in education, within the context of a performative discourse, mean that how drama learning is facilitated by the drama teacher faces many contingent and contested influences. As a result of these considerations, democratic spaces, in which participants can explore, understand, feel, test and think about the world, are at risk of disappearing. Drama’s place in UK secondary education, married with the influence of the education system in changing its nature, is at risk of being de-valued. Drama teachers are potentially being forced to support this de-valuing through the various, powerful influences of performative narratives, which ultimately impacts upon drama students’ education. The risk to them is that the potential democratic spaces and pedagogy used in DiE could be lost, leaving them without a voice to express their interpretation of the world in which they live; their voices may be silenced.



Castillo, M., Haddad, M., Martinez, M., & Almasy, S. (2015) CNN (Accessed on 4th December 2015)

DICE (2009) Drama Improves Lisbon Key Competences. Available at (Accessed on 7th December 2015)

Fisher, R. (1998) Thinking about Thinking: Developing Metacognition in Children. This paper was first published in Early Child Development and Care Vol 141 (1998) pp1-15.

Giroux, A. in Coté, Mark., Day, Richard JF., & De Peuter, Grieg. (2007 ed.). Utopian Pedagogy- Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization. Canada: University of Toronto.

Greevy, H., Knox, A., Nunney, F., & Pye, J. (2013). The effects of the English Baccalaureate Ipsos MORI. Available at (Accessed 3.12.15)

Habermas, J. (1996) The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1 & 2, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Muijs, D., & Chapman, C., (2009). Accountability for Improvement: Rhetoric or Reality? In Radical Reforms, ed.

Neelands, J., (2002). 11/09 The space in our hearts. Drama Vol 9 No 2 4-10 in O’Connor, P. (2010) Creating Democratic Citizenship Through Drama Education. London: Trentham Books.


Neelands, J., (2010) in O’Connor, P., (2010) Creating Democratic Citizenship through drama education- the writings of Jonothan Neelands. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books

OFSTED (2015) The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2014/15 available at (Accessed 4th December 2015)

Saltman, EM., & Dow, M. (2015) (Accessed on 4th December 2015)


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