A working class hero is something to be

If you know me thel-41n you’ll know that my accent reveals something of my working class up-bringing. Living in Blackburn, East Lancashire during the 1980s and 1990s, was particularly hard. Being the only child in a single parent family taught me a lot about ‘my place’ in society and how that society treats those from low-income backgrounds; low aspirations married with my school’s oppression of thinking was one way of keeping people firmly rooted in ‘their place’. Thankfully, seeing the potential of arts in education, particularly drama, I was enabled to see a life beyond my working-class limitations. I am also thankful for my up-bringing as it taught me to be honest, realistic and gave me a sense of humour.

michael-sheenIt also taught me about elitism, particularly when some of my class mates passed their 11 plus and attended the local grammar school. Although topical, this is not a blog about grammar schools, however tempting! Elitism was evident in my secondary school when those from the ‘higher sets’ were deemed good enough to study German or French, whilst those from the ‘lower sets’ had to study drama. My blog here is in response to drama’s role in revealing social elitism and starts with the meta-elitism that can be found in Michael Sheen’s comments in response to research from the Sutton Trust regarding the UK’s ‘professional elitoxbridgee’.

Sheen, a Golden Globe nominee and widely known British actor, warns that school drama lessons are essential if we are to produce working-class actors. He is referring to the fact that in film, under half (42%) of British winners of the main BAFTAs, attended independent schools, over a third (35%) grammar schools and less than a quarter (23%) comprehensives. Interestingly, this oppression of the working-class is mirrored in politics, with nearly a third (32%) of MPs being privately educated and over a quarter (26%) having attended Oxbridge. Half (50%) of the cabinet is privately educated, compared with 13% of the shadow cabinet. Of the cabinet, just under half (47%) attended Oxbridge; of the shadow cabinet, just under a third (32%) attended Oxbridge.

Sheen’s comments are not unreasonable and recent analysis of data from the Great British Class Survey state that, “The majority of British actors have come from what might be termed middle-class backgrounds, with 73% having parents who did professional or managerial jobs and only 10% from manual working-class backgrounds.” (O’Brien, D. 2015)

Now correct me if I am wrong but surely drama in schools is about much more than creating actors? I am not convinced that drama’s purpose is to serve the acting profession and/or find the next BAFTA award winner. Yes I agree that part of drama in schools is about acting and performance but views, such as Sheen’s, continue to reinforce a meta-elitism and the narrow view of drama’s potential in school as a subject for performance not social mobility. The dominance of ‘performance’ and ‘acting’ continue to oppress drama’s holistic impact on the lives of young people, and displaces drama’s ability for people to become different versions of themselves. It negates the empathetic potential of the drama process in understanding the ‘other’, which at a time such as this we need more than ever.

Sheen’s belief that drama in schools is about finding ‘working-class’ actors only serves those who do not understand drama. I have written previously about this type of elitism in response to a lovely ‘teacher’ who was struggling with her drama teaching. Thankfully she shared her experiences stating that she “absolutely hate[s] teaching drama and music, because the classes, apart from top set in a few schools are not just a joke, but a disaster. The kids themselves are totally unsuitable for doing arts courses.”john-lennon

Has it ever occurred to the ‘elite’ that not all young people who are in drama lessons want to be actors? Why would they? It is only the elites’ necessity for working-class actors to authenticate their productions that is of concern for them, not working-class pupils’ ability to imagine or to create human value. It is not about working-class pupils’ ability to understand and empathise with the ‘other’, lest they would realise their oppression; there could be a revolution!

By using drama as pedagogy, pupils are able to create meaning, understand and challenge the culture in which they operate by understanding, exploring and identifying with the ‘other’, which is commensurate with non-statutory guidance for drama in schools (ACE 1992) and potentially take communicative action (Habermas 1996). The notion of communicative action is alluded to by Neelands (2010: xxiii) in his view that “All drama education involves people learning how to act” but that this view should not be limited to acting on a stage, rather that people learn to be actors in the real world.

I despair!

O’Brien, D. (2015, April 27). The class problem in British acting: Talking at Camden People’s Theatre. Retrieved November 2, 2015, from https://stratificationandculture.wordpress.com/2015/04/27/the-class-problem-in-british-acting-talking-at-camden-peoples-theatre/

Neelands, J., (2010) Creating democratic citizenship through drama education. Peter O’Connor ed. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Publishers




One thought on “A working class hero is something to be

  1. Hi Chris, thanks for this piece, with which I have great sympathy. Given that Michael Sheen is very much a product of the Youth Theatre and RADA systems, but has also been an outspoken critic of austerity, health cuts etc, I think that the underlying issue might be less about his politics and his privileged position within an acting elite, than about the dominant narrative about theatre that youth theatres, drama colleges (and most exam boards) have come to promote: performative, rather than exploratory, and emphasising the form rather than the process/content of theatre and drama? I wonder how much contact even an accomplished actor like Sheen will have had of theatre and Drama outside of those norms? In that, I note that he describes acting as a ‘craft’ – which I think is a very revealing term.

    Liked by 1 person

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