Democracy through drama: crossing local borders to hear teachers’ voices

As many know from my various tweets, my two children (“the terrors” as I call them) are at the age (the terrible twos and the threens) where they are ‘testing’ me; pushing the boundaries to see what their world means. Recently, I foolishly let them loose with a brand new bottle of ‘Matey’ bubble bath in an attempt to Image result for matey bubble bathinstil independence, responsibility and to encourage co-operation; of course, who wouldn’t tip the whole bottle into the bath!? Bubbles everywhere! “This is fun!” said Eddy as he covered his sister, who was sliding around the bathroom on her knees, in bubbles! I can’t blame them; they are curious and this should be encouraged, despite taking an age to clear up! For them their world is a space to find out what things mean. For them this is real-life and educational…

….like any good dad I cleared the bubbles, to which Eddy commented “…Dad this is insane!”. I wondered if he knew what he meant by this. Then I imagined that he did and I began to worry about the world beyond this…

… following recent terrorist attacks across Europe and beyond; the fallout from the Brexit referendum and the controversy surrounding the triggering of Article 50 in the UK; another election; the increase in racially motivated attacks; Europe’s on-going refugee crisis; and the divisive election of President Trump and his policies; the need for young people to have democratic spaces in which to understand, explore, challenge, test and consider both their values and what it means to live in this world, continues to be a contentious issue. Where can young people do this?

If we consider Jonathon Neelands’s (2010) call for a humanising curriculum and his assertion that debates over curricula 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. In times of crisis, people turn to art but what if this is no longer an option? I wanted to know more; I too, am curious. What follows is a brief explanation of the results of a needs analysis of a group of 36 teachers based primarily in the West Midlands. I did this to find out what was happening in schools. I intend to write a further post to share how I have constructed a piece of process drama to explore issues related to the outcomes of the analysis.

The responses of the teachers to a Needs Analysis survey were revealing. When asked what personal, social or cultural everyday issues were concerning at the moment as both a citizen and a teacher in this country, the responses fell into three emerging themes: issues of racism, extremism and disengagement; issues of poverty, mental health and homelessness; and issues of educational pressure, the marginalisation of the arts curriculum and the values of senior management.

50% of the teachers whoImage result for pshe citizenship responded told me that they were addressing some of these issue in their curricula. However, more concerning was that over a third of the teachers said they were unable to, citing reasons such as: our curriculum is dictated to us; school policy and bureaucracy; lack of time; pupils should be learning skills; as a teacher I does not enjoy ‘issues-based’ learning’; exam preparation is more of a priority; and that current issues are for PSHE/P.

Half of teachers told me that their school was failing to address the personal, social, emotional, spiritual and political needs of their young people stating the following reasons for this:

  • A lack of political understanding [from the teacher]
  • It’s just box ticking and tokenistic
  • There is a lack of time for Arts education
  • The refugee crisis is ‘distant’ to us
  • Ironically, the Prevent agenda is doing the exact opposite of its intention. Teachers are avoiding issues to preserve perceptions
  • My school has other priorities
  • Pastoral time is now spent on intervention for students who are not achieving their target grade

When asked about the current and on-going refugee crisis in Europe in particular and whether this should be explored in schools some teachers commented that:

  • “My year 13s used this issue for their devised practical exam. It was brilliant. It was an issue they wanted to address and needed to explore, talk about and ultimately highlight the issue and tell the stories we had found in the content. We were advised to be carefully by the powers that be, which did limit us. We couldn’t understand why they found the truth to be so threatening. It was through the stories of real people that the students made a connection and felt a responsibility, as a human being, to use the platform to allow the stories to be heard.”
  • “We should do but my personal feelings make it hard to engage with; I find it so hard to engage with myself as it is so disturbing.”
  • “It’s crucial to explore; we have a number of migrants and refugees in our school. Statistics tell only part of the story”
  • “I don’t feel I know enough about this issue to teach it”
  • “I feel it is an important issue. I worry that some children will develop prejudice towards refugees if we are not discussing the issue and educating them about it.”
  • “With the integration of refugee children into the British school system it is important that pupils are aware of the crisis that is effecting Europe. Students should be aware of social issues that occur in the world and make links to the effects it may have on their own lives rather than disconnecting from the situations.”

I suspect that there is a real risk that both teachers and young peoples’ voices are being silenced through a process of disengagement between meaning, real-life and education. This is insane. Arguably these issues could bubble over the limits of the bath, what happens then? Does this explain one aspect of the rise of mental health issues in our young people and teachers?

Davis (2014:1) writes that the “crisis in culture” we are facing, is one that has “put ever more pressure on teachers to produce measurable results” as a consequence of “education driven by market forces” rather than liberal humanist beliefs in personal enrichment and meaning-making. “… [teachers] are becoming the willing servants of neo-liberal values” (:3), I don’t believe that teachers are willingly becoming the servants of neo-liberal values rather they are forced into compliance by the dominance of a measurable, performative meta-narrative that is being legitimised and normalised through policy. Teachers are being asked to count the bubbles in the bath not necessarily those that escape; they are not important.

Image result for where is democracyAs a result, measuring and valuing the relationship between drama and democracy faces some extreme challenges. Reclaiming this relationship and its ability to create democratic spaces whilst measuring and valuing its impact should be re-considered. If “Many of our students” wrote Neelands (2010:123) “have an impoverished and limited sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’” then the potential for a “range of possible selves is often limited to who they are told they are by others.” Potentially, this means that if young people are not allowed, or indeed enabled, to discuss current societal issues then they will think what they are told to think. Questions arise, therefore, about the location of democracy within education, the freedoms that democracy allows and the opportunities to hear young peoples’ voices.

Overall, the results of the Needs Analysis informed me that exploring societal issues, such as the European refugee crisis, is particularly challenging given the barriers that teachers are facing. As a result, whilst some teachers who responded are seeking to work with their students to explore these issues, a number of teachers are being forced to comply with their school agendas.

So what does this mean? Education becomes meaningless? The number of times I have witnessed pupils in drama having to focus on “getting a freeze frame right” or “not standing with their back to the audience” is more than the bubbles in the bath and totally pointless. There is so much more that young people deserve. Are young people and their teachers becoming so disengaged with the world in the very place that they should be engaging with it; the school? Since when did “using facial expressions” become more important than understanding how you feel about the world?

I don’t think I need to give “my terrors” the ‘Matey’ again. They probably understand now that tipping the whole bottle in the bath was too much, but without doing it in the first place, they would never know how it felt, what it meant, understood why we might not do that again.

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