The recent unfortunate disaster at Grenfell Towers and the subsequent political miss-management of this, married with the embarrassingly inept response by our Governmental leaders serve as an indicator about the world in which we live. The voiceless suffer when the powerful fail to act. Despite the repeated pleas of the Grenfell residents about the safety of their home, those with the power to change the situation chose not to listen, or indeed act. The most poignant question following the fire, raised by a seven year old boy, in response to the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, struck hard:
“How many children died – what are you going to do about it?”
Cue the usual political discourse and appeasements. But like any child living in the world now, the young boy could see through the political waffle, asking the most pertinent of questions;
“So what are you going to do with people’s lives – they lost their homes?”
This scenario perfectly sums up a need for drama teachers to consider their practice- what are we going to do with people’s lives? How do we ensure that young people feel at home in the world? What is drama? What is it for? How does drama work? How can it help the child?
The situation described above and the poor response are a timely metaphor to explain why so many young people disengage with the social and political in education. Children often ask the most incisive questions; they want to know why; why should I learn about EBacc subjects when I have nowhere to live? How will achieving in these subjects help me to feel at home in the world? I suspect that the political responses to these questions will not satisfy their curiosity. There is a deep need for educative curricula to match the needs of the child and yet the repeated message is that an increasingly narrow curriculum that offers EBacc subjects will provide young people with a foundation of knowledge; however, it still fails to answer the boy’s questions.
My current research, exploring the notion of disengagement between young people and education by exploring how drama can create democratic spaces for meaning-making, is particularly important given the post-truth, alternative fact era in which we are living. Children know their truth; they know what it feels like to be oppressed. The heightened importance placed on schools to ensure their pupils’ success in the EBacc subjects only serves to increase the oppression and inertia that young people may be feeling. I am not relegating the importance of these subjects, but questioning what this performance indicator means for both young people and their teachers.
The Summer 2017 exam entries here for GCSE demonstrate the rapid decline of arts subjects in our education system and show the corresponding growth of the core EBacc subjects in schools as continuing into 2017. Art & Design, Design & Technology, drama, media, music, performing and expressive arts have seen a collective decline of 100,000 entries since 2014 with entries for drama GCSE failing by 6000 since last year!
Added to this, the recent findings from a report by King’s College London, commissioned by the NUT, entitled A Curriculum for All also shows that the oppression from this performance measure is infecting teachers and their practice. The effects of recent Key Stage 4 curriculum, assessment and accountability reforms on English secondary education drew on the insights and experiences of 1,800 teachers plus in-depth case studies using a range of schools. Some of the most concerning findings included that:
- 84% of teachers worry that the reforms entrench an exam culture which undermines students’ mental health and wellbeing
- A traditional knowledge-focused approach to both the content and assessment of the new GCSEs = uninspiring and anachronistic
- Insufficient emphasis on the practical components of creative subjects
- A major concern for teachers was that the steering of students towards EBacc subjects will increase disengagement and disaffection= a matter of social justice
- 74 % identify that the EBacc has narrowed the Key Stage 4 curriculum offer in their schools= oppression of choice
- 92% of teachers, report that their workload has increased as a result of data collection for Progress 8= the data cage
Also concerning were some of the statements from teachers who said that “Students are pressured to take subjects that they ‘dislike least’. This has led to demotivated pupils and more behavioural issues” and that “Redundancies have been made. Teachers in creative subjects have not been replaced”. Teachers also commented that “expectations for data collection and reporting on target setting have come into place with no additional time provided, making teaching more about reporting on what you are doing rather that actually teaching”.
I would argue that teachers are suffering with value schizophrenia (Ball 2003) in which they question whether or not what they are doing is right, is good enough and/or whether they are sacrificing their authenticity in practice for impression and performance. Added to this the notion of risk averse practice, in which teachers are fearful to take risks with their young people, can lead to feelings of oppression of practice and inert learning.
Cue a political platitude: “The claim that EBacc squeezes out the arts at GCSE is quite simply wrong… We have never said that pupils should study the EBacc subjects and nothing else.” Said schools minister Nick Gibb in his Briefing Paper (2017:17) found here. …but if we consider that “organizations will concentrate their efforts on those things they are judged on” (Muijs & Chapman 2009:41) we should pause for a moment.
Cue a seven year old boy “So what are you going to do with people’s lives – they lost their homes?”
As I wrote in response to last year’s conference, in times of crisis society will always turn to art as a necessary response (Neelands 2002); this has always been the case. Drama can help us to process the world; understand it; challenge it; test it; develop values; explore meaning. Drama is the beginning of morality in that we can begin to understand through the ‘other’.
The conference enable a democratic space that liberated and refreshed our thinking; re-purposed our practice; challenge us to think more deeply about what we are doing with young peoples’ lives.