Before my first performance in GCSE Drama I remember drilling lines into my head while wondering why I had decided to take the subject at all. I was playing Billy in a Year 10 adaptation of the late Keith Waterhouse’s brilliant comedy Billy Liar, but I felt about as charismatic and naturally funny as a plank of the board I was treading.
The show must go on, I learned – and when it did, I gave it my all. By the end, the teacher was bent double, crying with laughter. I got an A, not quite knowing how, but I think she did.
Few teachers at my high school in rural Lancashire were as dear to me as Mrs Smith-Hughes. She had wicked sense of humour and fiercely cared for her students. But her real talent was an instinctive understanding of what made each of us tick and her ability to draw it out and coax it into our performances.
The year I started doing my GCSEs was messy. I put myself under too much academic pressure, to the point where I could barely do anything for fear of messing it up. Mrs Smith-Hughes showed me that drama could be an escape; a chance to be silly and loud and laugh. She bubbled with affirmations and built my confidence up in a way that I could take it into other classes and onwards to the wider world. Without her lessons, I'm convinced I would have fared worse in my other subjects that year.
We’ve all seen Dead Poets Society, we all know the power of a great teacher, but I think we sometimes forget the importance of the great subjects they teach. Which is why the recent guidance from the Department For Education given to schools for reopening in September jangles with me. While the plan does outline the need to teach a “broad and ambitious curriculum”, the fine print asserts that “substantial modification to the curriculum may be needed at the start of the year” and that “schools may consider it appropriate to suspend some subjects for some pupils”.
It doesn’t take a genius to guess which subjects might end up getting dropped, especially when later in the document it's mentioned that singing, shouting and playing musical instruments could create additional risk of infection.
At my state school, the Drama ‘department’ consisted of one teacher who was technically employed to teach English; corridors doubled as rehearsal spaces. I have no doubt that in a post-Covid world, administrators might see fit to ‘modify’ it out of the curriculum.
I don't wish to attack the Government’s plans to focus on catching up in those core subjects of Maths and English. Yesterday I interviewed former headteacher Leon Hady who noted that kids who fail to get GCSEs in Maths and English are six times as likely to end up in prison as those who succeed. If they’re black, he said, they're 12 times as likely. There is no doubt that English and Maths are the keys to unlocking the future for many kids.
But it's also true that we shouldn't forget the so-called 'soft' subjects when they can give children the tools to thrive across the curriculum. Without Drama, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to achieve in English and Maths. The fact that I got into university to study English wouldn’t have happened had it not been for a teacher who taught me to love Shakespeare through the stage.
“Kids need creative outlets to be able to tap into purpose and that purpose can have a knock-on effect to their attitude and self-belief in other subjects,” says Hady. “When you take away those subjects... it's going to reduce the confidence and enjoyment and the balance. Plenty of kids get through Maths and English because they know they've got drama and music later.”
Not only are these non-core subjects socially useful, they’re also academically important. According to a 2017 study from the Cultural Learning Alliance, participation in structured arts activities can improve attainment in Maths and English by 17pc; and students who study the arts are 20pc more likely to stay in employment.
Education doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What is physics if not applied maths? History and drama are the natural extensions of English.
A return to school for our nation’s pupils must mean a return to full education, otherwise it’s no education at all.