‘In times of crisis, only imagination is more important than knowledge.’
One only has to type ‘presentation courses’ or ‘public speaking’ into Google to appreciate the size of this market and the demand among adults for courses which focus on communication skills. The number of students passing through university is ever increasing, and it’s no longer sufficient to have a Bachelor’s degree to gain employment; one needs a Master’s. So why, with all this academic study, is there such a gap in the education system when it comes to communication skills?
Perhaps, by looking at the example of England, we can gain some insight into what is happening in schools.
One significant event in the English education system was the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a measure in the 2010 school performance tables in England. This should not be confused with the International Baccalaureate or the French Bac, which are generally taken after GCSE age. The EBacc is not a qualification in its own right, but is simply a term applied to the achievement of GCSEs at grades A*-C across a core of academic subjects; English, Mathematics, History or Geography, the sciences and a language. Students successfully achieving these grades in the core subjects at GCSE level are automatically awarded the English Baccalaureate.
It is not difficult to predict the likely consequences of such a change. State schools, with increasingly limited resources, are highly likely to focus on the core subject areas of the curriculum, and encourage students to choose subjects from this academic subject list, thereby giving eligibility for the additional qualification.
Indeed, in research published by IPSOS Mori in September 2012 which examined the effects of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate on schools, 27% of the schools questioned stated that, as a result of the EBacc, many subjects were withdrawn or failed to attract enough pupils for the 2012/13 academic year.
According to the report, ‘The most commonly withdrawn subject was Drama and Performing Arts, which had been dropped in nearly a quarter of schools where a subject had been withdrawn.’
So, why should this be considered a potential problem for society?
The House of Commons Education Committee has highlighted the disproportionate impact of the EBacc on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Children at schools with a high proportion of Free School Meals, a statistic often cited as an indicator of socio-economic backgrounds, are more likely to have arts subjects withdrawn.
Research published in 2011 by the Cultural Learning Alliance The Case for Cultural Learning: key research findings shows that ‘children from lower socio-economic backgrounds who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree, twice as likely to volunteer, and 20% more likely to vote. Scottish research shows employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment’.
Not all students are faced with the same dilemma. In 2013, the Cultural Learning Alliance conducted interviews with a number of independent school head teachers and published these in a report entitled ‘A Duty to Provide Cultural Learning’. This provides a useful insight into the value attached to the arts within the private sector and further illustrates how we are living in an ever increasingly divided society.
Head teacher, Kevin Jones of St John’s College Prep School in Cambridge, England, highlights the issue: “The whole system of accountability, league tables, and inspection can narrow the curriculum and make schools risk averse. Independent schools are not bound in the same ways and can therefore choose to commit to cultural learning even when that commitment is not supported by the national curriculum.” He continues, “30% of our timetable is devoted to cultural activities, including sports, so we can employ full time specialist teachers of these subjects, who teach children from the age of four upwards. Our children will have a specialist drama teacher and a specialist music teacher long before they have a specialist maths teacher.”
This raises an interesting point, which I would like to illustrate by posing two very simple questions:
Since leaving school, how many times have you been required to calculate a logarithm or apply the sine or cosine rule?
Now consider, how many times you have been required to attend an interview or interact in some personal capacity with people from different backgrounds, whether for business or pleasure?
Based on your answers, which subject at school would have best prepared you for the situations faced: Mathematics or Drama?
I don’t want to enter into a debate about whether mathematics should be compulsory beyond basic numeracy. After all, I followed the unconventional path of studying both Mathematics and English Literature at A level. However, to return to my opening paragraph, the fact that a very lucrative adult training sector in communication skills exists must be some evidence of what is missing from the education system.
Sadly, Drama and Performing Arts are often viewed as options for less capable students. My opinion is that this may be the result of ignorance or a lack of understanding of the benefits that Drama can provide. There are numerous websites hosting debates as to whether drama should be a compulsory subject within an education system. Often it is the students who put forward the best arguments. Here are some of the most frequent:
- encourages fast-thinking and problem solving through improvisation
- develops interpersonal skills, builds confidence and communication skills
- provides motivation
- boosts self-esteem
- encourages creativity
- helps develop the ability to socialise
- breaks down cultural barriers
- fights against inequality
In an age when communication is dominated by texts and emails, conversation is a dying art. Drama is needed more now than ever before. As Emma McKendrick, Headmistress of the independent Downe House School in Thatcham England, explains in her Cultural Learning Alliance interview about the role of drama, “It develops empathy, experience beyond your own, self-expression, enjoyment and pleasure. Communication and self-belief. It is a way of accessing many different cultures. Enhances understanding and ability to think.”
The interdisciplinary learning approach of the International Baccalaureate, as favoured by International Schools, also offers schools greater scope for the inclusion of drama. I asked Audrey Peverelli, Head of School at GEMS World Academy-Etoy and accredited IB workshop leader, about this, “We are all different, and therefore, have different ways of learning and discovering. Skills are not always acquired in a traditional manner. We hope that by incorporating drama into our school curriculum, we are opening up further possibilities for our students to experiment with different ways of learning.”
The good news is that the message is starting to be heard in the English state sector. From September 2014, Drama has been included within the statutory section of the English syllabus within the National Curriculum for England. Up to this point Drama was not included.
The Spoken Language section now reads as follows:
‘All pupils should be enabled to participate in and gain knowledge, skills and understanding associated with the artistic practice of drama. Pupils should be able to adopt, create and sustain a range of roles, responding appropriately to others in role. They should have opportunities to improvise, devise and script drama for one another and a range of audiences, as well as to rehearse, refine, share and respond thoughtfully to drama and theatre performances.’
I am personally delighted to see this. It now remains to be seen how this will be implemented. In the meantime, students in the International Schools sector continue to benefit from Drama embedded within the curriculum.
I would like to conclude by referring to the words of Sir Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of (the prestigious and independent) Wellington College, England, “Who we are is determined by our creativity. The ability to express yourself artistically leads to our distinctive characters. It is what makes us. Cultural learning is important in the formation of personality and individuality.”
The path to academic success may be a well-trodden path, but why follow in the footsteps of somebody else when you can create your own?
By Dean A W Marriott – Actor, and Director of the World Language Learning Centre at GEMS World Academy-Etoy