Fighting out of the Fringes: Drama teachers, unite against the Russell Group!

Phil King
  • By
  • Arts
  • Last updated: Tuesday, 26 April 2011 at 10:11 am

Numbers are coming through for next year’s GCSE and A-Level courses.  For many teachers of Art, Drama and Music these numbers are down.  In some cases considerably so.  With the government’s move to Academy schools, subjects struggling to keep up the numbers will be cut.  Academies first and foremost are businesses and just like in the wider performing arts industry culture gets cut as capitalism comes first.

Russell Group Logo Fighting out of the Fringes: Drama teachers, unite against the Russell Group!Backwards.

So why is this happening?  Is performing arts teaching so bad in our schools that students are voting with their feet?  In some cases undoubtedly yes, it would be foolish to assert otherwise.  We’ve all heard of the self-obsessed, frustrated actor-teacher who makes the class all about him/her and bores the learners.  Are heads (or as they’re called under the Academy system “principals”) so myopic that they don’t realise that the cultural arts form the lifeblood of a school’s ethos, that, just as in a cultureless society the very core of that society is dead?  Well, again, yes, this is increasingly happening as parents drive for their children to be first and foremostly educated for economic payoff rather than cultural reward.  How many economics and science teachers currently thrill in delighting parents at parents’ evenings with the projected earnings of little Johnny just as the country reels from the effects of the last drive of the money-obsessed, is sickening.  But none of these is as calculated, as insidious, as the Russell Group’s recent declaration of performing arts subjects as “soft”.

In a recent Russell Group document it was asserted:

“The importance of STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] skills to the future prosperity of the UK is well established. Lord Sainsbury’s review The Race to the Top stated that: “In a world in which the UK’s competitive advantage will depend increasingly on innovation and high-value products and services, it is essential that we raise the level of our STEM skills. Policy making in many areas of government also requires a supply of creative young scientists and engineers.””

If there was any wording that treated individuals like part of a machine and was focused on economic value over any other value this is it.  And that’s the problem with “racing to the top” to gain more and more money.  What happens to our cultural wellbeing?  In light of the increasing numbers of people signing up to the amazingly warming initiative “action for happiness” and the government’s own pledge to monitor happiness levels how can such a narrowly-focused document be allowed to swing the impressionable minds of this country’s students?  Essentially: what happened to a broad-minded liberal education?  Surely at least the Russell Group’s propaganda machine will be open-minded:

“Have you considered why you do not wish to study a facilitating subject? Are you looking for a change? Or are you trying to avoid a challenge? In other words, have you thought your decision through carefully?”

Wow.  So the Russell Group believes the only two possible reasons for studying a so-called “soft” subject are either “a change” or “avoiding a challenge”?  So, the option “I enjoy studying these subjects as they teach me who I am and allow me to understand the society in which I live” is not included. More incendiary though from the point of view of the drama teacher is the assertion that there’s no need to study theatre studies in school as when you go on in the world of theatre you only need to audition and:

“Preparation for such auditions can be gained from many different out-of-school activities, from drama and dance groups within school and, of course, from your school leaving qualifications themselves.”

Well, terrifyingly, if all the numbers drop off because students believe their only worth in later life is the pay they earn then which teachers are going to run these “drama and dance groups within school”?  It won’t be the head of mathematics, that’s for sure. For institutions that purport to be as intelligent as the Russell Group this displays a chronic lack of joined up thinking.  And it’s all about money.  Just as the Academies are and will be.  Education should be about educating.  For those outside of the education sector I’m sure this sounds self-evident but to those policy makers this is a by-line.


So what to do?  Cry about it and do nothing?  No.  Try harder.  Prove ignorant people wrong and sane people right.  For example this year at my school we’ve tightened our Key Stage 3 provision and as a result there’s been a 41% increase in students taking drama at GCSE in this, my first year.  Year 7 pupils can name some of the key practitioners, utilise and evaluate their methods.  They are learning to be intelligent and useful actors in their own lives and the lives of the school.  Gone are the days of “drama games” up until GCSE.  We need to update.  We need to get better.  At Key Stage 5, the Year 12s have recently performed work from playwrights as diverse as Bernard-Marie Koltès, Rona Munro and Moisés Kaufman, resulting in a visting examiner crying as the students dealt with emotionally painful, but ultimately redemptive themes.  Work that will help them to lead better lives regardless of the number of zeros on their paycheck.  We as drama teachers need to work better every year so that our students adore their work in lessons, in extra-curricular contexts and learn the core skills of communication, management, philosophical enquiry and empathy in the deepest and most experiential of ways.  The Russell Group are, at best, misguided.  Drama and theatre studies may not be considered a subject for their universities but it’s the subject that truly allows students to contemplate and appreciate the universe in which they will have to harmoniously live.

Phil lives and works as a drama teacher in the midlands.

He is also co-director of

His views are not the views of his school, although his can be followed on twitter @philjcking

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  • icarus_69

    Our universities have effectively been turned into businesses, to be driven by the market. Now, everybody knows that the market cannot see much further than the end of its nose, but those in a position to do something about it don’t seem to realise what we are going to lose. It’s not just the performing arts; the humanities in general will suffer considerable losses which it will be very difficult to replace once they have gone.

  • imdeman

    I think you need to grow up, phil. This sort of hyperbolic nonsense simply proves your detractors to be right. So drama studies were ‘drama games’? then the Russel Group were correct in their assessment. STEM skills are by any measure more important to the UK’s future prosperity than acting. And have the potential to be at least as creative and emotionally rewarding.
    I’ve no doubt that theatre studies and similar courses add much to the overall academic mix, and can be core subjects for some, but the UK isn’t run by tyro drama teachers, fortunately, so can retain some sense of proportion. Try it.

  • Phil King

    I have no doubt that the Russell Group have “the UK’s future prosperity” in mind, as you do. My argument is that it’s that attitude that got us into the dire economic situation we find ourselves in now. Enjoy your tax increases and cuts to local services as you’re quite right, the “UK isn’t run by tyro drama teachers”. I’m sure you’re one of only a very few left who believe the current mob have got a sense of proportion.

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