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School theatre trips under threat as GCSE drama drops live show requirement

School pupils watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Amit Lennon School pupils watch a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare's Globe. Photo: Amit Lennon
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Exam boards have come under fire over “nonsense” new GCSE drama rules, which will allow students to pass the course without seeing any live theatre.

Previous guidelines by major GCSE examiners have included the need for students to visit and analyse at least one live theatre production.

But, as of September, the new syllabuses set by exam boards AQA and OCR state that schools can choose to show their drama pupils a recording of a play – such as those produced by National Theatre Live and Digital Theatre – instead of a trip to the theatre.

English Touring Theatre director Rachel Tackley told The Stage that while she was a “huge fan” of recorded performances, GCSE drama “should absolutely include sitting in a theatre and sharing the experience of live performance”.

Tackley – recently appointed executive director at Chichester Festival Theatre – continued: “To suggest that a student could leave school with a GCSE in drama without having been inside a theatre is just nonsense.”

She added: “Every producing theatre in the country is bending over backwards to engage with young people and encourage them into their buildings, so it shouldn’t be beyond the collective good sense of an exam board to make it a requirement of an official qualification.”

Catherine Greenwood, learning associate at the Unicorn Theatre in London, suggested the changes could reduce the number of school visits to theatres, warning teachers may find it “easier and cheaper” to show their classes a digital production.

She said: “I think there might be a knock-on effect. Visits to the theatre are already fairly fragile in terms of teachers being able to make the argument to come out of school.”

While the National Theatre makes recordings available to schools for free, the company’s director of learning Alice King-Farlow claimed these were a “valuable addition to the experience of live performances – not a substitute”.

She added: “The experience of a live theatre performance is essential to the study of drama at GCSE – it’s an important part of any education, regardless of subject.”

Aine Lark, chair of theatre education body National Drama, called on AQA and OCR to rethink their criteria, which she branded “a restrictive, limiting and lazy approach to teaching”.

She said: “There are reasonable arguments to support access to live streams and recordings of theatre, but not to the detriment of drama students missing out on the experience of live theatre.”

“While people cite financial burdens and pressures of taking pupils out of school, it is exceptionally short-sighted of any exam board to validate a course in drama that encourages a ‘sit-at-home’ approach to learning,” she added.

But Digital Theatre co-founder Robert Delamere said it was “refreshing to see the curriculum catching up with the digital world”.

Though describing live theatre as “irreplaceable,” he claimed the syllabus changes “should be welcomed as a way of providing a vivid window on to the world of live theatre”.

Responding to the criticisms, OCR subject specialist for drama Karen Latto said live performance was “a critical part of the study of drama at every level” – and claimed the board’s new syllabus reflected that.

She continued: “However, OCR is committed to equality of provision for all our students, and the flexibility to include digital theatre productions is in place to ensure that every student can access live theatre – regardless of the constraints of affordability or geographical accessibility.”

An AQA spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of students will experience a live performance in a theatre.” She added it would be “wrong to discriminate against” students who can’t get to live performances for “financial, geographical or health reasons”.

AQA and OCR make up two of the three major GCSE exam boards. The third, Edexcel, stresses a “focus on live theatre” in its new specification, with pupils only to be shown play screenings in extenuating circumstances.

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