Soapbox: I’m a GCSE drama supply teacher – get me out of here

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Few professionals have any inkling what goes on in GCSE Drama. What follows is how I’ve survived.

I work for myself – I’m usually to be seen as a production manager, or company manager, and I’m just gearing up for the summer season – so my year is pretty well panto, then summer season. Between 1994 and 2004 I taught in a college, and worked as an examiner. For the past three years I’ve also been doing some supply teaching – there’s a shortage and somebody gave an agency my name and I said yes. I’m in my 50s now, and nothing fazes me, but even so I’d never taught kids.

I hate teaching drama and music and here’s why

What a shock education in schools is. I never hear anyone talk about what goes on in school publicly. I absolutely hate teaching drama and music, because the classes, apart from top set in a few schools are not just a joke, but a disaster. The kids themselves are totally unsuitable for doing arts courses. There are a few who shine, but every class is wrecked and derailed by a specification that really doesn’t engage them.

The horror at being given a class of low achievers and told to make them watch a video of perhaps the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest in original language? The minute the lights dim, it’s chaos, and nobody can listen. GCSE music and drama specifications can be downloaded from the internet – I’m amazed so few professionals ever read them to see how their profession is represented in schools. The kind of interesting stuff I did in college is incomparable with the stuff that goes on in schools. The kids – and their parents – are 100% to blame. My local school, which used to do an annual production, has given up.

Most academy drama rooms are square spaces with carpet, and four black chunks of Bolton twill. Black, of course, because that’s a drama colour, on a circular track. I spend ages getting the kids out from behind the curtains, and at one school recently the kids had a tried-and-tested game – four kids jumped onto the curtains and the other kids propelled them around the room like a race track. Clearly this was not a spontaneous act, but something they were quite skilled in.

As somebody who makes a living from the arts, I assumed teaching would be rewarding. I volunteer for history (which I hated with a passion at school), science (because I was good at that at school), and pretty well anything because the results and classes are much more productive. Even maths is more fun to teach than drama or music.

Drama, for the people in middle or bottom sets, is considered a doss. It’s an excuse to squeeze in a play fight. It’s a mess about. At the very best, it allows those who’ve not attempted improv to experience it. Top sets do better, because the majority of the idiots are missing.

Not taking these kinds of kids to the theatre is a great idea – because mixing them with paying members of an audience would be awful, and I’m sure many teachers will welcome not having to inflict their kids on a population who might well write to the local paper complaining about the behaviour.

I’ve seen excellent and appalling work in schools, and dropping drama and music altogether probably wouldn’t harm our industry at all. It really should be something that people enjoy and can develop in. As things are, all the kids who are the ‘right sort’ have idiots who destroy their learning.

Ordinary people base their comments on the education system according to how school was for them, but the behaviour of kids in schools now (and I live in rural Suffolk for goodness sake) is so bad, and most of the parents are totally unaware of it. I go to just one school where the kids could be described as nice. I go to one where the behaviour is like I’d imagine an old style Borstal would have been. One school I don’t go back to because there was a mini riot and a kid kicked the desks over and broke loads of the kids’ possessions because I told him off.

Exam board specs actually make sense, but in practice the work required to meet the criteria is not what a real performer would expect. There is a specification for “five minutes’ performance exposure time per candidate”, for example. There’s also the issue of facilities. Some school drama spaces have expensive lighting rigs, sound equipment and even sewing machines, but you’d never let these kids loose with hot lights, sensitive and expensive sound gear or breakable sewing machines.

The teachers spend their time producing acceptable methods of getting their mediocre work through those specs to hopefully get a pass. I don’t think it’s fair to blame the exam boards, or the government. Teachers? Perhaps. But the real culprits are sorts of parents you might see on the Jeremy Kyle Show.

A theatre club after school is amazingly different. Good fun, plenty of learning, plenty of variation and the kids progress. I do see drama in schools done well, but these schools are usually small and in the country, or in a town where the catchment area doesn’t have any Jeremy Kyle families. In these schools, the atmosphere, staff morale and end results are very different.

Look at a typical theatre audience. Their kids would be ideal for drama at school.

Too often, drama seems to be the ‘therapy’, with music the same. Stick the troublesome ones into a class where they don’t have to remember huge amounts of detail, or do coursework, or academic stuff. Their improv and the efforts of the others helps them scrape a pass.