Drama teachers sacked for GCSE devised work

Two secondary school drama teachers have been sacked for gross misconduct for supervising a performance devised by 15- and 16-year-old students.

GCSE students performed to a group of family and friends; the performance depicted incest, child abuse and rape. The teachers allegedly failed to inform attendees of the sensitive material. Some audience members became distressed and, in a couple of cases, even physically sick.

The unnamed teachers have challenged the decision, claiming that they have been unfairly dismissed. The Employment Appeal Tribunal, led by judge Lady Smith, decided that an initial decision which had ruled in the teachers’ favour was ‘perverse’ and that the material had been ‘age in-appropriate’ and the cases would have to be re-heard.

The local council’s safeguarding manager viewed a DVD of the performance and claimed the piece was ‘offensive, disturbing and potentially abusive’.

Teaching Drama contributor Susan Elkin said in response in an article for The Independent: ‘He [the safeguarding manager] watched a DVD of the performance and expressed shock that the students were “allowed to engage in such sexualised behaviour”. They weren’t. They were acting. And acting means that you pretend to be something that you’re not in a very controlled environment. Actors – whether professional or amateur, young, middle aged or old – are NOT the roles they play or the actions they depict.’

Both teachers have put forward statements from audience members who felt that the performance had been a positive experience and they claimed that there was ‘no cogent evidence’ of any harm to the students who devised the piece.

The case will continue in a new employment tribunal hearing for both dismissed teachers.

3 responses

  1. Sounds like Sarah Kane may have been the stimulus!? Whilst abhorring censorship we do have to be mindful of inappropriate content for performers and audience! However it’s a blurry and subjective line!

  2. It is a very fragile line indeed and even though I have been teaching GCSE Drama since 1986, I don’t think it is appropriate to encourage 15/16 yr olds to engage in such graphic imagery and action, even if as Susan Elkin implies in her comments in the Independent article that it may form part of their own natural lives. The use of suggestion in is far more powerful and certainly the teachers should have informed the audience. Gross misconduct seems excessive but then what was the school’s policy and where was the overall senior management awareness in the first place?

  3. Interesting case study for Drama teachers.

    Here’s my take…

    Sexual abuse (particularly incest) is a worthy issue for devised drama. It’s a popular topic among GCSE students for two reasons:

    1) It’s one of the folk demons of our era, so students feel that they’re being trendy and ‘edgy’.

    2) It’s a strongly emotive taboo, so students feel that they’re being provocative and ‘adult’.

    As an examiner, I often found the actual performances rather tedious – and herein lies the first danger.

    Because experienced teachers have often seen this type of drama hundreds of times before, they can become desensitized to its ‘shock value’. They may forget that less experienced adults aren’t so blasé.

    Also, students can sometimes get carried away with shocking the audience. This can lead to self-indulgent histrionic acting – and herein lies the first clue to avoiding disaster: style (more of which later).

    First, let’s first look at the teacher’s role in the process. It’s a tricky balancing act. The teacher will often provide initial stimulus material to give the students ideas. However, the exam explicitly requires the students to take ownership of the process and the product. It would be quite wrong for the teacher to tell the students what to do and then direct them. The teacher’s job is to float around as a ‘facilitator’, offering advice and suggestions and constructive feedback.

    Let’s say that the students get excited about the idea of devising a drama based on sexual abuse – and the teacher sees trouble ahead. The teacher can gently nudge the students in different directions, but it would be wrong (and counter-productive) to overrule them – except for reasons of safety Teenagers can quickly become petulant if they feel that they’re ‘being treated like kids’ and will argue (quite rightly) that it’s their drama and they can do what they like (within reason).

    One important aspect of the drama teacher’s job is to conduct a risk assessment. Usually this just means making sure that the students don’t do something stupid like jump off a lighting gantry or bring in a gun. But in the case of sensitive issues (like rape) it can also involve a psychological risk assessment. The first thing I would do is have a quick chat with the Head of Year and flick through the students’ files to check for any indications of sexual abuse (you get used to knowing what to look for).

    If there were indications, then I’d probably decide that the psychological risk was too great. Schools are inappropriate places for psychodrama, and although drama teachers often have psychological expertise, we’re not psychiatrists.

    Obviously you can’t tell students “You can’t do a play about rape because I think one of you may have been raped”. So I’d probably risk their wrath by telling a series of white lies, e.g. “Drama examiners are fed up with plays about rape, so you may not get very good marks” (probably true) – or “Management says no because it’ll upset your parents” (also probably true).

    If there were no signs of sexual abuse, then I’d risk the wrath of management and give a cautious green light – with two provisos:

    1) Avoid psychodrama.

    2) Concentrate on style.

    Returning to our case study, the sacked teachers seem to have made two big mistakes. First, they failed to nudge the students away from graphic depictions of sexual abuse (tricky, but teaching is mostly about nudging). Second, they failed to warn the audience beforehand about the graphic content (which is just plain stupid).

    Let’s return now to style. Watching teenagers role play sexual abuse is mostly a problem of style rather than content. I would therefore ask the students to focus purely on the technical aspects and the nature of the shock they want to create in the audience.

    When I was at drama school, I saw a brilliant performance by a visiting Bosnian theatre troupe about the raw horrors of their recent civil war. Some of the actors had traumatic personal experiences. Their depiction of a rape camp was one of the most effective stylized pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.

    The soldier and the victim stood on opposite sides of the stage, facing the audience. The soldier mimed in slow motion the act of violation, while the woman mimed in slow motion the pain of being violated. The physical distance between the actors represented the emotional distance between human beings in war and rape. It was utterly chilling and poignant. Every member of the audience was deeply shaken. The idea of anyone complaining afterward that it was ‘gratuitous’ would have been absurd. It was profound.

    Teenagers usually get themselves (and their teachers) into trouble when they confuse shock for value. One of the (many) jobs of the drama teacher is to constantly nudge students away from tedious or embarrassing histrionics.

    I suspect that, in our case study, the real reason why the teachers were sacked wasn’t so much to do with safeguarding children as safeguarding adult sensibilities. Style can get you out of a lot of tricky situations.

    Mind you, a teacher’s job is still impossible.

    See also:

    What ‘WTF’ looks like in practice…

    Management – The Ultimate ‘Trouble-Makers’?

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