Safe Ground - Using drama to educate prisoners and young people at risk in the community


Bad Education

I am worried.  I am worried about what is happening to Education, both in schools and in prisons.  As I sat in the sun this weekend reading the Guardian article, Teachers: Life Inside The Exam Factory, I felt a sense of dread wash over me.  This dread was not just as a parent, or as a professional that uses the arts to engage the most resistant learners but it was also on a much more personal level.  I can categorically say that it has been my participation in the arts that has made me the person I am today both professionally and personally.

The article highlights how drama is being side-lined for the more ‘academic’ subjects and makes reference to drama being regarded by some as being a ‘soft’ subject.  It also highlighted that morale among teachers is at an all time low.   The article made me think about the prison staff we work with in our Family Man (FM)/ Fathers Inside (FI) network.  There is also a shift in prison education away from the more creative subjects such as art and drama, towards employability targets.  However, are the arts and employability mutually exclusive?  It seems that under OLASS 4 (the current education contract between NOMS and the prison Education Providers) that the potential to deliver longer more artistic based programmes has been greatly restricted.   It is also getting increasingly difficult for arts organisations to gain access to prisons, due to prison officer staffing levels and the change in officer’s duties under benchmarking.  The result of this is that there is not always uniformed staff available to supervise or participate in anything outside of their normal duties.  Morale within the prison service is low, with lots of uncertainty about the changes that are taking place under the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda.

However, I am convinced, as I believe most staff working within the arts/prison education are, that it is the more creative subjects that motivate the most resistant learners.  Don’t get me wrong, of course there is a place for basic skills to be learned and improving literacy and numeracy is very important.  However, are these skills only learned in a traditional classroom setting?  If a student struggles to sit in a class or hasn’t got the motivation or confidence to even join the class where do you go from there?   Employability is a target of OLASS 4, however how can someone hold down a job if they can’t make eye contact with anyone, can’t find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning or are riddled with anxiety or low confidence?

When I first started working as a Drama teacher within prison Education Department of HMP Winchester in 2002, I started to see on a daily basis the changes the weekly drama classes had on the students.  How their confidence grew, how their ability to work with others improved, how they body language changed as they entered the room in the morning.  Also how their interest in the arts and pride in their own work developed.  Students were taking it upon themselves to approach the art class and request help with creating props for our ‘in house’ productions, writing scripts and poems in their own time and then sharing them with the group for feedback; and rehearsing their scenes on the wings. They became very protective of the group and they began to self-regulate their own behaviour.  That’s not to say there weren’t disagreements or heated moments, but I noticed that these became increasingly less frequent and more about creative differences connected to the work, as opposed to what was happening on the wings.  There was a real feeling that they had all contributed to making the space safe and that wherever possible troubles were left at the door.  The space became almost ‘sacred’ (nothing to do with the fact the class was taking place in the prison chapel), it was almost that once inside the room they had freedom.

It is well known that young children learn via play.  Play enables children to experiment, practice and develop new skills.  Drama classes can provide participants the opportunity to consider situations from different perspectives, to experience what it feels like to stand in someone else’s shoes, to experiment and to explore with different behaviours and outcomes.  Most importantly it allows them to do it in a safe environment, where trust and understanding has been built up between the participants and the facilitator.  This trust is developed with the help of games and drama exercises which allow the group to take turns, to rely on each other, to play and have fun.  The initial warm up games and exercises allow participants to drop their guard, to perhaps feel a bit silly, to see other people feeling a bit silly, but to see that it’s OK, it can actually be quite fun, it’s OK to enjoy it and nothing bad happens.  In fact in the drama class they gain respect from others by being really good at a game, by giving a strong performance or writing something meaningful that others can relate to.

The simple experience of laughing and playing creates a freedom within the room.  Freedom that it is OK to give things a go, freedom to laugh collectively, freedom to trust others, freedom to make mistakes and try different approaches.  I have lost count of the number of times students have said to me they didn’t feel they were in prison when taking part in a session.  There might be mixed reactions from people reading this about whether that is a good thing or not, but I believe it is vitally important.   They are no longer tied to the identity of ‘an offender’ and they have opened themselves up to think about other aspects of life.  It is through the exploration of the stories and experiences of others that allows them to reflect on their own lives and the decisions they make.

To think that taking part in a drama class is a ‘soft’ option is very misguided.  On a recent staff training programme that I co-delivered for Safe Ground, a high proportion of the staff delegates wrote ‘gaining confidence’ as one of their training goals.  Several also commented that they didn’t like or were worried about participating in role plays.   In fact one delegate spoke to us separately about their confidence issues and that just attending the training was a personal challenge for them.   They absolutely flourished during the training and participated in all the group activities, games and role plays.  The delegate commented to us at the end of the course that the experience had been life changing for them.  I firmly believe this was because the games and drama activities allowed them to have a positive experience working collaboratively within a large group in a safe environment.  Speaking in front of a group, performing, giving and receiving praise and constructive feedback are not easy things to do.  Participating in a drama class or a drama based programme or training event is not a soft option!  When delivered well the arts can be extremely powerful.

So I return to the question I posed about whether the arts and employability are mutually exclusive.  I remember a long standing member of my once weekly prison drama class being allowed out on day release, so he could work locally as part of his resettlement.  He bumped into me on the wing one day and told me how much the drama classes had helped him with his interview.  He said he was conscious of making eye contact, he thought about his body language, but most importantly he felt confident taking to people he hadn’t met before.  How does this happen?  I believe it is via the time given to practice these skills in a safe environment.

I like many other practitioners believe that the arts are transformative.  Not just for those in prison but for people of all ages, genders and abilities. The arts allow people to find hidden talents and achieve things they never thought they could do.   Participants may initially have to step out of their comfort zone, but in many cases they actually find their comfort zone.   I believe the arts should be firmly embedded in the curriculum both in schools and in prisons and it is for this very reason that I am worried about what is happening within education today.


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