Drama has long been considered a soft or easy subject to take at GCSE, giving students a break from the more academic courses. And with competition for places at universities fierce, students seem to be playing it safe and choosing more traditional subjects for GCSE. In fact from 2010 to 2019 the number of students taking GCSE drama decreased by 29%. Yet is it true that drama is an easier, less useful subject, or is this simply an outdated belief that similar traditional subjects like English Literature are harder and, by implication, ‘better’?
In fact, several initiatives introduced by the government to measure achievement at GCSE could be negatively impacting the arts and squeezing them out of the GCSE curriculum. One such governmental initiative which emerged in 2010 is the EBacc, used as a performance indicator at GCSE. To have an EBacc score, students must study English Language and Literature; Maths; either triple or double science; a language; and either Geography or History. These subjects were chosen as they are considered essential to many degrees. However, the lack of arts subjects in this mix illuminates the government’s priorities, illustrating which subjects they don’t consider to be part of a core curriculum.
Another measurement scheme, Progress 8, divides subjects into four categories – English Literature and Language, Maths, 3 EBacc subjects, and 3 non-EBacc subjects. Although this scheme is inclusive of subjects like the arts, they are squeezed into one, non-specific bracket. Yet both English and Maths are double weighted because they are considered especially important subjects. Although English and Maths teach significant life skills, there are other valuable subjects. Are these measurement schemes too prescriptive in telling individuals which subjects they should value more highly? Especially when different students have different strengths.
To act or not to act
Are the GCSE syllabi of English Literature and Drama really that different? We all know that Shakespeare, for example, is a cornerstone of British culture and literature. His plays are studied in both English GCSE and Drama GCSE, and the Edexcel exam board puts his comedy, Twelfth Night, on the written exam for both courses. However, the way the play is studied differs by course. English places emphasis on close textual analysis whereas Drama considers the play in a more holistic manner, for example, addressing the creation of character and the importance of staging and set.
Students are missing out on the nuances of his works by simply analysing his language and general themes instead of considering them as a complete performance. And that’s not to say that there’s no academic analysis required in the Drama exam. The idea that Drama is not academic simply is untrue. Taking the Edexcel Drama exams as an example, the written paper covers questions addressing staging and direction, as well as requiring candidates to read and comment on an extract of the play, much in the same way as the English Literature exam.
- “You are going to play Malvolio. He feels that Olivia has treated him unfairly. As a performer, give three suggestions of how you would use performance skills to show this. You must provide a reason for each suggestion”. This short 6 mark question from the 2018 Drama exam asks the candidate to comment on the relationship between characters and consider how lines might be said to convey this.
- In the same year, the English Literature paper presented candidates with an extract from another scene between Olivia and Malvolio and asked them to “Explore how Shakespeare presents Olivia’s reactions to Malvolio in this extract. Refer closely to the extract in your answer.” Here, candidates are asked to comment on how Olivia views Malvolio and her subsequent treatment of him.
Drama GCSE provides valuable analytic skills which can be utilised when studying other subjects, and in later life, at university and when looking for employment. While some students might be worried that taking Drama GCSE might place them at a disadvantage when applying for prestigious jobs, this often isn’t the case. In fact, a quote from Goldman Sachs’ recruitment brochure explains that “we always look for individuals with a passion for excellence, a strong belief in teamwork, integrity and leadership” (Goldman Sachs being a company led by a successful part-time DJ). These skills are exactly what students learn in GCSE Drama. They learn how to collaborate with others and ensure that their ideas are heard whilst also listening to others. Similarly, students are expected to dedicate time to rehearsing, learning lines, collecting costumes and props, in order to ensure an excellent end performance.
So, it is clear that although some still hold the antiquated view that Drama GCSE is easy and less academic than more traditional subjects, there is an array of reasons for taking Drama at GCSE and why it can be an asset on a student’s CV. Drama not only allows students to develop confidence in their own voice, but also helps those with different learning strengths and abilities to fulfil their potential.
About the author: Laura Plumley is a recent Classics graduate from Oxford University and has just completed an acting foundation at Rose Bruford College. She has a keen interest in journalism and the arts, and her articles have been published in the Cherwell newspaper and Spear’s magazine.
Photograph from Twelfth Night courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company