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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101, Drama Teaching » The Principle Elements of Examining Secondary School Drama

The Principle Elements of Examining Secondary School Drama


The assessment criteria for examining secondary school drama is quite simple: give students a vocabulary and clear framework for what works and let them learn by experiment. This article was first published on Suite 101, January 2013.

In the 1960s and much of the following decade, where there was British school drama going on it was unstructured and delivered by a handful of inspired devotees who had seen the enormous potential of getting teenagers to roleplay, simulate and make-believe.Nobody thought it was possible to evaluate significantly drama work for examination purposes. When the National Curriculum arrived in the late 1980s drama was not included in the 10 core subjects, but curriculum drama began to come under pressure to come up with some examinable criteria.

The Arts Council report Drama in Schools (2003) began to define the drama process as making (exploring, devising, shaping and interpreting); performing (presenting and producing) and responding (evaluating and applying knowledge and understanding).

At post-16 performance exams, it’s carried forward into the devising-rehearsing-performing template, but it’s all linked to the evolutionary process of making drama which is now enshrined in examinations.

Drama Exam

Whatever happens with current shake-ups in subject specifications in the UK, the fact is that drama and other creative/expressive/performance arts will be a fundamental part of life for thousands of students, giving them confidence, experience in teamwork, trying ideas and problem solving.

To take one example, the Edexcel exam for GCSE (designed for 16 year olds) is sat every year by thousands of youngsters. What is especially good about this syllabus, though it is not the only one on offer to schools, is that it gives emphasis to theory and practice, with some written work and opportunities to open up creativity imaginatively and broadly.

The specification is described as ‘content free’, which simply means it is up to teachers/schools to decide and devise their own material from the guidelines and starting points that are given.

The Language of Drama

The key element is to to teach through a wide-ranging vocabulary, the language of drama.

They have identified explorative strategies (still image, thought-tracking, narrating, hot-seating, role play, cross-cutting, forum theatre and marking the moment) as a way of underpinning the devising work which may or may not lead to performance.

One can dispute whether the strategies are sufficient or too cumbersome but teachers are advised to focus on at least four of them. Equally, four of the drama medium/media are essential building blocks – the use of costume, masks and/or make-up, sound and/or music, lighting, space and/or levels, set and/or props, movement, mime and gesture, voice and spoken language.

Hard to argue with their basic but effective necessity in drama training. The actual elements of drama that are suggested are action/plot/content, drama forms, climax/anti-climax, rhythm/pace/tempo, contrasts, conventions and symbols.

Stimuli and Starting Points

Almost anything is grist to the drama mill. Poetry, artefacts, photos,film, props, costume, sculpture and art works, music, play scripts, live theatre performance, TV, DVDs, newspapers and magazines and extracts from fiction and non-fiction. There is no limit and it can be either professional or amateur or done by students themselves. Whatever it takes to get them going.

Mark scheme

Unit 1 is a programme of study which includes sharing with others and responding to feedback. They engage in a variety of drama activities, explore stimuli across different cultures and eras and compare and contrast between different stimuli.

Many centres take a theme for this unit, such as neighbours, going away, the gender wars, alcohol, the internet. Teachers lead six hours of workshops/lessons while students explore in varying sized groups.  A documentary response under controlled conditions is expected in diary form, evaluative comments and understanding and it can be written, bullet pointed, videoed, photographed, sketched.

The second unit follows the same pattern, with the same strategies, media and elements and also a range of stimuli but around Exploring Play Texts, something written specifically for performance and published professionally.

They must also watch and evaluate a live performance done by others as part of the audience. Even in more remote areas where there are fewer opportunities to see quality professional theatre, there are always local activities and groups who perform and can be used. Practical workshops are followed by documentary evidence of how students responded.

These two units are together worth 60% of the final exam mark.

The Practical

Unit 3 (40%) is a public performance in front of a visiting examiner, an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of practical drama skills through an application to a live performance. They must communicate to that audience, either as a performer or as technical support candidate in lighting, sound, setting/props, costume or make-up/masks.

The exam board present an assignment brief for the exam giving what amounts to the stimulus to set them off. It might be fame, prejudice, love is…. or a statement, Everybody has a story that must be told….

These allow interpretation through script extracts, totally devised work, poetry, song, soundscapes, newly written work all using the elements, strategies and medium of drama they should already have learned.

Marking It All

Clear grids are supplied to schools, there are no secrets. Marking is always positive, candidates start with blank sheets and pile up marks for good things rather than losing them for bad.

The criteria for the practical fall into – voice and movement; roles and characterisation; communication and content/style/form.

There are clear bands – outstanding, excellent, good, adequate, limited and no apparent. These are common for each unit and conform to the generally accepted divisions of marks for all exams in the arts now.

So, for instance, on Unit 3, roles and characterisation, 17-20 out of 20 reads, there is outstanding demonstration of the creation of role/character showing complete commitment and imagination.

At the bottom end, 1-4 marks out of 20, there is a limited demonstration of the creation of role/character showing little commitment and imagination.

If teachers know the specification and mark scheme, and examiners all perform to the standardisation training they are given, then school drama is examined with credibility and status giving schools, departments and students something very much worth having.

Check out also:

Drama in Schools (2003)

Edexcel GCSE Drama Student Book (2009), Mike Gould and Melissa Jones

Called Into Question: the School Examination System, 8 November 2011

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