Developing children’s vocabulary through drama and performance poetry

Published: 12 March 2021 
Author: Mark Powell, Dr Nicholas Capstick OBE 
A group of pupils are standing on a deck outside and taking part in a drama-based session. A girl with blond hair stands over a young boy who is on the ground as they act out a scene happily together.
Prime Theatre drama lesson in action with pupils. Photo credit: Prime Theatre

The White Horse Federation, a Multi-Academy Trust of 32 schools, joined forces with Prime Theatre to improve pupils’ literacy through drama and performance poetry. Dr Nicholas Capstick OBE, the Trust’s CEO, and Mark Powell, Prime Theatre’s Artistic Director, share the challenges they faced as they launched their joint TDF programme, the ways they’ve adapted delivery amidst Covid-19 and their plans for the future.

The White Horse Federation is a Multi-Academy Trust of 32 schools. Prime Theatre is a professional company using drama and productions to empower young people. Prior to our application, we’d been delivering poetry performances for two years in Swindon’s largest and most diverse primary school to encourage confidence and communication, impacting on vocabulary in both spoken and written work.

We got excited by the Teacher Development Fund, thinking it would be a great way of raising literacy in seven disadvantaged’ pupil communities across the Trust. The project application was so thorough we actually almost gave up! With typical rigour PHF was already getting us to analyse our impact in ways we hadn’t before. Thank goodness we didn’t admit defeat…the project has been a beacon of hope during Covid-19!

Initial challenges

We were initially passionate but naïve; practical drama delivery in schools seemed locked in a traditional viewpoint that it’s a lovely bolt-on but not a natural part of cross-curricular practice. Fear understandably plays a factor in this: teachers (though often habitual and skilled performers) can shy away from leading drama exercises asking as much of their imagination and trust as they do the pupils. Slowly, with the help of the original Trust Lead, we began to speak the same language and explored the pedagogy of how children can learn best in an active way. This led to the important rebranding of Drama/​Performance to Active Learning” and a move from why would we add these activities to teaching?” to why wouldn’t we?”.

The question underpinned teacher development in individual schools and the termly Cohort Days for our project schools focusing on specific subject areas across Key Stages. Admittedly, it was too much for some: a couple of new Teacher Champions were nominated and one school was swapped for another. Senior Leaders needed regular re-engagement as we moved into uncharted territory. We persevered and struck lucky twice when our original Trust Lead became a school principal within the project, replaced by the Trust CEO as our new co-project manager.

Covid chaos

We all know how coronavirus has affected physical artistic delivery, but after an initial crash landing, we forged the flexibility and foresight to reinvent ourselves digitally and in supporting teacher development in a completely unexpected era. We changed our termly physical Cohort Days to twice-weekly twilight digital drop-ins designed and delivered with Teacher Champions in rapid response to their new planning and delivery demands. We’re certainly working in a more creative and risky collaboration between the Artist Practitioners and Teacher Champions. Another bonus was that decreased project spend from Spring/​Summer meant we doubled down from Autumn 2020: schools got the chance to appoint a second Champion, increasing peer support, reach and potential legacy. There are still unexpected barriers but when mutual effort is placed in a single direction the results still thrill us: Math taught through physical theatre on Teams, historical creative writing improved by character improvisation, NQTs and senior leaders co-facilitating explosive creative cocktails of aspiration and experience!

Next steps

In Terms 5 and 6 two schools will pilot a roll out to all their staff, embedding Active Learning in the daily diet for pupils and developing new Assessments OF Learning and Assessments FOR Learning. This pilot will then extend to the other five schools in Term 6 of this academic year with a special focus on how Active Learning can address the impact of multiple lockdowns. In Term 2 of the 2021/22 academic year we’ll create a two-day, one night residential conference exploring the possibilities of a legacy project with all 32 Trust schools across all sectors and all phases of education designed by our graduating Teacher Champions.

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Artistic Director, Prime Theatre
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Chief Executive, The White Horse Federation