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All The School’s A Stage: Embedding drama into the primary curriculum

Written by: Sarah Seleznyov
6 min read

We know that participation in structured arts activities can improve learning, attainment, employability, health and social engagement (Cultural Learning Alliance, 2017), and initial training for primary teachers stresses the value of drama and creative approaches to learning. But time pressures lead to less attention directed towards how these translate into classroom practice, leaving teachers lacking in confidence as well as skills. Schools have always been enthusiastic participants in arts projects but too often such projects are short-lived and seen as add-ons to the curriculum. Led by artist practitioners, they are exciting while they last, but leave teachers with little expertise or motivation to replicate or adapt them in future curriculum planning.

Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development Fund aims to support the delivery of effective arts-based teaching and learning opportunities in the primary classroom, and to embed learning through the arts in the curriculum. The Fund has already enabled 13 partnership projects between arts organisations, teachers and school leaders, with a further seven to begin in September 2019. ‘All The School’s A Stage’ is one such project, and is a partnership between Shakespeare’s Globe and London South Teaching School Alliance. The project seeks to find a way to make arts projects in schools sustainable and to support teachers to embed learning from a short-term project into whole-school practice. It explores how artist practitioners can support teachers to embed drama techniques into the curriculum, making a long-term sustainable difference to teaching and learning in seven participating primary schools. All seven inner city schools teach pupils from deprived backgrounds, and the project is particularly keen to understand the difference that long-term exposure to effective arts teaching can make for these pupils.

The project uses Shakespeare’s stories to enhance pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and their understanding of the world, as part of a commitment to Cox’s assertion that children are the ‘makers of meanings in their own texts and… in the texts of others’ (1989). For younger children, stories read or heard help them to understand the world in which they live and allow them to transmit that understanding to others. A combination of structured drama, role-play and active participation is used to bring these stories to life, supporting the development of confidence, decision-making and collaborative learning, and enabling pupils to question the moral choices encountered within the stories.

Phase one of the project used Shakespeare’s iconic plays to provide teachers in Years 1 and 3 with the skills and confidence to incorporate practical, arts-based approaches to literacy into their classroom practice. Skilled artist practitioners from The Globe modelled how to use drama and structured role-play in relation to two Shakespeare plays per year group. They introduced teachers to dramatic techniques like conscience corridor, forum theatre, freeze frame and magic canvas. Over five weeks of structured collaboration, team-teaching and coaching, allowing multiple opportunities for teachers to practise their newly learned skills, the artist practitioners supported the teachers to gradually take responsibility for delivering the pre-planned units of work using these techniques with their own classes. The model for the process is based on research from Joyce and Showers (2002), which confirmed that professional development alone cannot radically change and improve teachers’ practice. A combination of training, expert modelling, in-class support, coaching and mentoring, team teaching and focused feedback from a supportive peer, eventually leading to independent delivery, has the highest return on improving teaching and learning.

This first phase of the project sought to develop teachers’ knowledge across two of Shulman’s domains (1986). Firstly, it developed their subject knowledge by instilling an appreciation and understanding of Shakespeare’s stories. Secondly, it developed their pedagogical knowledge regarding active methods, which ‘comprise a wide range of expressive, creative and physical activities… [and] are the antithesis of methods in which students sit passively, without intellectual or emotional engagement’ (Stredder, 2009, p. 12). Teachers acquired techniques for making Shakespeare’s plays and other stories accessible to young children, enabling children to explore Shakespeare’s narratives not just as listeners but as storytellers. This phase bridged the gap between ‘expert’ artist practitioners and classroom teachers, making explicit the approaches the artists use, and supporting teachers to try these approaches for themselves, ‘surfacing’ teacher cognitive processes of planning, instruction and reflection as part of longer-term development (Hollins, 2011).

Pupils in each of the participating teachers’ classes benefited directly from the experience of engaging with the Shakespeare plays through a storytelling approach. They then deepened their learning through the teaching of new units of work based on a second Shakespeare play, with explicit language and drama work feeding into the development of more effective writing skills. The units of work are designed to develop new vocabulary, support pupils to gain meaning from the reading of complex texts, increase pupils’ confidence and skill in speaking, and inspire pieces of writing for specific contexts and audiences.

As the project ends its first year and begins phase two, it moves into its experimental phase, tackling a third Shulman domain (1986): the development of teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge as they apply drama and role-play to support teaching and learning across the wider curriculum beyond Shakespeare’s plays, integrating their newly acquired pedagogical knowledge with different subject knowledge. The project has now begun to support the four trained teachers in each of the seven schools to build these techniques into their wider curriculum, and will then enable them to disseminate this learning to their school colleagues, teaching them the techniques and showing them their cross-curricular potential, as well as training them in approaches to designing and leading professional development.

Using implementation theory, which shows us how dedicated implementation teams can facilitate and shape local change, removing barriers as they arise (Metz et al., 2015), the project will explore how best to support whole-school change with an arts focus.

The second phase will allow the lead teachers to set the direction, within the parameters of what the project is trying to achieve. There will no longer be scripted units of work, but there is a handbook of dramatic techniques that they can select from and develop in their own settings, meaning that the second year will be both ‘tight’ enough to keep its focus and ‘loose’ enough to enable teacher ownership (Sharples et al., 2018). The project will support them to engage in structured peer-to-peer collaboration across schools (Sharples et al., 2018). The role of senior leaders and their engagement in the implementation process will be crucial, as leaders both enable and attribute value to the change in practice (Hall and Hord, 2001). Senior leaders are expected to support the lead teachers and to participate in key learning activities in order to be better placed to support whole-school implementation.

As the balance of expertise shifts from the Teaching School Alliance and The Globe ‘experts’ to the lead teachers, there is a deeper engagement with the project’s goals and a curiosity about how this next phase will unfold. The Teaching School Alliance and Globe team believe that this shift in power is what is needed to enable deep systemic change: with careful, consultative support, teachers can effect positive whole-school change through the arts.

To find out more about Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Teacher Development Fund, visit: 


Cox B (1989) English for ages 5–16. London: DES. Available at: (accessed 3 June 2019).

Cultural Learning Alliance (2017) The case for cultural learning: Key research findings. Available at: (accessed 29 May 2019).

Hall GE and Hord SM (2001) Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles and Potholes. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Hollins ER (2011) Teacher preparation for quality teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 62(4): 395–407.

Joyce B and Showers B (2002) Designing Training and Peer Coaching: Our Needs for Learning. Virginia: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.

Metz A, Bartley L, Ball H et al. (2015) Active implementation frameworks for successful service delivery: Catawba county child wellbeing project. Research on Social Work Practice 25(4): 415–422.

Sharples J, Albers B and Fraser S (2018) Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation: Guidance Report. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: (accessed 25 July 2019).

Shulman LS (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher 15(2): 4–14.

Stredder J (2009) The North Face of Shakespeare. Stratford-upon-Avon: Wincot Press.

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