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‘Parents shouldn’t fear this course’: Leaving Cert’s newest subject could be a game-changer

Drama, film and theatre studies joins the curriculum next year. Some educators believe it could be a game-changer in making senior cycle exciting and engaging

School principal Rory Ward believes in the power of theatre to inspire creativity and teamwork among students. “Our production of Matilda this year was a very good example of building an ensemble,” he says. “I love that word ensemble. It’s about working towards a shared vision, a moment in time that’s beautiful and then it’s gone. Everyone involved in our show felt the same on our last night, from the lead to the students backstage. And they will keep that connection for a long time.”

Drama is a fixture at primary school: it features as early as junior and senior Infants through Aistear, a play-based learning programme, and has its own space throughout the primary curriculum. By secondary school, however, Irish students typically find far fewer opportunities to tread the boards.

The addition of the brand-new Leaving Cert course, drama, film and theatre studies, looks set to change this. Launching in September 2024 on a pilot basis, the course promises to satisfy student demand for more creative subjects, as recorded in a recent advisory report on senior cycle reform by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). According to an NCCA spokesperson, however, the specific subject and its title were decided upon by Minister of Education Norma Foley.

Following the announcement of its addition to the national curriculum earlier this year, teachers and practitioners are asking questions, sharing viewpoints and raising concerns about the new course.

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Jessica Regan, an Irish Rada-trained (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) actor, sees the course as an exciting opportunity for students who might want to work in the arts, but also for those who might not end up anywhere near the world of theatre or film.

“Parents shouldn’t fear this course appearing on the Leaving Cert,” she says. “It doesn’t mean your child is going to run away with the circus. In fact, they should be delighted. Every business teacher should also be delighted. Acting affords a child so many transferable skills.”

Regan believes these skills open doors for a variety of learners. “Drama teaches people how to command a room and that is an amazing skill to bring into any workplace. Alongside my acting I’ve been running a business for the last 15 years, addressing the very real deficit of soft skills in large companies. Through my Big Speeches workshops, I meet and train executives, barristers, all the traditional roles often favoured by parents, and I’m the actor teaching them. I’m the one developing their communication skills.”

Chriszine Backhouse, co-ordinator of creativity and change at Munster Technological University (MTU), hopes the course reaches beyond traditional theatre.

“I think it would be great to see different types of theatre processes introduced. Often theatre is taught from a Stanislavski perspective [a more realistic form of acting]. It would be interesting to include other approaches, such as the work of Brecht, who tried to create theatre that provoked action, rather than allowing the catharsis of the theatre to pacify the desire for social change,” she says.

Backhouse also sees great potential in the subject for students. “Drama can facilitate empathy, critical thinking, and belonging – all so important to developing the whole person.”

Niall Cleary, chair of Youth Theatre Ireland and artistic director of Graffiti, Cork, is thrilled with the news and hopes it will be a highly practical subject. “When you study drama as part of your English course it stays on the page. It doesn’t get on its feet, which is where you can have fun, make discoveries, both personal and academic. It’s such a rich medium; it can be transformative for young people.”

Philip Kingston, community and education officer with the Abbey Theatre, is similarly delighted, remarking that the Abbey has been quietly campaigning to make this happen for many years.

“Ireland is internationally renowned for its theatre, so I’m thrilled for the industry. But as the national theatre of Ireland we also feel a responsibility to lift the spirits of the people of Ireland. It’s a massive win that theatre is being made more available because we believe in the education of the whole human being.”

Kingston hopes the course doesn’t become a heritage project; he says it should reflects the wonderful contemporary work being done in Ireland and that the NCCA collaborates with living practitioners. He also hopes teachers are appropriately trained to teach the subject and, like Cleary, that it doesn’t become an overly academic endeavour.

The UK’s A-level drama specification in England awards only 40 per cent to a three-hour written exam; the bulk of marks going toward making and performing original and published work. However, Sarah Noray, who is currently teaching the specification, speaks of “an overwhelming stigma” in the English system “that creative subjects are the easy option”. She argues vehemently against the claim.

“There is not one right answer. Rather it asks students to think extremely deeply and widely to find answers that are unique, that allow the viewer to interpret in hugely varied ways, which can be both mentally and physically draining.”

The necessity for skilled teachers comes up consistently among teachers and practitioners. It’s no coincidence that teachers report feeling nervous and eager to be adequately trained before the specification lands on their desks.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education confirms there has been “some preliminary engagement with those providers regarding senior cycle redevelopment. The focus over time will be on ensuring an alignment between ITE (initial teacher education) provision and the redeveloped senior cycle across a range of areas.”

Curriculum is raised as another key concern by English teacher, film enthusiast and chairperson of Ireland’s National Organisation for English Teachers Conor Murphy. “The subject is a brilliant addition but covers too much ground too quickly. Film is not theatre with a camera; they are two distinct genres. I know there are courses and MAs with that combination but that doesn’t mean that’s the way to go.”

Murphy thinks we should introduce new courses at a slower pace. “If you’re starting from scratch why not do it properly? And there’s also the question of resources. Film and theatre? How much equipment would you need? And space. Does every school have access to a theatre? We should just do one, drama, and do it well. We should resource it properly. Then review it and do film. That makes most sense to me.”

How are new Leaving Cert subjects created in the Irish system?

PE, computer science and Mandarin Chinese are just some of the newest subjects to join the Leaving Cert in recent years. But who decides on these new subjects? Who puts the curriculum together? And who decides how they will be assessed?

For starters the process of creating new curricula takes approximately 18 months. A background paper is written initially by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). This paper sets the scene, considering where a subject might sit within the broader educational context. Primary school, junior cycle and senior cycle provisions are taken into account, as well as international practice and relevant research. The background paper is then published for public consultation.

Next a development group is assembled. The NCCA seeks nominations for this group from the Department of Education, the State Examinations Commission, teachers’ unions, school management bodies, parent organisations and relevant subject associations. For the first time students are now formally represented on the NCCA and will play a greater role in future.

The NCCA also seeks other expertise via a co-option of two other members through a public call advertised on their website. The details of all members are shared with the public via the NCCA website.

Following months of deliberation a draft specification is released for public consultation. The development group meets to discuss all feedback and the specification is reviewed and finalised and, when agreed by the NCCA council, is sent to the Minister for approval to be implemented in schools.