Will drama turn to crisis? On The New Arts GCSEs and A Levels

The Government’s statement on the new arts GCSEs and A Levels is to be welcomed. It states that: “Students will be able to access high-quality, rigorous GCSEs…” and that: “These new A levels will ensure that students have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in demanding undergraduate courses.” This will come to a great relief to many teachers and students of the Arts who have been worried as to what the future might be for these subjects.

However, there could be a problem. Issues around science practicals, and the Speaking and Listening element in English GCSEs point to a problem, it is very difficult to assess practical exams fairly let alone ‘rigorously’. This has led to students in drama finding it more difficult to get the highest grades. In fact, in percentage terms it is easier to get the highest grades in Physics and Mathematics than it is in Drama. The fear is that drama might cease to be a practical exam and become an entirely written exam.

Practical Drama is an extraordinarily difficult subject to assess fairly, once performed all evidence is gone. It is not possible to have an objective view as an examiner. Each student has wildly different challenges depending on what they are performing and who they are performing with, so it makes sense to say that this part of the exam cannot be compared to the ‘rigour’ offered by a written exam where scrutiny and ‘more’ objectivity can be brought to bear. If we want to have an exam that stands shoulder to shoulder with the ‘humanities’ subjects then, by all means, turn it into a written exam but this would denigrate something essential in a performing art and that is performance. In the art of drama actors act, just as in their art painters paint. To take painting out of an art exam would be ridiculous (in fact I expect it will stay because paintings remain in some substantive form and can be judged on more than one occasion by more than one person, not so the ephemeral performing art of drama). Even a video of the best quality does not capture ‘live’ theatre; an idea of  how good a performance is in this subject will never be more than a subjective view, even if the examiner is an expert of some years standing. Drama teachers also teach students who are excessively talented as performers but can struggle in the written side, are we to tell these students that they can’t pursue the art at which they excel at school to the highest levels offered and tell them they can’t be examined in the theory of the form through practice?

How to solve this problem? I’m not sure, but perhaps the following might add to discussions:

Drama could be examined in two separate parts: Theory and Practical. The theory should cover History, Performance Theory, Text, Criticism, and ‘Appreciation’. This part could be entirely written exams. The other part of the exam could be practical and supported by a viva. The written exam could be graded 1-9 as other GCSEs, but the practical side would need to accept that it is more subjective so, to borrow from other practical exams, I would like to suggest that we adopt the following ‘grades’ that recognise the more ‘subjective’ nature of the assessment: Fail, Pass, Merit, Distinction. Both ‘papers’ could be a single or double award allowing a student to take drama as an entirely ‘written’ paper if they so wish or entirely practical in the same way. The viva would be videoed and used as evidence of the student’s working process and thoughts behind the performance element. The practical part of the exam would therefore recognise performance and theory but in an entirely practical way and if sanctioned and overseen by higher education institutions like RADA be of use to that sector re: practical abilities of potential recruits. It could also be used by the ‘entertainment industry’ as a standard for potential employees. The written side of the exam, perhaps overseen by institutions who run drama degrees, would have credibility alongside other qualifications at the same level allowing it to have a similar standing.

Therefore a student in drama could get a single award grade 9 with practical distinction, grade 7 double award with distinction, or grade 9 double award with a practical fail, a practical double award distinction, a double award Merit or even a double award grade 9 with a double award distinction.

It’s just a thought…

6 thoughts on “Will drama turn to crisis? On The New Arts GCSEs and A Levels

  1. I think the idea of Vivas is a really good one. We developed different modes of assessment in BTEC Performing Arts and students who struggled with written English but who understood theory and it’s application (which is what performing arts is) scored very highly indeed. Often performance students are highly articulate and show real depth of understanding but some are really quite weak on paper. We offered them the opportunity to demonstrate (sometimes in costume) how various applications of their research and theoretical understanding operated in performance in short extracts – showing how the character moved, spoke etc.It is very easy to spot the ‘blaggers’ and those who have not really considered all aspects in relation to style, form and the disciplines of voice and movement. Most students and staff enjoyed assessment in this style and we made video of it to spread the practice throughout the college and results significantly improved.But be warned it is time consuming!


  2. I haven’t taught GCSE drama or Theatre Studies A’level since 2000 so I’m not sure what’s gone wrong – I felt then that both of these exams were rigorous and results were as accurate as my other subject, English. Those with difficulties with the written part often did suffer but usually the overall grade came out as expected as her performances would often bump up the grade. Some with poorer performance skills bumped up his grade with the written section of the paper. The guidelines for marking performances were clear, and although subjective, no more than Art or the creative writing process. I see your point about disappearing evidence but assessors were moderated – we were mainly in agreement with each other.

    If it is to change though as teachers are no longer trusted to grade (sigh) then your viva idea is an excellent alternative assessment. I also like the idea of choosing which part of drama a student may wish to study – in a degree it is possible to choose directing or script writing as opposed to performing – equally important parts of Theatre studies/performing arts.


  3. Non-examined assessment, in our case for Drama and PE is a performance. It is vulnerable, as exam performance, to how one performs on the day. Stepping aside from a subject specific commentary, (yours drama, mine PE) one point to add is that all “performance assessment” should have parity and validity across subjects. That aim is not yet achieved and though a sensible objective, I am confident it is far more difficult to achieve than it is to present the case for.


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