Flourishing versus Declining Drama Departments

By Brendan Carroll, St Leonard’s College Head of Learning – Drama

This year, I began my PhD which looks at the qualities of thriving and successful Drama departments.

Senior Secondary Drama classes have been declining Australia-wide for the past decade. In Victoria, enrolments in VCE Drama have declined significantly from 2006 to 2022. VCE Drama is failing to attract and retain healthy enrolments.

It would be remiss of me not to explain why understanding the national trend of declining Drama enrolments is important to the health of VCE Drama, and also, why it matters to me as a Drama teacher. On a superficial level, teaching the performing arts is my vocation. Less enrolments equals a potential slow death of what I have made my livelihood. However, on a far more personal level, the performing arts have defined my identity. From as early as I can recall, I remember the confidence I felt in the knowledge that I was good at something. And perhaps more importantly, the sense of catharsis and purpose while performing. It is because of these reasons that I feel compelled to explore the qualities of successful Drama teaching and disseminate it to my colleagues.

St Leonard’s College is fortunate to have a very strong Drama program – including Hart Theatre, VCE Theatre Studies and Drama, IB Theatre and Private Speech and Drama Classes. For Drama students of the College – I am interested in hearing what successful teaching in the performing arts looks, sounds and feels like. I am interested in understanding why they tend to choose Drama in large numbers and what keeps them coming back.

My PhD study will explore why enrolments are declining and seeks to understand how the decline can be arrested. It asks what strategies and interventions can be employed by drama teachers, both inside and outside the classroom, to attract Senior School enrolments in VCE Drama. It will also examine the student voice regarding reasons why students decline to choose the performing arts as a VCE subject. This research will take the form of a multi case study of many Victorian schools with thriving Drama departments that have maintained or increased their enrolments over the last five years. Through semi-structured interviews with teachers and students at each school, this study aims to generate data concerning the reasons why students are disengaging with the performing arts in their senior years – and teachers’ views and perspectives on running flourishing Drama departments.

To prepare for my PhD – I wrote a 12,000 word master’s thesis on the same subject which can be read here (a long – but interesting read!)

There is no doubt that St Leonard’s College flourishes in the performing arts. By the end of this PhD I will hopefully have gained a wider perspective on why this school and other schools with strong Drama programs tend to flourish – in spite of dwindling enrolments in the arts nation-wide. Our teachers, our students and our future artists will only reap the benefits of such wisdom.