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Dorothy Heathcote

Dorothy Heathcote MBE (29 August 1926 – 8 October 2011) was a drama teacher and academic  who invented mantle of the expert and many other revolutionary dramatic-inquiry approaches to teaching and learning.

She was born in Steeton, West Yorkshire in 1926. After failing her 11+ she studied at the local elementary school, leaving in July 1940, a month before her 14th birthday, to work alongside her mother as a weaver in Sam Clough’s woollen mill.

Dorothy worked there for five years and expected to stay there for the rest of her working life, but at the behest of her fellow workers, the mill boss, Charlie Fletcher, sponsored her to go and study drama at the Northern Theatre School in Bradford under the guidance of Esme Church. Famously Charlie told her, as she left, that if it didn’t work out there would always be three looms waiting for her at his mill.

At theatre school, Dorothy set her heart on becoming an actress. But at the end of her second year Esme Church told her she had no future on the stage, “My dear, you’re very talented – quite fearfully so at times, but you are not the right size for your age, for the roles you can play… I think we have to face it.” She then suggested teaching. When Dorothy said she would rather go back to the mill. Esme said she was going out of the room and that she expected Dorothy to have changed her mind by the time she got back. She then left, locking the door behind her. By the time she returned Dorothy had changed her mind and agreed to stay on for a further year to do the teacher-training course.

While on teaching practice she travelled around and visited schools, working with random sets of pupils, inventing drama from whatever opportunities presented themselves to her. She also started teaching evening classes at the Bradford Civic and directing amateur productions in local village halls.

In 1951, Dorothy was appointed, completely out of the blue, as a staff tutor at the Durham Institute by Brian Stanley. Stanley took a huge risk employing such an inexperienced teacher. She had no formal education, no national teacher qualification and virtually no experience of teaching children.

Her job was to improve the practice of experienced teachers. Being naïve, and completely unaware of what tutors at university normally did she started teaching demonstration lessons in front of her students. This was considered very strange. At first, Dorothy didn’t realise she was doing anything unusual. Later on, when she knew better, she didn’t care. For her it was the right things to do.

Over the next 10 years Dorothy’s reputation grew as more and more people saw her teach using her remarkable approach.

From the beginning her work was considered unorthodox. In his biography, ‘Dorothy Heathcote’s Story’, Gavin Bolton describes the reaction at the time, “it was anathema to drama specialists, both the traditionalists who saw her work as rejecting real theatre and the progressives who thought she broke all the rules on which Child Drama was founded.” (Page 37)

In 1964 Dorothy started teaching a full-time Advanced Diploma course at Newcastle University. In 1979 this alternated yearly with a full-time M.Ed course. In the twenty-two years, until Dorothy’s retirement from Newcastle in 1986, these courses became among the most influential university courses in the country.

In 1966 her work first appeared on film in Death of a President. She very quickly became known to a much wider audience and began extensively travelling abroad to teach and lecture in other countries. In 1972 Dorothy was featured on Omnibus in a documentary film celebrating her work called (rather fittingly), Three Looms Waiting.

Gavin Bolton has suggested that towards the end of the 1960’s Dorothy’s work experienced, what he calls, a sea change as she “moved away from her dramatically and educationally successful use of making up a play, to being a creator of pictures in which she became a fellow reader along with the class.” (‘Dorothy Heathcote’s Story’ Page 106) This new way of working required her and her students to spend a great deal of time working in hospitals for the severely handicapped or criminal institutions for boys or young men.

A further sea change occurred in the early 1980’s, which brought her back into schools. This new approach she called, Mantle of the Expert, which she designed specifically for teachers who had little experience of drama, “I introduced mantle of the expert work when I was trying to help teachers who didn’t understand creating tension by being playwrights and to cut out the need for children having to act, or express feelings and behave like other people”. (Dorothy Heathcote, ‘Contexts for Active Learning’, 2002, Page 4)

Unfortunately, Dorothy’s new invention coincided with a shift within the educational establishment away from learning as exploration to a more formal, traditional method of transmission teaching. The National Curriculum was first published in 1988, and then followed by the Literacy and numeracy strategies. For a long time Dorothy’s work was overlooked and ignored. In fact, by 2003 the situation seemed so bad that Gavin Bolton wrote, “If mantle of the expert is to become part of curriculum structure, educationalists need to acquire a vested interest in fundamentally revising current conceptions of education. They must be prepared to inspire politicians, advisers, headteachers and their staff of all curriculum subjects – and introduce it into teacher-training. Left to drama teachers alone, Dorothy’s moe will die with her.” (‘Dorothy Heathcote’s Story’ Page 177).

What Gavin couldn’t know at the time was that Dorothy’s work was due for a remarkable revival and that the climate in education was about to change so dramatically and fundamentally that mantle of the expert was to become more relevant and popular than ever. [Update] With further turn of the ‘educational wheel’ imminent and the introduction of another new national curriculum on the horizon the relevance of Dorothy’s educational approaches will once again be tested.

After retiring from Newcastle University in 1986 Dorothy Heathcote moved to Derby to live with her daughter. She continued teaching and writing and in May 2005 the University invested her as an honorary Doctor of Letters. She continued to work until her death on 8 October 2011. She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2011 Birthday Honours for services to drama as education.