Launched last year, Let’s Play is an initiative from the National Theatre that aims to put drama centre stage in state primary schools. What makes it encouraging for anyone who cares about arts provision in education is that it is delivering both original plays and training for teachers in professional theatre-making skills.

Apart from addressing the ongoing debate about an over-focus on SATS and curriculum goals to the detriment of creative space, the scheme stands out because of its refreshing approach. Here we have an outreach programme that aims to embed drama within the primary-age curriculum and let children explore the mechanics of putting on a play, as well as developing their critical thinking and performance skills. Another key issue it seeks to address is that, while the school play remains a cherished institution, it often sits in its own silo. Deputy director of learning for the National Theatre Paula Hamilton says: “Most schools still value a school play and make time for it. It’s just that it tends to sit separately from other learning activities”.

Let’s Play has been five years in the making and started life as an original idea from renowned theatre and opera director Katie Mitchell, who was watching her own child’s school play. She felt – as a parent and audience member – that schools might benefit from a bit of professional support. “Teachers are not necessarily from an arts background,”adds Paula Hamilton. “They may be unconfident or don’t really know how to set about staging a production.” In other words, the school play can be a bit of a ‘stress fest’ – shoehorned into an already packed school day and carrying the artistic goals of pupil actors and their proud audience of parents.

From Katie Mitchell’s idea, the Let’s Play initiative gained momentum, bringing together professional theatre artists, teachers and senior leaders from primary schools up and down the country. It attracted grant funding from, among others, Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Integral to the initiative is the perspective of teachers – not only in developing the original idea to make it practical in a school setting, but in being given the chance to develop their own skills as theatre makers. Schools that sign up for Let’s Play (which costs £350 per academic year) get access to teacher training courses led by professionals. These, says Hamilton, are all about skilling them up. “The CPD is designed to make putting on a play less stressful, more enjoyable. The whole production process becomes important and the skills they learn have a legacy, cascading down to colleagues.”

While the training and workshop materials they take away are a vital part of the mix – giving teachers the confidence to be bolder directors and producers – so too are the plays schools can access. There are eight entirely new scripts, including musical scores and easy-to-learn songs. “Let’s Play supplies everything they need to put on a play,” says Hamilton. “It’s brilliant.” The original scripts and scores include Erich Kästner’s children’s classic Emil & The Detectives (two versions for different age groups), a ripping retelling of Arthurian legend called A Quest for Arthur and a new play about friendship called Megaball.

Hamilton says these scripts are incredibly flexible – adapting to the size of group and specific needs of the school and year. They are also designed to engage all the talents. A carefully balanced script focuses more on ensemble work to inspire team working and a collegiate atmosphere (as opposed to the small number of lead roles typical in many old-style school plays). There’s also a strong emphasis on the value of behind-the-scenes roles – from stage manager, props and costumes to lighting and sound. “It’s about encouraging children to step up without pressure,” says Hamilton. “Rather than a focus on just acting, the aim is to help them create a theatre company.”

The pilot took place in 2017, and the extensive testing and feedback continue as the programme is rolled out. The team from the National Theatre continue to attend a variety of school plays. Hamilton says it’s about watching how Let’s Play works for schools, never critiquing individual school productions. Their team have seen firsthand the impact on individual pupils – from the Year 6 pupil at one school who took on the role of director to the child with specific learning needs at another who acted as sound operator for the show, with both fulfilling those roles brilliantly.

What underpins this whole project is the idea that the opportunity to participate in drama can offer children lifelong benefits – from building confidence and helping with communication skills to fostering a love of the arts, even sparking the desire to pursue a career on the stage or behind the scenes.

Since all the plays are linked right back to the curriculum, offering opportunities to expand learning from the production back into the classroom, Let’s Play ticks a lot of boxes for schools. It also helps with areas that are hot topics in education, notably oracy. Commenting at the launch, deputy head of Hill Mead School in Brixton Becky Lawrence – whose pupils participated in the pilot – said the impact on the children has been huge, adding: “It has developed their speaking and listening skills, supported their reading and writing skills and their confidence and empathy grew rapidly.”

The objective is to sign up 400 state primary schools across the country over the next three years. There is an implicit goal to recruit especially strongly in areas where there are higher levels of deprivation and in areas where children have least access to the arts. That, surely, has to be good news for the wider arts scene, as well as for future generations of artists and play-makers just waiting in the wings.