Dr Jay Wiggan on – Enhancing social policy teaching and learning. Reflections on theatre as a means to improve student understanding of complex social problems

13 Jun

The cast of Hostel: Julie Maxwell, Louise Matthews & Caroline Curran

ImageThe School is always seeking to develop its range of teaching methods, enhancing the student learning experience to foster improvement in academic knowledge and analytical skills. With this in mind the Social Policy team, with financial support from the Queen’s Annual Fund, took the opportunity to commission Kabosh, an award winning Belfast theatre company, to deliver a performance of  Fionnuala Kennedy’s play, Hostel , to undergraduate social policy, criminology, sociology and social work students in the School. Hostel had been performed to, and well received by,  general public , service user, practitioner and policymaker audiences in Northern Ireland and commended for offering insights into the trade-offs inherent when problem solving intractable social issues.

Dealing with issues of stress, despondency and hope that accompany reliance on a fragmented social welfare safety net, Hostel is a semi autobiographical account of a young lone parent, ‘Maria’, and her experience of becoming homeless and moving into sheltered accommodation in Belfast. The play consequently gives ‘voice’ to how aspects of housing policy actually work in practice, drawing attention to issues of low income; social exclusion and the unequal power relationships that exist  between service users and service providers in the welfare state. Given this, the Social Policy team reasoned that bringing a performance of the play into the School was an excellent opportunity to bring to life and engage student with core social policy themes, grounding them in this ‘real life’ example of how homelessness is represented and experienced in contemporary society.

Did this work? After the performance we invited students to give verbal and/or written feedback on Hostel and below are two reviews of the play, written by undergraduate students on the first year module; SPY1001 Finding out about Social Policy.

While intelligently written and at times comical; hostel provides an insightful look at how ordinary family life is postponed and devalued during periods of homelessness.  While it contain many touching moments perhaps the most powerful where the actors descriptions of how they had been disempowered by the housing department and those who manage the hostel.   On numerous occasions their opinions were not just ignored by the housing executive, but they were treated like petulant children within the hostel system.  The underlay reason for many of the occupants stay at the hostel could be directly linked to poverty and lack of opportunity in procuring affordable housing.   This short play actively portrays how  the end users of the social security systems are disenchanted with the services,  it  illustrates the lack of voice that they have  and brings not only the problems in relation to poverty to life but how social policy directly affects an individual’s life chances, and gives a moving account of how these issues shape the lives of all concerned (Bronagh Boyle).

Hostel gave an interesting insight into the stress and frustrations felt by the users of services provided by local authorities regarding housing or the lack of it. This play showed how powerless the service user feels and how their opinion is not always considered or taken into account when allocating housing. Maria showed that circumstances beyond a person’s control contribute to their situations but these personal situations do not get brought into decision making. For example when Maria requested to be housed near her mother so she would know someone, instead the decision makers would only offer Maria a house in a completely different area, knowing that the policy is that Maria could only turn down two offers or she would be taken off the housing list. The play showed the in balance between the hostel residents and the management of the hostel who on the whole did not seem to care about the residents requests and policed the rules and regulations to the letter. I think this play can definitely show how the individual is affected by administrative decisions. People are not homeless through choice but through unforeseen circumstance, whether it is family breakdown, loss of income or bereavement. Few of these factors seem to be considered when making decisions in social housing allocation (Bernadette Parks).


The performance was followed by a short question and answer session with the playwright and director Fionnuala Kennedy, who was able to discuss the inspiration for the play and explain how much of the content was based on actual events that had taken place in Belfast. The play received positive comments from students who indicated to staff they felt the play helped to contextualise some of the more theoretical and historical aspects of the social policy module, covered in the preceding weeks of lectures and tutorials. In subsequent tutorial discussions around housing policy and anti social behaviour it was my experience that students did reference and draw on the play when interpreting and debating official data and policy concerning contemporary welfare reform. Was it therefore an unqualified success? Well in hindsight the play had as much to say on issues of social control and social justice as it did on housing and homelessness.  An improved alignment of these topics in the tutorials in the weeks immediately following the play, together with improved integration of these issues in the linked assessment would have strengthened the potential learning benefits for students. The support of Queen’s Annual Fund meant, however, that the Social Policy team were able to hire an audio visual company to record the play which enables us incorporate a non-live performance of Hostel into the curriculum in future years, taking on board the lessons learned. Overall our experience of using theatre to bring to life complex social problems, policy responses and administrative structures was positive and we would not hesitate to utilise this teaching method again as a means to enhance the student learning environment and facilitate debate.  


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