An education in diversity

Justin Hutchence describes how six months of one-hour drama sessions brought to life issues of race, disability and discrimination for 900 staff at the University of Reading

Diversity Awareness
Designed by: Steps Drama,
Unit 13.2.2 The Leathermarket, Weston Street, London SE1 3ER
Tel: 020 7403 9000
Fax: 020 7403 0909

With around 3,500 staff – and 13,500 enrolled students – the University of Reading provides teaching, research and scholarship across a broad range of academic disciplines. Established in 1892, it has a tradition of innovation, being the first University to win the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement.

The challenge

One of the university’s underlying aims is to provide an environment that is not only intellectually stimulating for staff and students but that is also sensitive to national and international needs. With this in mind, we have an Equal Opportunities Advisory Group to help develop our policy on equal opportunity issues.

In the past, we’ve provided equal opportunities training for new staff arriving at the university and for people who sit on interview panels. We wanted to broaden that out to existing staff and all senior and middle managers, to further raise awareness of the importance of diversity. This was the first time we had undertaken such a significant project on equal opportunities.

Choosing drama

Having assessed some different possibilities for providing diversity training, we decided to take a drama-based approach.

Although it is important, we felt that training on equal opportunities issues could be seen as extremely dull. We thought drama was the best training option because we wanted a short, focused diversity session that would be exciting, interactive and fun. We felt that a drama-based approach would lift the whole project, bring the issues to life and be much more effective than simply giving people a lecture on the merits of diversity.

Following a tendering process, we commissioned Steps Drama to provide the training. They were very professional and they have a good deal of knowledge, experience and capability in diversity training. They worked closely with us to refine the brief and develop the content for an hour-long diversity session.


Delivered by three actor-facilitators from Steps, the sessions included a range of drama scenarios covering race, disability and gender discrimination. I then concluded the training and highlighted where people could obtain further information and advice on diversity issues.

Steps piloted the session with our Equal Opportunities Advisory Group. It was then rolled out to more than 900 staff from all parts of the organisation, including managers and senior managers such as the vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellors, deans of faculty, heads of school and heads of directorate.

To achieve this, Steps ran 24 sessions, over a six-month period, with up to 50 people attending each time. The sessions were held on-site, in various training rooms, lecture theatres and seminar rooms.

The scenarios were delivered using a technique called forum theatre. The Steps actors role-played different situations involving discrimination. Whenever a sticking point arose, one of the actors would freeze-frame the action and ask the audience for feedback on how they should alter their behaviour in order to resolve the situation. When an audience member provided a suggestion, the actor would immediately put it into effect and the audience saw the result. This is a very effective approach and it enabled us to cover a whole series of sensitive issues in a relatively short space of time.

Feedback from the hour-long sessions was overwhelmingly positive. One of the key benefits was that people felt safe to say what they really thought and that level of honesty was positive and very refreshing. It can be enjoyable form of training as the actors engaged the audience and provoked dialogue. We found that after the sessions, people continued to discuss the issues raised.

External audit

The university has recently had an equal opportunities audit, conducted by the Equality Advisory Service on behalf of the Equality Challenge Unit, a government agency which promotes diversity and equality of opportunity in higher education. The Equality Advisory Service described the programme as highly effective and well-judged.

The results of our own evaluation of the sessions will be fed back to our Equal Opportunities Advisory Group. We’ll then decide how we move forward, to build on the progress we’ve already made.

Justin Hutchence is projects officer at the University of Reading.

A good start

For us, this training is only the start of what will be an ongoing process. It has certainly succeeded in its objective of kick-starting the issue of diversity within the university. My personal perspective is that this training has had a significant impact. It has raised awareness and changed the dynamic of our diversity discussion. People are still talking about the content, so the messages and the drama scenarios were clearly memorable. It has given us an excellent platform on which to build for the future.

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