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Drama in School

Dateline: 08/04/97

It's a truism - and quite a boring one, really - to say that the future of British theatre lies in the hands of our children. After all, the future of everything lies in the hands of our children! This blindingly obvious idea, however, does not seem to have occurred to the DfEE (the Department for Education and Employment, for the uninitiated, i.e. those lucky enough not to have anything to do with it.). Or if it has, they don't care.

We have a new, bright, shiny National Curriculum - well, actually, it's getting on in years now, creaking at the joints, and somewhat tarnished - which is intended to give our kids a broad and balanced education, whilst emphasising the core subjects of English, Maths and Science. Leaving aside the fact that, in primary schools greatly and, to a lesser extent, in secondary schools, the broad and balanced bit has actually reduced the time available for English and Maths, the effect of the NC has been to decrease the range of subjects available - including (nay, especially!) Drama.

You see, Drama does not appear in the National Curriculum. Well, not quite true: the name Drama does appear, but as part of English, and what it means is reading plays by Shakespeare (they haven't got round to insisting he be studied in Nursery Schools yet, but it's probably not far off) and major writers like - well, J.B. Priestley.

Dance appears - as part of PE. Ask professional dance practitioners what they feel about Dance being taught by people whose sole training was a short course which really only interfered with their playing hockey, netball, football or rugby! And Music is there, in its own right too - but just up to age 14.

Art, by the way, is part of Technology. Not a lot of people know that.

The Arts are not important!

That would seem to be the message of the National Curriculum. And further, Drama would appear to be the least important of the Arts, because it doesn't actually appear.

There are, of course, schools that continue to teach Drama, that recognise its importance, but they are in a minority. In the town where I live, only four of the fifteen comprehensive schools have Drama on their timetable - just under 27%. Now the NC does allow for subjects other than those in the so-called core and foundation, but with the emphasis on league tables, schools are much more likely to use that minority time in ways which will lead to better exam results.

Schools are aware of the benefits of Drama as a timetabled subject, but they are forced to prioritise - but not on an educational basis. You see, now schools are in competition with each other. Parents can choose which school they want their kids to go to, and you wouldn't believe the fighting that goes on to attract pupils! So schools look at their minority time and ask themselves, "What will attract the best (i.e. the most academic) pupils?" So they go for a second foreign language or something of a similarly academic nature. In the war for the best kids, Drama is not sexy, at least to those in the hierarchy who direct the school's development.

The School Play

In the eighties, when the government of the day was blaming teachers for all the country's ills (even for the state of English cricket!) and did all it could to make the lazy sods work harder - increased hours (for meetings, forsooth!), reduced holidays, extra training, larger class sizes, reduced staffing, reduced non-contact time - teachers, quite understandably, got a little fed up and (because the same government had demonised trade unionism and lumped strikers along with paedophiles and those who beat up old ladies) "withdrew goodwill". This meant that the wonderfully rich British tradition of after-school activities virtually disappeared overnight. Part of that abandoned tradition was the School Play.

In the nineties, however, commonsense began to reassert itself, even in the Tory Party, and there has been a steady growth in school theatre, although it has not, perhaps, reached the same level as once it did. Even schools who do not have Drama on the timetable are now producing shows, and many reach very high standards.

However cuts in education (and other) spending have resulted in a decline in the number of youth theatres, which gave kids in those schools which don't do their own shows an opportunity to try themselves out on stage.

The Private Sector

As a result of all this, Drama education provision in British schools is much less than it was in the seventies: there are fewer schools teaching the subject; there are fewer schools doing shows; there are fewer youth theatres. It is interesting to see that there has been a corresponding growth in paid-for performing arts education. The most well known is the Stagecoach franchise which now has Saturday morning performing arts schools all over the country - but only for those who can afford the fees, which are not cheap. There are others, too, although Stagecoach is the only one which can claim to have a truly national coverage.

So there is a demand for education in Drama and the other performing arts, a demand that is not being met by the education system but by private initiatives.

This is all well and good, for those who can afford it. We have lived for a long time with the situation that post-18 performing arts education has been something of a lottery, with the availability of discretionary grants depending on where you live. Recently, because of the ubiquitous cuts, discretionary grants are a species on the verge of extinction (see my article of 5th May, 1997); now it looks as though pre-16 performing arts education may be going the same way.

But, you might say, there is NESTA (see last week's feature). In all honesty, can you see any (Science, Technology and the Arts, for God's sake!) organisation, with a remit the breadth this one has, having either the time to consider or the money to give to talented students, of whatever age? I was pessimistic enough on 5th May: nothing that's happened since has encouraged me to brighten up.

GNVQ

There's one glimmer of hope: GNVQ. These General National Vocational Qualifications are gradually being introduced into secondary schools and tertiary colleges. The Advanced GNVQ, for instance, is supposed to be the equivalent of two 'A' Levels, whilst the Part I Foundation and Intermediate GNVQs are the equivalent of two GCSEs (Foundation at below grade C and Intermediate at A-C). Amongst the full GNVQs (although not yet available as a Part I) is a qualification in the Performing Arts.

Now these are not the same as a GCSE in Drama or Expressive Arts, or an 'A' Level in Theatre Studies: they are very much job-related and all include a module on jobs in the relevant industry. I have followed the development of the BTEC GNVQ in the Entertainment and Performing Arts Industries very closely and with great interest, and I have to say I am not encouraged by what I have seen. There is a lot of emphasis on what I would call the Business Studies aspects (use of IT, management systems, ensuring value for money(!), promotion, health and safety, and so on), whilst the performance aspect is definitely subsidiary. In fact, at the Foundation level it comprises one and a half modules out of a proposed five (three mandatory, two optional, plus Core Skills, which are, essentially, literacy, numeracy and IT).

It would appear - and I stress that this is purely my reading of the documentation that I have seen - that the emphasis is on arts/entertainment administration and management, not on the actual performance. It might be, however, that SCAA (The Schools' Curriculum and Assessment Authority) and those who devise and accredit the GNVQ will have a change of heart and put performance at the centre of these new vocational qualifications.

But don't hold your breath.

So, where is the opportunity for school pupils to learn the basics of performance skills? Well, either

  • they are lucky enough to go to a school which teaches Dance and/or Drama and/or Music at least to GCSE level, or
  • they are lucky enough to attend a school where these needs are met through extra-curricular activities, or
  • they have parents who can afford (and are willing!) to pay for tuition in a private "school", or
  • they have access to a free - or at least very cheap - youth theatre.
I would be very surprised if as many as a half of our kids can fit into any of these categories!

No. I'm sorry. I'm still pretty pessimistic.

Perhaps we should stop all this talk of art and culture, and simply focus on the millions of tourist and other pounds that the UK entertainment industry contributes to the GNP every year. Then when the government sees that they're putting actual cash at risk, then something might happen. Maybe.

***

Latest News

Sir Ron Dearing's report into the future of higher education has recommended that Dance and Drama students should be given grants which cover reasonable tuition costs: in other words, they should be treated in the same way as other students in higher education.

Dance centre, The Place, has received a �5m Lottery grant for redevelopment.

The Royal Opera House soap opera continues. Former boss Genista McIntosh more or less admitted to the National Heritage Select Committee that the "health problems" given as the reason for her resignation were basically a cover-up, and she and former general director Jeremy Isaacs both spoke of their concerns that there would not be enough money available to maintain current standards when the Hosue reopens after its rebuilding.

Still at the House, select committee chairman Gerald Kaufman called the system of appointing directors a "self-perpetuating oligarchy" and described the running of the theatre as "feudal".

Touring company Cheek by Jowl is to suspend its operations and disband its admin team next year. This will be so that artistic co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod can take a "sabbatical year".

Chris Smith will be taking a close look at the Arts Council of England and the regional arts boards, as part of a fundamental review of spending plans.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre has been given a lean bill of financial health by independent accountants after its financial problems earlier this year.

Many of the stars of the hit TV show Gladiators have priced themselves out of the pantomime market this year, after asking �8000 a week, double what they charged last year.

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