National Theatre director of learning Alice King-Farlow
Matter of inquiry4:02, 6th September 2017
Earlier this year, the government launched an enquiry into the state of the country’s theatre education, and access to the industry as a whole. Rebecca Pizzey shares some of the key issues raised
You’d have been right to celebrate the House of Lords Select Committee for Communications calling for an inquiry to discuss the future of UK theatre and theatre education. Finally: progress, and a platform for experts in the field to share concerns and recommendations to the government. Of course, it was too good to be true; in March and April, theatre directors and educators alike gave their evidence – but the calling of the snap election pushed aside any further discussions after only a few witnesses had been called, with insufficient time and witnesses being cited as the reason.
The intention behind the inquiry was, according to the resulting report, ‘to consider how the UK can nurture and develop the talent needed to maintain its success’. The report, which can be found online, continues: ‘In particular, we set out to investigate what possible routes there are for young people into the industry and what barriers they face.’
In the inquiry, the Committee, which was made up of a group of lords, earls, baronesses and bishops, heard that the UK’s theatre industry, while heralded as an ‘economic success story’, isn’t without cause for concern.
Though it’s true that the industry ploughs money into the national economy, and that people travel the world over to experience all manners of UK theatre, there are still a number of issues that need to be addressed. The report summarises the five key issues raised by the witnesses: the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) made a regular appearance as having a detrimental effect on arts subjects in schools; insecure employment options and ‘low pay or no pay’ jobs, which discourage young people from entering the industry; little understanding of the ‘full gamut of jobs’ available in the industry; lack of representation from BAME communities; and funding, which of late has been vastly affected by local authority cuts.
These concerns prevail – and of course have been acknowledged and challenged by industry professionals and teachers alike for many years – despite the findings of a 2014 report by Arts Council England (ACE). The report claimed that ‘for every £1 of salary paid by the arts and culture industry, an additional £2.01 is generated in the wider economy through the creating of jobs and supply of services needed to sustain it’ (www.tinyurl.com/TD-Autumn1-ACE). Julian Bird of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre ascertained that every year, approximately £1 billion is spent on theatre tickets.
And yet, despite the huge impact that UK theatre has on the economy on a local and national scale, theatre education is still in decline. The EBacc was a repeat offender in witness’ concerns; Sue Emmas, associate artistic director at the Young Vic, described the EBacc as ‘creating a hierarchy of core subjects, with theatre and drama perhaps being seen as a soft option’ – a claim that Matt Hancock, the minister for digital and culture, quickly denied. His denial comes despite clear evidence showing that the number of students taking A levels in performing and expressive arts declined by 15% in 2016, with a 6.4% decline for drama alone. In 2010, 15,262 students studied drama at A level; in 2016, this figure was 11,208.
Another concern raised by witnesses was the lack of specialist teachers in the field. Alice King-Farlow, director of learning at the National Theatre, said that there were ‘very few specialist drama teachers in primary schools’, while Stephen Lacey, chair of the Standing Conference of University Drama Departments, said that many graduates found the avenue of drama teaching ‘closed to them’.
School theatre trips, as our readers will be well aware, are essential to a rich and varied drama education. The benefits of seeing live theatre – be it a core text or not – are unarguable. But, as outlined in the report, some witnesses cited ‘a lack of funding’ and ‘bureaucracy’ as responsible for a sharp decline in school theatre trips. The Committee heard at the Royal Court Theatre that focus on core texts was often needed to justify the cost of visits, thus constraining and even eradicating exposure to live theatre.
Equally, extra-curricular activities as a means of exposure to theatre was highlighted as an important means of access to drama education; despite this, as raised by King-Farlow, ‘Local authority spending has been cut back so there are fewer extra-curricular activities’, while Lacey warned that an over-reliance on extra-curricular activities could narrow access to theatre.
With regards to further and higher education, witnesses noted that there was a lack of wide-ranging skill development – particularly, as our readers will no doubt be able to attest, technical skills. The report shows that ‘some witnesses criticised further and higher education providers for being too academic and placing insufficient emphasis on skills, with the result that they need to be taught on the job.’
So, where to go from here? The Committee ‘felt that we had not received enough evidence, in advance of the unexpected announcement of a General Election’ to produce recommendations to government. Instead, they collated all the evidence from the short-lived enquiry and thus we have the report; but what does this mean for the future of UK theatre and theatre education?
It’s clear from the government’s refusal to budge on the issue of the EBacc, and their inability to listen to teachers who are experiencing first-hand the detrimental effect it’s having on the arts, that nothing may have come from this inquiry even if it wasn’t stopped in its tracks. But it’s a start, I suppose, to drag the truth in front of a Committee and have the results published far and wide for all read. You can read the report here publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldcomuni/170/17002.htm