Two years ago, drama lost its status as a foundation subject in the secondary school national curriculum, meaning it no longer has to be taught as a subject in it’s own right. This means that it is becoming more commonplace for drama to be taught as part of an English lesson, if at all. A report released last year by the Warwick Commission, a group of cultural leaders and academics brought together by University of Warwick, found that, since 2010, the number of drama teachers in schools had decreased by 8%, alongside a 16% fall in students taking GCSE drama. At that rate, drama qualifications will disappear entirely from schools within a generation.
“The erosion of the performing arts through education policy sends strong messages,” says Stephen Farrier, principal lecturer in drama, applied theatre and education at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. “It further disadvantages those already alienated from the arts.”
At the same time, there has been a boom of privately run, part-time theatre schools and drama groups, with new ones opening up all over the UK each week. According to research by the Sutton Trust, three-quarters of children regularly participate in extra-curricular activities, but cost is a barrier for many: 22% of families in higher social groups spent £500 a year or more on these activities, compared with 10% of middle and lower groups.
Attending one of the UK’s most popular, high-quality, part-time theatre schools costs £907 a year: out of reach for many middle- and lower-income families. There are cheaper extra-curricular drama groups available, but even a budget option costs £150 to £300 a year. It’s clear where this is heading: access to the arts is strictly limited to those who can pay.
Drama works. It improves confidence, helps kids let off emotional steam, develops social skills, empathy, imagination, gives them the skills to understand other people and work in teams. Fostering these talents in only the children whose parents who can afford it is a sure-fire way to further increase the gap between the rich and the poor. Privatising drama will deter people from low-income families from going into arts jobs later in life. That’s not only a social and cultural disadvantage, but also an economic one.
The creative industry is one of the UK’s biggest economic success stories. A government report released in January found that the creative industries are growing at almost twice the rate of the wider economy and are now worth £84 billion a year.
Drama tends to have a more profound impact on students from lower-income families
I have been a freelance drama teacher for 10 years. The decline of drama in state schools is dismaying. I’ve taught in deprived schools in east London, and in some of the country’s top private schools. I’ve worked on government-funded projects and for privately run, part-time theatre schools. A well-taught drama class is hugely beneficial to all its students, but I have noticed drama tends to have a more profound impact on students from lower-income families.
I ran an after-school club in a primary school in the middle of a council estate where the school was deemed ‘unsatisfactory’ by Ofsted. The teachers and students had no respect for each other, or themselves. Most of the children didn’t want to do the drama class, but were there because I charged £3 for a 90-minute after-school club. It was cheaper than childcare, and I gave out four free places.
Here, I saw drama really work its magic. Three weeks into term and these students were not only enjoying the class, they were expressing their feelings, respecting each other and – most importantly – respecting themselves. They loved bringing their life experience to improvisation exercises, and I loved watching them. Drama has a beautiful way of giving a voice to the voiceless. After a few months at this school, parents and teachers would come and tell me how certain students had turned their lives around because of the drama class. I had a reason to believe them.
When I was 12, I started at Newbury Youth Theatre. The fees were at the lowest end at the time: £45 a term, but my parents still couldn’t afford it. When the theatre’s director asked to have a private word with me, I was terrified. He asked why I hadn’t paid. I broke down into tears and told him my parents couldn’t afford it. He gave me a warm smile, put his hand on my shoulder and told me he’d find a way to cover my fees. For four years I went to the youth theatre for free because of this generous man.
The experience there helped me get into the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and inspired me to set up my own youth theatre. One year after launching, I had 250 students coming each week, making it one of the largest youth theatres in the country. The generosity I experienced as a teenager inspired me to pay it forward as an adult. At my youth theatre, I kept the fees as low as possible and gave away many free places. Because I had such numbers attending, I could afford to and still make a very good wage from it.
I’m not alone here: many of the UK’s part-time theatre schools award scholarships. When I worked at Stagecoach, it was very generous at awarding scholarships, as are many other private companies throughout the UK. The Stage also has a scholarships scheme, through which many schools across the UK give out free tuition – this year alone, that support is worth more than £500,000. For the students these scholarships reach, this can be life-changing.
But it can never be enough. If you love the arts and want young people to experience them, now is the time to act. If you’re an actor, why not teach a free drama class at a local school, or run an affordable after-school club? If you’re a director, why not invite a school from a deprived area to come and watch your dress rehearsal for free? If you own a part-time theatre school, why not make a phone call to a local state school and ask the head if there are any children from low-income families who might like a place at your theatre school?
We cannot let the creeping failure of state provision mean that the students who would benefit the most from the arts never get to experience them. I have to believe the government will see its mistake at some point. But in the meantime, let’s take this into our own hands.
Samantha Marsden is a freelance drama teacher, writer and author of Teach Drama: How to Make a Living as a Freelance Drama Teacher. Visit dramafountain.com