Why is arts provision in UK schools such a lottery?

When Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake opened in November 1995 it rocked the dance world. “There was a David and Goliath feel about the project,” Bourne recalls. “This small, quirky company run by an East-end upstart with no traditional ballet credentials taking on a hallowed classic. We certainly had something to prove!” The production featured male dancers as the swans – and after being featured in the film Billy Elliott, it inspired many young men, from all kinds of backgrounds, take a serious look at dance as a profession.

But if people thought this might lead to the arts in general becoming increasingly accessible and equitable they were to be disappointed. In recent years the acting profession has been increasingly dominated by the likes of Cumberbatch, Redmayne and Hiddleston, rather than actors from working class families, such as Julie Walters and Stephen McGann, who have both spoken openly about this disparity. And at the end of last year, the Musicians’ Union published research showing that children located in London were twice as likely to play a musical instrument than those in the north (and in the West Midlands, 79% of families said that their children did not play a musical instrument at all).

Different priorities

Despite the fact that Britain earns enormous revenue from the arts, the government has targeted this area for cuts now for over a decade. Sam Dunkley is based in Yorkshire, and agrees that this is a problem. He runs a company called Performing Arts etc Ltd, that works with music hubs, and has contributed to several national reports on the state of music education in Britain. “Progress 8 has been a game changer,” he says. “Schools are driven by what they are going to be measured against; academies are not required to follow the national curriculum, and the arts have suffered.”

Jacinta Nordone has been head of drama at Bishop Ullathorne Catholic School in Coventry since Sept 2018, after her previous school decided to cut arts provision and focus on the key subjects assessed for Progress 8 and the EBacc. “The school is in an area of deprivation and going to the theatre is not a priority for families,” she explains. “So for many young people school trips are the only time they see a show.” Fortunately, in the Midlands there is plenty of good theatre to be accessed, from the Birmingham Rep to outstanding community endeavours – and now National Theatre Live streams some performances into cinemas across the UK, which has allowed young people to see a wider range of theatre. However, many important productions are only staged in London, with travel costs putting up often insurmountable financial barriers.

Shining examples

This all feeds into a bigger picture – and Jacinta is concerned that, at least partly due to a lack of focus on the arts in schools, theatre in the UK is becoming more elitist, with fewer young people from so-called ‘ordinary’ backgrounds aware of the career opportunities it offers, and how to they can take advantage of them. “Companies are keen to cast BAME actors, which is great,” she observes, before adding, “but even so, they are still mostly from privileged backgrounds.

Fortunately, there are some shining examples of arts provision to brighten the national picture of doom and gloom. For example, Sam worked with the Bradford music education hub to devise a 40-minute musical written by secondary school students. It was based on local social history, including the story of Titus Salt, who founded Saltsmill, as well as more recent events, including the Bradford stadium fire and the riots in 2001. The piece was eventually turned into a production featuring a professional cast and seen by 10,000 children around the West Yorkshire area; as Sam points out, it’s this kind of experience that helps them to see how the arts could be relevant to their lives – and that is exactly what needs to happen on a wider scale, if we are going to keep the arts open for everyone.

About the author

Sal McKeown is a freelance special needs journalist and author of Brilliant Ideas for Using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom (Routledge) and a book for parents, How to help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child (Crimson Publishing).