If you’re the parent of a year 6 child you will now be thinking hard about which secondary school do send him or her to next September. Perhaps one of your local secondary school claims to specialise in the performing arts. That sounds good if your 11 year old is that way inclined, but may be a bit worrying if he or she is already showing signs of a lifelong love affair with maths and physics.
What does such a specialism actually mean? In my view, not a lot. And I found myself thinking about this again recently when I visited a newish establishment offering foundation courses whose principal told me excitedly that no fewer than three of the local secondary schools had a performing arts specialism so that would mean lots of talented applicants in the area, wouldn’t it? Well, probably not, I had to tell her.
First, some background. In the early 1990s the then government introduced a scheme that encouraged secondary schools in England to adopt a specialism – eventually there were 13 different options. To qualify each school had to secure a capital sum in private sponsorship which the government initially matched and, in later cases, later topped up by 200 per cent. It meant money for new buildings and refurbishment – and a gleam in every headteacher’s eye, especially as specialist schools also got extra grant from the government for each pupil.
Over the years ‘specialism’ has become the norm and I can’t help thinking of W S Gilbert’s line ‘When everybody’s somebody then no one’s anybody.’ Nearly all secondary schools have one and many specialise in several (which is effectively a contradiction in terms). It has now all merged with the academies scheme and many schools have the newish buildings their heads wanted.
But it doesn’t – sadly – necessarily mean that the specialist subject is taught any better in a specialist performing arts school than anywhere else. I hate to resort to the expression ‘take the money and run,’ but there was an element of that in too many cases.
There are roughly 5,000 secondary schools in England. Of these 5-600 are designated ‘arts colleges’. Around half of those purport to specialise in the performing arts.
Some are outstanding and really do have outstanding performing arts facilities and a strong focus on all aspects. Stantonbury Campus in Milton Keynes http://www.stantonbury.org.uk/moxy/?tstyle=style1 is a fine example, for instance.
In general, though, these specialisms are often now played right down.
So it you’re agonising about a secondary school for your ‘thespy’ ten or eleven year old and traipsing around schools’ open days this term, you need to ask some probing questions. Take nothing for granted even if there is – apparently – a performing arts specialism.
Ask: How much time do 11-14 year olds spend doing drama, dance and music? How many specialist staff are there and what, if any, professional experience do they have? How many students do dance, drama and music at GCSE or other examination level? How many students continue with performing arts in further or higher education after they leave the school?