Teachers warn of mass cancellation of theatre trips

Producers are bracing themselves to face a “catastrophic” series of school theatre trip cancellations, due to government guidelines that will make it significantly more expensive for colleges to organise days out for pupils.

From September, a new system called “rarely cover” comes into force in UK schools, whereby they will have to hire expensive temporary cover to take classes when teachers are absent on school trips, rather than asking existing staff to share the workload. The idea behind the scheme, which has been instituted by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, is to lessen the workload of full-time teachers.

However, with cover teachers costing around £30 per hour and multiple staff often required, it will add considerably to the cost of theatre trips, meaning that many schools, who are not receiving any additional money to fund the extra outlay, are taking the decision to cut back on ‘non-essential’ outings.

The trip cancellations are expected to impact particularly heavily on matinee bookings for productions which traditionally attract secondary school audiences, including Shakespeare plays and other set texts.

Birmingham Stage Company, which is producing a national tour of Skellig – a stage adaptation of a book that is recommended reading on the secondary school curriculum – has already suffered a string of cancellations due to the changes.

Founder Neal Foster told The Stage: “We’ve already had three direct cancellations because of rarely cover. The schools have explicitly said that they have cancelled because of it. What we don’t know is how many schools have not booked because of rarely cover.

“Teachers around the country, everyone, is acknowledging that this is going to result in a substantial, if not catastrophic, reduction in the number of school visits that schools are going to be able to do.”

His fears have been echoed by a number of other leading theatre producers, including Julian Chenery, chief executive of Shakespeare 4 Kidz.

Chenery said the initiative showed a “lack of joined-up thinking” from the government, which has also recently launched a scheme to encourage learning outside the classroom – something which critics claim will be hampered by the rarely cover guidelines.

He added: “The consequences are massive. It’s going to have an impact not just on theatres and theatre production companies, but also young people being exposed to quality theatre throughout the country.”

Edward Snape, producer of the BFG, said he was “very concerned” about the new system, while the Royal Shakespeare Company said it is monitoring the potential impact of rarely cover on its bookings.

Schools minister Vernon Coaker, though, has insisted that the new guidance should not impact on the number of trips being organised by schools.

He said: “There is absolutely no reason why schools should stop providing school trips because of the rarely cover provisions. School trips should be an integral part of every child’s education and personal development, and provision for them should be included in school calendars and timetables. Appropriate arrangements should be made in the timetable for both the staff and pupils who will be taking part in the trip and for those who are not.

He added: “We will be shortly consulting on guidance to the School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions Document for 2009, which includes guidance on the implications of rarely cover for learning outside the classroom.”

Teachers, however, have said that the guidelines are likely to result in widespread cancellations of theatre trips, along with other outings, and that bookings for education and outreach programmes linked to productions are also likely to suffer.

Alison Warren, head of drama at Clarendon College in Trowbridge and teacher in residence at Salisbury Playhouse, said that rarely cover would most likely either result in cancellations or drama teachers being forced to take more trips in the evenings or on weekends.

“How rarely cover is to be operated will be decided by individual headteachers,” she explained.

“So, if a headteacher decides that the only way to be able to afford the requirements put forward by rarely cover is to do away with school trips, then that is what will happen. Other schools, including mine, are trying to find other solutions.

“My feeling is that it is almost inevitable that there will be a drop in the number of theatre trips. It is hard enough as it is to take out theatre trips. It’s going to reach a point where teachers are just not going to want to do it, because it is too difficult.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster