Is it time to give training institutions star ratings?

Acting course at Arts Ed. Photo: Tom Duke
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I like to get advice before taking any decision in life. Before deciding on any holiday hotel, I look at the star ratings. Not the ‘worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in since my wedding’ type of reviews on TripAdvisor, but the star ratings of approved bodies such as the AA and English Tourist Board. I do that for somewhere I’m only going to stay for just a few nights. So wouldn’t it be great if the same sort of rating system was available for somewhere you’re going to stay for up to three years – drama school?

When wandering the gas-lit, smog-filled streets of South Yorkshire in the 1970s and trying to decide which drama school to choose, the only help at hand was a little-used pamphlet about jobs in drama. It was in a box in the school careers room, nestling next to a well-thumbed copy of How to Be a Spot Welder.

In today’s society, information is much more readily available, so it should be easier to make a more informed choice about your drama training destination. But is it? Given the lack of comparative ratings, how can an aspiring actor make that all-important decision about which institution will turn their acting dreams into a career? Given the fact that this now involves an investment of at least £28,500 for some establishments – a sum many people can ill afford – how can you ensure you get value for money and a good result at the end of it?

Would it help if we could refer to a list differentiating between RADA (probably five-star) and the Polly Peckham School of Performance (almost definitely one-star)? How would we start to make such a system valid?

RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre
RADA’s Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre

First of all, you have to decide exactly what you want – a practical course and skill set that will help you get work or a degree-level qualification. In a world where almost everyone has a degree, how valuable is it unless it can guarantee you a job? Which of course it can’t. So a drama school or conservatoire might look like the more practical option.

No one can teach you how to act. Raw talent has to be there to begin with, but drama schools can spot potential and develop it. They can teach you how to be an actor. They can be a bridge into the profession, some more effectively than others. But how well do they do this and how do you find that out?

When booking a hotel, the star rating is usually based on facilities rather than service. Could this be the starting point for our drama school system?

Drama schools with fabulous theatres, such as Guildhall, Arts Ed, RADA and Rose Bruford, are keen to show these on their websites. It gives you an idea of where you’ll be working. Warm, light, and spacious rehearsal rooms such as those at Guildford School of Acting are another asset as you’ll be spending a lot of time in them. Other facilities, such as libraries, relaxing green room space, modern showers and changing facilities, will all make your life easier, but will they make you a better actor? As Adrian Hall, principal of ALRA, told me: “One of the most talented students I ever came across had done all his drama training in a Portakabin in the corner of the playground.”

Jane Harrison, principal of Arts Ed, points out that the school has recently been the lucky recipient of a grant from the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation. This has enabled it to build a fantastic new theatre, which has certainly enhanced the school’s facilities, but not necessarily changed their already respectable results in terms of the number of working graduates. You might be at a school that has a fabulously big library, but can you read yourself into being an actor?

Guildhall’s production of Company. Photo: Clive Barda
Guildhall’s production of Company. Photo: Clive Barda

Location can also be key. Many students may feel they are getting extra value for money by being located in London, with easy access to where the work is, the West End, and other resources such as the Actors Centre. Yet living costs are high, and an inability to stay in the same location after training is finished as well as the fact that you’re vying with an awful lot of other students in other schools for agents’ attention may be downsides.

Outside the capital, there may be a more local feel. Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama seem to operate at a more relaxed pace because of their situation. ALRA students benefit from its twin sites in south London and Wigan. Students can change campus during the course and the two sites often work together.

But as the head of Rose Bruford’s School of Performance, Niamh Dowling, told me: “Facilities don’t tell you about the people who work there. Information about the audition experience and the way tutors will work with them are the real things that should help potential students make a decision.”

Many schools are keen to advertise the number of contact hours students will have with tutors. All drama schools offer more supervised contact hours than comparable courses at universities, so the differentiating factor here is who that contract is with. Who are the schools’ permanent tutors and what is their pedigree? You can normally find information about this on the schools’ website.

Arts Ed – named school of the year at The Stage Awards 2016 – makes a virtue of the fact that all its final-year shows are directed by non-permanent staff – people currently working in the business. This is additional promotion for students stepping into the world. Arts Ed alumna Juma Sharkah received an Olivier nomination for her performance in Liberian Girl at the Jerwood Upstairs, directed by Matthew Dunster. He had previously directed her in a final-year production at Arts Ed. This is not something that any drama school can guarantee, but such links can help and may garner the drama school an extra star.

A recent co-production between Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and Bristol Old Vic ensured the 2016 graduates trod the boards with Timothy West and Stephanie Cole in a production of King Lear. This certainly enhanced the final-year experience for the students involved.

David Hargreaves (centre) and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School company in King Lear. Photo: Simon Annand
David Hargreaves (centre) and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School company in King Lear. Photo: Simon Annand

Ratings for drama schools are there if you search for them. The now sadly defunct Drama UK’s website still details many drama courses. The body provided accreditation and minimum standards, but never rated the establishments. For that you need to look at the Ofsted reports where they exist, validation by larger educational establishments of which the school may be part, and the Times and Guardian educational listings among others. As Leon Rubin, principal of East 15, part of the University of Essex, points out: “The tables for grading are there for all drama schools already – just not the same listings for each one.”

It would seem that it’s down to aspiring students to do research themselves. This is no bad thing. Some students start out with the idea they would like a more classical style of training, while others see their destination as television or film. Not all drama schools are a one-stop shop, despite what their websites might have you believe. Remember that a website is an advertisement. It’s trying to attract you. It won’t show you a picture of the smallest rehearsal room. It’ll show you the picture of the best new modern theatre that the school possesses.

Even the student satisfaction awards have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Manchester Metropolitan University may have the highest student satisfaction rating for the past two years, yet have the students ever experienced any other drama school?

So much of what a drama school might be judged on is subjective – as is so much of our work as actors. Sitting side by side, watching the same play on the same evening, you and I may have vastly differing views on the quality of each actor.

As Paul Rummer of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School says: “It’s important that applicants do their own research and look at the number of taught hours, the staff-to-student ratio, the graduate destinations of recent students and the school’s links to the industry.” All this information should be readily available on sites other than the school’s own website.

Creating a respected inspection body for drama school training would be both expensive and require agreement from all schools on the criteria. The drama school principals I spoke to don’t believe there is the appetite for this, given that most drama schools are already linked to a quality-assurance system of some kind.

The major drama schools in Britain do offer the most comprehensive and thorough acting training available worldwide. This is borne out by the large number of foreign students attending major schools in the UK. While the schools may be taking them in to balance the books, they wouldn’t come here if the training weren’t first-class. But first-class has varying degrees and that’s where an independent rating system would come in. Just because it’s hard to do, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. And with the student now as customer, perhaps it’s needed more than ever?

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