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Sixteen and serious about a stage career? What are your training options?

Arts1 students performing 9 to 5 (July 2017). Photo: Scott Rylander Arts1 students performing 9 to 5 (July 2017). Photo: Scott Rylander
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Specialist theatre, drama or music education at 16-19 level doesn’t have to be pricey or far away from home – and it can be the perfect step towards further education and your dream job. Susan Elkin investigates

If you’ve got your GCSEs under your belt, are serious about a career in the performing arts and are wondering what to do next, there’s a lot to be said for transferring to a college or school that offers specialist training at sixth-form level. For those who have the potential and desire to continue into performing arts vocational training it can be a sensible route. And, often, there are no fees.

Sally Cookson, 57, director of Hetty Feather, Jane Eyre and Peter Pan at the National Theatre and currently working on A Monster Calls for Bristol Old Vic and the Old Vic in London, says: “I left my all-girls convent school in Twickenham at 16 and enrolled in a sixth form with good drama and from there I got into LAMDA.” She is very positive about having made the right decision.

Today Arts1 in Milton Keynes offers exactly that sort of training. “We recognised a local need for good-quality professional training,” says co-founder James Grimsey, who runs the school with his wife Rebecca Carrington, the principal. Both trained as performers at Mountview, where they met.

They started their part-time school from small beginnings in 2006. Then, in 2015 they launched a parallel full-time further education BTech in performing arts, the equivalent of A level.

“We found that some of our part-timers were leaving us at 16, going off to colleges for further education and then coming back two years later floundering. Typically, they still lacked the skills to audition for drama school or take the next career step. So we decided to offer a course that would serve them better,” explains Grimsey.

He and Carrington decided that, although Arts1 is a fully independent college, they would offer their quasi-sixth-form BTech free by accessing government funding through a local college.

Read more advice on post-GCSE training

“We could make more money if we charged fees of course,” says Carrington, “but doing it this way means the course is open to anyone who gets through our audition process.”

The first cohort completed their course in summer 2017 and each student was offered a place at a reputable drama school or university to continue training.

Arts1 gets about 80 applications a year and Grimsey thinks its USP is beginning to carry. Many applicants are local, including some who have attended Arts1’s part-time schools. An increasing number come from further afield as the school becomes better known. “We have a network of approved host families who will accommodate them safely,” adds Carrington.

Training for 16-19 year olds counts as further education or FE. If you do it in, or through, a school or college that is part of the state system, then there are no fees just as there wouldn’t be for, say, science A levels.

If you opt for a fully private institution that doesn’t draw down any government funding, then fees will be charged.

Broadly speaking, providers fall into four categories (see bottom of article for contact details):

Drama schools

Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts sixth-form college opened in 2016, next door to the main drama school. It is a free school, open to local students. Funded by the Department for Education, it does not charge fees. It offers a University of Arts London Level 3 Extended Diploma in acting, dance, music, sound technology and production arts.

FE colleges

Colleges across the country run performing arts courses for 16-year-old school leavers, designed primarily to develop the practical skills necessary to access a higher education degree (or equivalent programme).

The best of these include an emphasis on performance, the use of professional facilities and teaching from staff who have worked in the industry and ideally still do.

New College Durham, for example, runs a range of performing arts courses at Level 3 (which approximates to A level) and has a track record for sending students on to vocational training in drama schools and universities.

Similarly, West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds, has a good range of courses including a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Musical Theatre. Or, at the other end of the country is South Devon College in Paignton.

Most students taking these Department for Education-funded courses are fairly local and continue to live at home.

Stage schools

Many students who attended full-time stage schools self-funded need sixth-form provision after GCSE. Chiswick-based Arts Ed provides it – A levels plus vocational studies – and students have access to some of the same facilities as Arts Ed higher education students. Redroofs at Maidenhead in Berkshire is another example. These are specialist fee-charging establishments. Arts Ed sixth form costs £16,340 per year and Redroofs £16,581. Students can usually transfer into these schools for the sixth-form course, or out of them if they choose to enrol in, say, an FE college instead.

Independent secondary schools

Many independent schools have outstanding extra-curricular performing arts facilities, including state-of-the-art theatres and dance studios. There is also almost always a well-developed curriculum in drama, music and sometimes dance led by industry professionals. Oundle School, Northamptonshire, for instance, has a theatre on the town high street and offers terrific development and learning opportunities to students, but this is not a cheap option. Oundle’s fees at sixth-form level are £35,565 per year for boarding and £22,785 for day students.

For more information….


The Box Studios, Sunrise Parkway, Linford Wood, Milton Keynes MK14 6LS, 01908 604756 reception@arts1.co.uk

LIPA Sixth Form College

Mount Street, Liverpool, LI 9HF, 0151 330 3232 enquiries@lipa.sixthformcollege.org

New College Durham

Framwellgate Moor Campus, Durham DH1 5ES, 0191 375 4000 help@newdur.ac.uk

West Suffolk College

Out Risbygate, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP33 3RL, 01284 701301 info@wsc.ac.uk

South Devon College

Vantage Point, Long Road, Paignton, TQ4 7EJ, 0800 038 0123

Arts Educational Schools

Cone Ripman House, 14 Bath Road, London W4 1LY,  pupils@artsed.co.uk 020 8987 6600

Redroofs Theatre School

26 Bath Road, Maidenhead, SL6 4JT 01628 674092, info@redroofs.co.uk

Oundle School

Peterborough, PE8 4GH 01832 277122, info@oundleschool.org.uk

Look for training opportunities on The Stage website

The Stage Scholarships offer free training at Arts Ed and other institutions. Click here for more information

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