Ranking institutions according to levels of student satisfaction, the annual survey often appears to exclude high-performing drama schools. Teaching staff from around the UK tell Susan Elkin why its criteria suit large universities and how a new reporting standard could give a less misleading impression of smaller schools
Every spring, thousands of higher education students, mostly in their final year and across all disciplines in 357 institutions, choose to complete a satisfaction questionnaire known as the National Student Survey.
Managed by Ipsos Mori, the survey claims on its website to be “an influential source of public information” that “gives students a powerful collective voice to help shape the future of their course and their institutions for current and prospective students”.
But how relevant is NSS to potential drama students whose needs and aspirations may be diametrically different from students of other subjects and skills?
“It can act as a useful guide,” says Clarie Middleton, principal of Rose Bruford College, observing that it gives students the opportunity to provide feedback on areas including the quality of teaching, assessment, support and the organisation of the course. “But it is worth noting that some drama schools and courses do not receive the minimum level of responses required to register the statistics. If you cannot find any NSS data for the relevant course or drama school you’re interested in, it may simply be because it didn’t get the required number of respondents.”
There’s another caveat. If a drama school is part of a university – as many now are – then the statistics might be incorporated within the university. “You may need to look further than the headline figure,” says Middleton, adding that schools funded by the Office for Students receive a gold, silver or bronze award which is displayed on the school’s website. Rose Bruford, for example, currently holds a gold award.
Paul Rummer, principal of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, is similarly concerned about small schools: “Given the small size of many schools and, within them, the small number of students on any course, NSS figures can easily be swayed or statistically insignificant.”
“The NSS is a nonsense as it isn’t answered by all students. We have never been asked to take part,” says Annemarie Lewis Thomas, founder principal of the Musical Theatre Academy, which has twice won The Stage School of the Year award.
She adds: “Independently we’ve asked every year group (in an anonymous survey) since we launched in 2009 if they’ve been satisfied with their training and asked if they’ve felt that we’ve got them industry-ready within two years. To date we’ve had 100% satisfaction rate. That means that we would actually top the NSS table, but we’re not included.”
Some institutions, such as the Oxford School of Drama, which has published the Essentials Guide to help students to identify excellence in training, are not included in the NSS because their students are funded by Dance and Drama Awards and Advanced Learner Loans rather than Higher Education Funding.
“But the specific termly student feedback we collect ourselves is vital to us as a measurement of how we are doing and what we need to improve,” says OSD principal George Peck.
So if, as Peck suggests, “the generalities of the annual NSS, which is designed for large universities and to cover a wide range of courses, may not actually be that useful”, what should aspiring drama students look at instead?
Sally Ann Gritton, Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts’ director of academic affairs and head of undergraduate performance, advocates curiosity above all else. “Ask questions,” she says. “Talk to current students about their experiences. Are they feeling listened to and supported? Are they feeling represented? Do they feel at home?”
She also stresses that prospective students should ensure that the school they’re interested in is working hard to ensure that its teaching is of the finest standard relevant for the 21st century. “Ask about former student employment rates, whether students have the necessary film and TV skills and whether they have agency representation,” she advises.
A new standard that purports to be impartially statistical is the Teaching Excellence Framework, which was introduced by the government last year. “It provides guidance to the quality of teaching at a drama school,” explains Middleton. “In addition to the NSS results, the TEF takes into account retention and destination data.”
There are concerns, however, among student unions, that the influence the NSS may have in awarding different TEF levels to higher education providers could also be used by the government to increase undergraduate tuition fees. “There has certainly been a boycott of the NSS by some worried students this year, which may influence the NSS scores achieved by some drama schools,” says Rummer.
So, as when analysing any statistical data, it seems to be a matter of proceeding with caution and an understanding of how the NSS works. While it might be worth looking at, it is never going to tell the whole story about a drama school or course.
Rummer sums it up: “Applicants may find that interrogating taught hours, class size, staff biographies, artistic policy, range of productions, performance venues and graduate employment could be of more practical use.”