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Backstage: How are we training the next generation?

Pauline Tambling, chief executive of CC Skills, Rachel Craddock, young people’s programmer, National Gallery, and Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House. Photo: James Fletcher
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It’s an exciting time for Creative and Cultural Skills, the body responsible for preparing young people for work in the creative industries. Last week the organisation held its annual conference at its headquarters at High House Production Park in Thurrock, bringing together representatives of some of the backstage and technical sector’s biggest employers and most influential figures, along with young people right at the beginning of their careers.

Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for culture and the digital economy. Photo:  James Fletcher
Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for culture and the digital economy. Photo: James Fletcher

Speakers including Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley and shadow minister for culture and the digital economy Chi Onwurah spent the morning outlining the potential of apprenticeships when it comes to widening access to the creative industries. After the closure of the Creative Employment Programme in November 2015, an arts council-funded scheme that worked with more than 1,000 employers to offer young people their first taste of paid training and employment in the sector, conference delegates were keen to discuss how momentum can be maintained to ensure the future success of the creative apprenticeship movement.

Greg Dean of the Skills Funding Agency gave a presentation on government plans for apprenticeships for the future, including some information on the new apprenticeship levy payable by companies with annual wage bills of more than £3 million. With the policy not yet finalised, however, much is still unclear as to how smaller organisations will be affected by these changes. In her summing up, Pauline Tambling, chief executive of CC Skills, underlined the importance of taking part in public consultations on the subject to try to prevent the situation becoming more challenging for smaller employers.

Happier news came with the announcement that the National College for the Creative and Cultural Industries will be accepting its first 20 students in September. The college will offer a year-long level four professional diploma in technical and production, designed by representatives from employers including White Light, Ambassador Theatre Group, the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House and Stage Electrics, and accredited by University of the Arts London. BECTU and the Association of British Theatre Technicians have both endorsed the course.

Catherine Large, who is leading the project for CC Skills, explained in a breakout session that almost all learning at the college will be project-based, with students working alongside professional companies at the Backstage Centre at High House Production Park, a state-of-the-art facility large enough to rehearse arena tours, operas and large-scale commercial musicals. The first term will be in collaboration with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures and Re:Bourne, which will be making a new large-scale touring work at High House this autumn.

Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England. Photo: James Fletcher
Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England. Photo: James Fletcher

The diploma will cost £4,500, with loans available from the Student Loans Company on the same basis as for those in higher education. Diplomas will offer a “direct line of sight to work”, said Large, with young people regularly coming into contact with prospective employers, and courses including professional accreditations so that young people can begin work immediately at the end of their training.

Two further level four diplomas – community arts practice and cultural venue operations – are in development, with courses slated to begin in September 2017. Courses will be available for 16-18 year olds from this September, too, in partnership with South Essex College: the level 3 production arts diploma is a two-year course designed to build progression into the industry.

The other important strand of training available at NCCI is an apprenticeship scheme that Large hopes will attract 60 young people in its first year. Apprentices will spend the majority of their time in the workplace, but will attend masterclasses at the Backstage Centre, and network and build portfolios online.

“We’re setting up this national college at the exact moment that the apprenticeship system is changing significantly and what we hope this will allow us to do is to create a new and responsive offer that works for both employers and young people in that new way,” said Large.

She and her team are currently working with employer groups to create four new standards to ensure that the apprenticeships respond to industry need. ‘Creative venue technician’ covers all things backstage and technical; ‘cultural venue operations’ looks to front-of-house, box office and facilities management; and ‘community arts co-ordinator’ will prepare apprentices for education-focused roles within cultural organisations. The final standard, ‘crafts practitioner’, is for young people wishing to train as ceramicists, blacksmiths and jewellers.

Though based at High House, the new college will eventually be truly national, said Large, ultimately extending into hubs around the UK where the industry’s need is greatest. Central to this national offer will be new residential accommodation that will open up Backstage Centre facilities to learners from around the UK for short courses and masterclasses. CC Skills has just announced £9 million of funding for the capital project, which is due to open in 2018.

Alongside plenty of talk about the opportunities available for young people seeking training and employment in the creative industries in the future, a number of confident and highly articulate former apprentices shared their experiences in a panel discussion and breakout session exploring the realities of this way of working.

Marcus Davey, chief executive of The Roundhouse, with apprentices. Photo:  James Fletcher
Marcus Davey, chief executive of The Roundhouse, with apprentices. Photo: James Fletcher

Bo-Dee Kelly, who recently completed a music business apprenticeship with the music licensing company PPL, described the importance of networking, with both peers and industry leaders, spreading your net as widely as possible in order to create opportunities later on. Stuart Graham, assistant head of technical services at Ambassador Theatre Group, who began his career in theatre as an apprentice 24 years ago, echoed this sentiment.

“Networking is not an easy thing to do, but it’s really important. Skills can be taught, but relationships are something you’ve got to go out and find, and you create lasting networks. It’s hard to go out there, but you’ve got to break those barriers early.”

This includes making the most of your colleagues’ contacts books during your apprenticeship, said Marissa Anthony, who now works as a freelance social media manager after a business administration apprenticeship at craft-business incubator Cockpit Arts. Also key to finding work at the end of an apprenticeship, she said, particularly when going up against graduates, is “finding other ways to really strengthen your CV and your professional development.”

A bias towards applicants with degrees is still the case in many companies but the situation is gradually changing, Graham said. At least as far as the world of technical theatre is concerned, things are very much looking up.

“A lot of people come through the conservatoires or come in with lighting or stage management degrees, but at ATG we don’t ask for degrees for any of our technician jobs now, no matter what level it is.”

There are plenty of challenges still to overcome in the world of creative apprenticeships over the next few years, but judging by the mood at the conference last week, there’s real appetite for progress. Watch this space.


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