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School trip slump plunges children’s theatres into crisis

Unicorn artistic director, Purni Morell. Photo: Manuel Harlan Artistic director of the Unicorn, Purni Morell has found numbers of school groups visiting the theatre has declined. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Drama in education is suffering its worst crisis in decades, leading children’s theatre makers have warned.

Theatre companies making work for children and young people have criticised a decline in schools’ participation and a change in attitude within the education system that places the arts “at a very low level status”.

The concerns follow figures released by London’s Unicorn Theatre, which found that schools groups attending the venue have fallen by 6% in the last year.

Unicorn artistic director Purni Morell said an increasing focus on academic subjects was preventing some children from visiting the theatre at all.

“For so many children the only chance for them to go to the theatre is through school. If you create an environment in which you terrify everyone into thinking that it’s all about league tables, what you will not get is a good education. It is not quite clear to me why the government doesn’t understand that,” she said.

Polka Theatre, which has been making theatre for children up to the age of 14 since 1967, has recently changed the days it opens from Tuesday to Saturday, and now opens from Wednesday to Sunday as a result of declining schools audiences.

Artistic director Peter Glanville said the company had been used to a regular schools audience “for many many years”, but added that the current climate meant schools rarely subsidise theatre visits in the way they once did.

“We are trying to find funding to be able to support free school visits – the change is that there is a lot more onus on us to be able to try and find the funding,” he said.

The shrinking number of schools that want theatre has forced touring company Travelling Light to reduce its 2016 schools tour from 23 weeks to 14.

Artistic producer Jude Merrill said: “I’m really terrified. There are so many children whose big achievements are in the arts and not really in other areas of school life… I am really concerned about what sort of people our education system is going to turn out.”

She added that the outlook for children’s theatre in schools was the worst she had seen in her 30-year career.

“This is the most scary. I think the arts have dipped in popularity before but they have not been told they are not a core subject before,” she said.

Her comments follow news that compulsory GCSEs will not include the arts.

Meanwhile, theatre company London Bubble claimed schools are less likely to programme drama projects based purely on their artistic value.

Its associate director for creative learning, Adam Annand, revealed that the company has been forced to market its schools projects by emphasising their developmental and wellbeing benefits, rather than labelling them drama.

“We have got a background in children’s development but what we do with the children is make theatre. In most schools they are not buying that. They are buying it in because it is a programme that supports children who need an intervention. I think of it as drama by stealth,” he said.

Independent Theatre Council chief executive Charlotte Jones has warned of an “unprecedented collapse” in the schools market.

Writing on her blog, she said: ”Worryingly external arts provision looks like one of the first casualties of a nervous education sector. It is particularly concerning that the decline is so sudden before any actual cuts have been announced.”

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