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Scotland’s school theatre scheme ‘should be rolled out across UK’

Samuel West speaking at Theatre 2016. Photo: Alex Brenner

Arts leaders have called for the rest of the UK to follow Scotland’s lead and give every primary schoolchild the chance to see at least one live theatre performance a year.

Industry figures including Samuel West and Rachel Tackley, as well as heads of education at the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, have spoken out after the launch of a new initiative in Scotland giving young children access to theatre [1], amid concerns over the future of arts in education across the UK.

Earlier this year, updated GCSE drama syllabuses stated they would allow students to pass the course without seeing live theatre [2], while the Department for Education is pushing ahead with GCSE reforms that have been criticised for sidelining the arts [3].

The Theatre in Schools Scotland scheme was launched last week in Edinburgh as a joint project between Scotland’s national creative organisation Imaginate and the National Theatre of Scotland.

The programme, which is being piloted for three years, aims to ensure that every child sees a minimum of one performing arts production per year in their school or nursery, as “a core part of their education”.

National Campaign for the Arts chair and actor West hailed it as a “wonderful” initiative “that should resonate with the whole of the UK”.

He told The Stage: “Every child has the right to enjoy live, high-quality art. Children’s engagement is crucial if we are going to develop the diverse range of artists and audiences we need for the future. Following the recent suggestions that GCSE drama in England may no longer require students to see a live performance, it seems Scotland is showing England the way forward.”

He added: “Opportunities for young people to experience good live art need to be further up the agenda, and we look to education funders and policymakers around the UK to make this happen.”

West went on to praise the Scottish Salmon Company, which is funding the initiative with Arts and Business Scotland.

Outgoing English Touring Theatre director Rachel Tackley described it as a “joy” to see Scotland recognising the importance of giving children experiences of live theatre as part of their education.

She added: “We must not forget that theatres up and down the UK are falling over themselves with initiatives to get young people though their doors. Wouldn’t it be great if the scheme could be developed to get young people to the theatre as well as theatre to young people?”

Her comments were echoed by Toby Mitchell, artistic director of Gruffalo creators Tall Stories, who said he would support the idea of a similar programme being rolled out in England and Wales, adding that the decreasing number of schools willing to take children on trips to the theatre was an area of concern that should be addressed more urgently.

“The primary aim should be to get kids into theatres because it makes it more of a sense of occasion. It’s special, they’re excited, they’re going out of school and they are experiencing theatre as adults do,” he said.

The first year of TISS will work in partnership with theatre companies Catherine Wheels and Visible Fictions, which will perform their shows in more than 30 different primary schools this autumn.

Independent Theatre Council chief executive Charlotte Jones praised Scotland for taking the lead, saying the scheme was a “great start” but should encourage children to see more than one production per year.

Meanwhile, the National Theatre’s director of learning, Alice King-Farlow, said ensuring children engage with live theatre was “so important”, while Georghia Ellinas, head of learning at Shakespeare’s Globe’s education arm, said the experience was “invaluable”.

“Not all students have parents who can afford or who are able to take them to the theatre, so schools are in the best position to address that inequity. In many cases, parents have never been to the theatre themselves so do not see it as part of their child’s upbringing. Schools can break that cycle of non-participation by making every child a theatregoer,” Ellinas said.