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Squeeze on arts subjects to blame for decline in school theatre trips, warn theatre leaders

Alex Gaumond and Gloria Onitiri in Globe Education's the Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Ellie Kurttz Alex Gaumond and Gloria Onitiri in Globe Education's The Taming of the Shrew. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
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Theatre leaders have warned that curriculum and cost pressures on schools are responsible for a decline in theatre trips.

The comments by leading industry figures follow a report from Shakespeare’s Globe that suggested as many as 44% of young people visiting the venue had never been to a theatre before.

The data was collected from 309 students who attended a performance of The Taming of the Shrew as part of a scheme that gives away free tickets to schools.

Leading charity Mousetrap Theatre Projects, which organises school theatre trips and workshops for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, warned that the number of school theatre trips is decreasing.

In the school year ending in August 2016, the number of 11 to 18-year-olds taking part in school theatre trips organised by Mousetrap decreased by 16% on the previous year.

Susan Whiddington, director of the charity, told The Stage that filling places “is not as easy as it once was”.

She said: “Cost isn’t really the issue so much. The real issue is that schools and teachers are really tied to whatever is on the curriculum. There’s very little room in the curriculum for enrichment. Those activities just aren’t happening. It’s very hard for teachers to get their students out of school during school time.”

“When we first started 20 years ago, about 90% of our theatre offerings for school groups was for midweek matinees. Now it’s 50%.”

Whiddington added: “The government is downgrading the value of the arts. When we speak to teachers they say, ‘My head[teacher] won’t let me do it’ or, ‘It doesn’t fit into our timescale.’ It’s really about the demands on teachers to get their students to pass exams. You have to have some brave teachers. I’m always so stunned by teachers who have their own lives, their own families, yet they go out in the evenings and take their class to the theatre.”

Her comments come amid an ongoing campaign by arts figures against the government’s English Baccalaureate. The EBacc sets out a core curriculum of GCSE subjects but does not include a compulsory creative subject.

Echoing these concerns Aine Lark, chair of lobbying body National Drama, said: “The narrow EBacc is having a detrimental effect on the perceived status of drama amongst students and parents.  Students are being coerced away from opting for drama and therefore less likely to attend a theatre as part of their education now.”

Lark told The Stage: “School budgets are increasingly under pressure and this is likely to lead to fewer school based subsidies for theatre visits. This will result in greater dependence on parental contributions.  Socio-economically this will advantage the more wealthy school areas.”

She continued: “Some teachers, particularly within private settings, are not experiencing this problem.”

According to Clark, other factors contributing to the decline in theatre trips include the long administrative processes and the fact that many schools require all trips to be in the school calendar before the new academic year begins.

Head of UK Theatre Cassie Chadderton said: “For many children, a school visit is their first experience of theatre. For many schools, reduced budgets and numbers of arts teachers and new educational priorities are making theatre visits difficult. For the effect they have on young people’s confidence and creativity, and for the future health of our industry, it’s essential we find ways to maintain school visits to theatre.”

The Royal Shakespeare Company, which runs a project called First Encounters With Shakespeare that encourages young people to see live performances of Shakespeare productions, added that the arts should play a central part in education.

RSC education director Jacqui O’Hanlon said: “Many of us have our first encounter with Shakespeare at school, an experience that can define our attitude to live theatre and to Shakespeare for all of our lives. Our First Encounters With Shakespeare tour is testament to the profound impact that partnerships between schools and theatres can have on the life chances of students.”

In July 2016, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport released its annual Taking Part survey, which looks at cultural participation by children aged five to 15 years. The survey, carried out in partnership with Arts Council England, stated that 98.3% of children had engaged with the arts between 2015 and 2016.

However, this figure includes activities such as reading and writing and computer-based activities. With those activities excluded, only 31.1% of five to 10-year-olds had engaged with theatre and drama and 26.9% with dance in the past year. The figures for older children, aged 11 to 15, also decreased.

The proportions of children aged five to 10 engaging with theatre and dance activities has steadily declined over the past eight years. For theatre, the figure decreased from 47.1% in 2008 to 31.1% in 2016 and in dance it decreased from 43.1% to 26.9%.

Responding to the figures from Shakespeare’s Globe, a spokeswoman for ACE said: “The research was not based on a representative sample of teenagers in London, nor nationally. The aim of free or subsidised tickets is to reach out to new or underengaged audiences, so you would expect a high number of the audience survey respondents not to have visited a theatre before.”

She continued: “Too many pupils lack access to a high-quality cultural education and the Arts Council is committed to ensuring that every child can benefit from the richness of the arts.”

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