Shakespeare’s Globe and the National Theatre are among theatres warning that children’s access to live productions is under threat because of increasing financial strain on state schools.
Venues have reported a decline in the number of education visits, growing demands for subsidised tickets and concerns over additional costs such as travel, with some revealing the impact the situation is having on their own finances.
It comes as concerns around arts education in schools continue to escalate, with campaigners arguing that creativity is being squeezed out by measures such as the English Baccalaureate, and teachers claiming that classroom hours, trained staff and emphasis on the arts are all dwindling.
Shakespeare’s Globe said severe cuts to arts in schools had resulted in a 7% drop in education visits over the past year, which was identified as a contributor to the venue’s reduced annual footfall and surplus.
The Globe experienced a 7% decrease in the number of workshops delivered during that time, which it attributed to both budget pressures in schools but also to the string of UK terror attacks in 2017. Following the London Bridge attack, 65 workshop bookings were cancelled, rescheduled or organised in-school instead of at the theatre.
The National Theatre also said it had seen a decline in school visits over the past few years, with director of learning Alice King-Farlow outlining “growing concerns about the position of drama and theatremaking in schools”, and had begun touring productions directly into school halls to ensure young people have access to live theatre.
“We are very aware of the pressures that schools are facing with the impact of budget cuts and time constraints that can prevent teachers from taking pupils to the theatre,” she added.
London’s Unicorn Theatre, which produces theatre for young audiences, said about 35% of its total ticket sales came from school visits. While attendances have remained steady, it said it had seen a 9% increase in the number of subsidised tickets offered to schools over the past year. It part or fully subsidised around 11,800 seats for pupils and teachers, which it described as “unsustainable” financially.
According to artistic director Justin Audibert, a growing number of schools are saying they can no longer afford to bring their students to shows. Research by the Unicorn claims that 76% of visiting schools said parents now contributed to the cost.
Audibert said this, combined with the effects of the EBacc, meant children from lower socio-economic backgrounds were struggling to go on school trips.
“It seems to me what the Department for Education is trying to do is to get cultural institutions to pick up the slack for what should be a child’s right to cultural capital in the education system. By asking a theatre or a museum to provide a free ticket, and not putting [culture] in the curriculum, you’re suddenly getting a much more scattergun approach to who is going to get arts provision, which is absolutely crazy,” he said.
The Unicorn has not increased its state-school ticket prices for eight years. However, it now charges fee-paying schools between £2 and £4 more per ticket for its Easter and Christmas shows in order to continue offering subsidised tickets to schools that need them.
Elsewhere, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s education department expressed concern over the “hidden costs” faced by schools, such as for travel and teacher cover.
The RSC reported a 2.2% increase in schools visits in 2018/19. However, director of education Jacqui O’Hanlon noted that the theatre’s repertoire had included Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet – the two most studied Shakespeare plays.
“That’s not a typical year, so we do need to look very carefully at what is happening in the coming year. What we know is true is that some schools are facing very significant budgetary challenges and that is very much what we are hearing from schools,” she added.