Sowing the seeds for the next generation

Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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The government, and Michael Gove in particular, are under sustained attack from arts luminaries for their policies on arts education, focussing on the proposed English Baccalaureate, the EBacc, from which arts subjects have been excluded. In hopes of the government’s better understanding of what might be at stake, the likes of Nicholas Hytner, Grayson Perry and Sir Nicholas Serota have chosen to speak in economic terms, claiming that the creative economy could even be destroyed “within a generation” as a result.

Richard Eyre, the former National theatre artistic director, described the policy as “incredibly short-sighted”, and David Hare at his most florid has condemned “the most dangerous and far-reaching of the government’s reforms”. Even Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House and an avowed Gove fan, reports that there is already evidence that schools have cut courses in drama and performing arts because they are not in the EBacc.

Beyond secondary education the provision of training in the formal system is being brutally hacked back, so that the danger is that a burgeoning young audience is in danger of not having the performance offer for which it is crying out.

Because at the other end of the youth scale, theatre and performance are recording a growing popularity among tots.

Last year’s live tour of the stage version of television’s In The Night Garden had a staggering audience totalled 125,000 - of whom 90% were under two years of age:


That was not a one-off. Tutti-Frutti in Leeds has been touring what is called Early Years Theatre for the very young for 21 years, shows professionally produced with high production values that pay respect to the discernment of its public.

Tutti-Futti has National Portfolio funding from Arts Council England, a measure of how far into the mainstream performance for the young has come. New, and underlining the importance of the youngest of audiences, is Kate Hazel’s Small Wonders which is commissioning new work to take to that mechanism for the widest audience grab, the festival. As a professional festival producer, she was inspired by the personal experience of taking her toddler with her and, seeing that she wasn’t taking much notice of what was going on, realised that what are being called “early years audiences” (to mean the under-fives) had not been catered for in the outdoor festival context, so that’s another square covered she says, and so Early Years Theatre has spread even further by special commissioning for the festival circuit.

The arts are not important to young people just as educational utensils, they are life-forming influences as hundreds of thousands in the early years sector, as it will now probably have to be called, are discovering to their delight. The thinking now is that creative and cultural experiences for the younger age group should be valued as their right, particularly theatrical ones. The Night Garden tour has become an annual event, the 2012 version having just finished with plans already being formed for next year’s, and the experience has been a completely different one from their television watching. Not only are the storylines specially written for a theatre audience, along with real actors, a professional director – the Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Will Tuckett - and sets, a special travelling theatre has been devised for the show complete with an integral pram park. The show’s producer described the phenomenon as a sea-change with a brand new audience that’s responding to live performance.

The EBacc row is highlighting one aspect of the importance of the arts, and the theatre especially, to our children, but it a taste for live performance is not something that comes only with maturity, avocado or Brussels sprouts. We are born with it, and sight of our first show is as important to our early development as the first step we walk, first word we speak, the first sum we get right. Arts people know it, even the arts council has realised it. Why can’t politicians?