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Susan Elkin: Foundation for improved access

Students at Generation Arts
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There are a lot of foundation courses about. Usually three terms, either full or part-time, they purport to fill the gap between leaving school, when many students are unready for drama school or vocational training.

Modelled on long-established art-school practice (A level students can rarely leap straight into, say, a fine-art degree), they are now ubiquitous. Most accredited drama schools offer them. So do the many schools specialising in “drama school readiness” such as Read College in Reading and Simply Theatre, a part-time stage school in Geneva I visited recently, which starts its own foundation course next year.

Such courses do a reasonable job for many of their students, even those who decide that actually this isn’t the life for them after all. The problem is the cost. There is no supported funding for foundation courses, so apart from the very occasional scholarship offer, every foundation course student must pay his or her own way – and the fees, of course, run into many thousands. These courses tend, therefore, to be anything but inclusive, and you’d expect that to tilt the odds against students from poorer families, troubled backgrounds and the like.

In fact, there is an organisation working impressively hard to counteract this. Generation Arts was set up in May 2012 by former drama teacher Ali Godfrey to offer free – yes, free – foundation-style training to young people with serious difficulties in their personal backgrounds.

“I wanted to set up something that puts young people at the very centre of its activities,” Godfrey, a graduate with distinction of Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s MA in applied theatre, tells me. “Many organisations are doing their best but it’s always an add-on, something secondary to their main work – staging professional shows, if it’s a venue, for example.”

Well, as an initiative it wouldn’t be all that remarkable were it not for this impressive statistic: 86% of the 18-25 year-olds who have been through the Generation Arts one-year programme Future Stage have been offered drama school places at the end of it. And those schools include Arts Ed, LAMDA, ALRA, Mountview and other accredited schools. Speaking to Godfrey, I was so astonished by this statistic that I seriously thought I’d misheard, and asked her to repeat it.

Every one of the 20 or so students who take this course each year come from “unstructured backgrounds”, as Godfrey carefully puts it. Many have been in care and/or have been in trouble with the law. They are referred to Generation Arts by other organisations, such as local authorities, social workers and probation officers. Many start on the 12-week, one-evening-per-week programme and/or attend the three-week course based at Central, which culminates in the performance of a devised piece. But the jewel in the crown of what Generation Arts does is the one-year quasi-foundation course.

Godfrey, clearly a very persuasive woman, attended face-to-face meetings with Arts Council England staff when she started out three years ago and coaxed money out of them for her project. She also talks continually about partnerships and collaborations with, for example, Central, Drama Centre and other schools, as well as venues such as the Roundhouse. Somehow, despite the present climate of cuts, she has managed to go on finding and training these young people with her staff of five, plus the team of about 30 sessional directors and practitioners she brings in.

Part of the secret is that she has no premises to maintain. “We just take ourselves to where the project is, mostly in north London, and work there,” she says cheerfully, although she makes no secret of how nice it would be to have a base if only rent money were available. “What we really need is some sustainable funding,” she says. It’s an understatement, of course, but it’s said without rancour.

Whenever I visit drama schools, students and staff tell me about the strict discipline concerning matters such as punctuality. So Godfrey insists on that, too, because she sees her work as a microcosm of drama school. If Generation Arts students are a minute late, they’re not admitted to the session. “We try to put into their lives the structure that they’ve never had,” she says. “If they’re going to cope with drama school, they need self-discipline and structure.”

Also interesting is the organisation’s “barriers removal policy”. Whatever barriers there are in a student’s life preventing them from accessing training, Generation Arts will find a way of taking them away. Godfrey mentions childcare, travel, health and other issues – all of which she can deal with.

Remember Generation Arts the next time a well-meaning, successful actor stands up and opines gloomily that drama-school training is no longer available to anyone except students from ‘posh’, wealthy homes. It simply isn’t true.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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