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Editor’s View: Should we be worried about the decline in performing arts A levels?

The 10% fall in students taking performing and expressive subjects [1] is probably not the end of the world.

First, we are talking about a relatively small number of students. Secondly, you do not need to study dance or drama A level to go on to work in dance or theatre. Plenty of actors, dancers, technicians and managers studied unrelated subjects before going on to successful careers in the performing arts.

But the decline is indicative of a wider trend – the diminution of the arts in education. And this trend is starting to look like a crisis.

The proportion of students taking creative arts GCSEs and A levels is falling. Meanwhile, as drama teacher George Coles wrote in last week’s paper [2], there are concerns that changes to GCSE drama are making the subject less practical and more academically driven.

Whatever claims the government makes, the introduction of the English Baccalaureate [3] appears to be discouraging students from taking arts subjects and encouraging exam boards to make arts subjects less artistic.

If this decline in curricular performing arts were counterbalanced by an uptake in extra-curricular activity, there might be less cause for concern. But the opposite seems to be true. Theatre charity Mousetrap warned earlier this year of a 16% decline in the number of 11 to 18-year-olds taking part in school theatre trips [4].

All this adds up to a state education system that appears to be placing ever less importance on the arts, which is worrying for the future pipeline of talent into our sector. It also underlines a severe lack of joined-up thinking from the government.

On the one hand, the government has identified the creative industries as one of its post-Brexit pillar industries. On the other, it appears reluctant to back that up with recognition within the core curriculum.

Meanwhile, the government rightly puts pressure on Arts Council England to improve diversity in the sector, while seeming to do everything in its power to reduce opportunities for children of all backgrounds to encounter the arts. This makes the job much harder.

Maybe the ministers from the departments for culture and education could do worse than meet for a coffee to compare notes. And perhaps the first thing on their agenda should be National Youth Theatre director Paul Roseby’s suggestion that all schools should have an ‘arts day’ alongside their sports days [5].

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk [6]