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Paul Roseby: Schools need arts day as well as sports day

Members of the National Youth Theatre performing at the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
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I’m worried. Worse. I’m angry. The fundamental nature of what theatre practitioners, drama teachers, creative leaders, writers, designers, musicians and stage technicians do is being devalued. Its perceived value is plummeting even beyond our precious, sovereign pound after the European Union referendum.

In some ways, the two are linked. As we witness the polarity of ‘penguin politics’, where everything is black and white, in or out, free or fortune, then the casualty is the nuanced grey with all the wisdom that would bring. In struggling to be understood outside our world, we arts champions become hostage to our own rhetoric, and the tag ‘liberal elite’ is thrown in our faces by those who fear something, or someone, different to themselves.

Everyone understands the value of sport, not least because, as children, we all simply had to take part on soggy playing fields across the land. But there is an understandable disconnection between those who are lucky enough to experience the value of the arts and those who are not.

This is why, if we are really serious about finding the Mo Farahs of the film world, and the Tanni Grey-Thompsons of the theatre world, we must begin to fight the prejudice against the arts in bolder, simpler terms.

Our proverbial battle bus with a simple slogan must go to every school and must offer a clear defence to help stop the steady decline of the arts, as they are squeezed out through a non-revolving door.

There are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers than in 2010, 1,200 fewer art and design teachers, and 38,000 fewer hours provided for in art, drama and music as a result. And yet we in the creative industries currently account for one in every 17 jobs, and contribute £87 billion to the UK economy. Sadly, in being so quick to champion that last statistic, we are in danger of becoming victims of our own success. But, unless the arts finally win the same respect and status as sport both in and out of schools, the financial gains and our voices will be diminished to the back of the class and deemed an irrelevant luxury.

Elite sports are celebrated, but elite arts are either pilloried or deemed too soft an option to be taken seriously

Elite sports are celebrated, but elite arts are either pilloried or deemed too soft an option to be taken seriously. Theatre arts and sport command the same disciplined team-building skills and provide the same adrenaline-making confidence boost. It doesn’t matter how many qualifications you have – if you can’t communicate in the workplace, they are worthless.

The only way to secure meaningful change – to put the arts on the same footing as sports – is by making a certain amount of hours a week compulsory for creative learning taught by drama teachers in every school, just as sport is compulsory in early secondary education. In my experience, governments rarely lead by example but are happy to use examples in fighting their case for reduced or increased funding.

Running a national arts company, I understand only too well the difficult choices we all have to make when it comes to finances, and as an organisation that receives only 12% of our funding from the government we cannot help everyone gain a free or subsidised place.

However, I do not understand why a 19-year-old girl on our flagship social inclusion course is at risk of leaving that course in her final term so that she can still receive benefits to help contribute to the income of her household, which is led by a sole carer. Like so many we meet, her school did not have the resources to offer up the quality time in arts provision that would have helped improve her confidence, mental well-being and job prospects. I believe her second chance is in danger of being taken away by a system that is still prejudicial to her environment and circumstance. There’s nothing elitist about her, or soft about the valuable life skills she is developing.

In the past 10 years, the National Youth Theatre has invested nearly £3 million in free opportunities and community engagement programmes across the UK. We are now actively committed to piloting an idea in a school in a socially deprived area outside of London to help lead by example in showcasing a model that would offer a formal solution to the diminishing arts opportunities for young people in schools.

There are many great examples of organisations and individuals breaking the mould and championing the cause: Fun Palaces, Cultural Learning Alliance, Arts Council England, Act for Change and community interest company Pop Up Projects are all working to enhance cultural activity, but there is no better example than historical fact.

And again I look to sport. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Great Britain won just one gold medal and came 36th in the medals table. Two decades and billions of secured funding from the National Lottery (immune from government cuts) later and the results are all to be gloriously shared in with such a wealth of diversity and dedication, thanks to a cultural and financial shift. It’s no surprise that school funding for sport is now at its highest level on record at almost £41 billion.

As artificial intelligence micro-chips away at our manual workforce, the new currency is emotional intelligence. Honing empathy and creative leadership skills to the max will empower a new generation of cultural heroes such as those sport enjoys today. From the Chinese government to the Harvard Business Review, around the world researchers and commentators are observing how cultural offerings benefit young people, recognising the value of non-cognitive activities and replicating them in their formal institutions.

So why can’t we? The arts doesn’t just offer soft power, it offers staying power. We need to install that staying power in every school and celebrate arts days alongside sports days, or we are in danger of becoming an island museum of cultural heritage with no cultural financial future. We just need a simple but effective messenger and one that goes to the heart of government and our current tabloid populism. Maybe we need our own bus? I’ll come back to you on that one.

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