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Lyn Gardner: Don’t price kids out of the arts

Bingley Grammar School, which is offering music GCSE for £5 per week Bingley Grammar School, which is offering music GCSE for £5 per week
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The news last week that Bingley Grammar School, a secondary state school in West Yorkshire, plans to keep GCSE music available to students at a time when other schools are rushing to cut arts subjects from the curriculum might have initially been seen as a good news story. But that was before it became apparent that the subject would be taught outside school hours and would require a £5 a week contribution per student.

Five pounds – a couple of London-priced coffees – may not seem like a great deal of money to some, but if you are one of the increasing number of economically disadvantaged families living in the UK then the charge reminds you that the arts are something that is well out of your reach.

We all know that there are many different barriers to accessing the arts and theatre, including the downright obvious that if you never see anyone on stage who looks like you or sounds like you, then you will all too quickly conclude that the theatre is not for you. But economic disadvantage is also undoubtedly a significant barrier.

According to the Joseph Rowntree report published last month, 14 million people live in poverty in the UK, with eight million of those people, which include four million children, living in families where at least one person is in work. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that over the next five years the number of children living in poverty will rise to 5.2 million.

If you live in such a family, then £5 a week for a GCSE in music is as much out of your reach as a visit to see Hamilton. Food, heating and a new pair of shoes are always going to be much higher priorities. As playwright Luke Barnes observed on Twitter earlier this year: “Say what you like, the first barrier to accessibility and diversity is money. If you lead a horse to water and the horse can’t afford to drink, it’s no good.”

So, what does that mean for the future of the industry? Not just in terms of the fact that fewer families will have the wherewithal to take children to the theatre, but also because many of those same children will be denied access to any form of arts education at school as theatre and music options are excised from the curriculum.

Where will the talent come from in the future for our theatre, TV and film sectors? In 2016, 42% of winners in the major three categories at the BAFTAs had been educated at private schools. Project forward 20 years and, despite efforts to diversify theatre, that figure may well rise as cuts to drama GCSE courses leads to an irreversible decline in the number of drama teachers in schools. There are now 1,700 fewer drama teachers in UK schools than there were in 2010. That figure is likely to continue to fall.

Drama teaching in schools ‘in crisis’, experts warn

The last year has seen theatre getting far better at facing up to the fact that it has a diversity problem and beginning to address it, albeit sometimes still with a lack of urgency when it comes to embedding change throughout the entire organisation at every level and ensuring that pathways are available for all who want to work in the arts, whatever their background.

Nonetheless, it was good to see some of these efforts being rewarded in the last Arts Council England funding round, with uplifts to outfits such as the Bush, Talawa and Derby, who understand that the job of those who hold the keys is to unlock opportunity to as many as possible from the widest range of backgrounds.

Many setting out on a theatre career can afford to do so only because they have financial safety nets

That must include those living with economic disadvantage, because it is a factor for many, including those from sections of the population who are already under-represented in theatre. The truth is that many setting out on a career in theatre, or sustaining one, can afford to do so only because they have safety nets: initially parental, and subsequently because a partner has a properly paid job in another industry.

If that economic disadvantage is to be addressed, it requires the industry not just to talk loudly about the challenges facing arts education in schools but also actively to make partnerships with local schools to ensure that every child educated in the state sector has access to the arts, whatever their background.

This would not only ensure that theatre has the most diverse workforce possible in the future, but would be a spur to innovation and creativity. Because, as the Bush’s Madani Younis, a real pioneer of diversity in British theatre, observed in The Stage at the end of last year as he reflected on 2017 and looked forward to 2018: “It is no accident that those who have been historically most neglected are now leading the renewal.”

Without renewal, theatre is not a living art form but one that is in danger of being relegated to the museum.