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Simon Tait: The real villain in Central’s diversity row is not its principal but the school system

About 250 students and staff walked out of Central during the protest About 250 students and staff walked out of Central in protest over Gavin Henderson's comments
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The shellacking that Quentin Letts received for his Daily Mail review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, in which he suggested a black actor had been cast only to please the Arts Council’s diversity watchdogs, was deserved. The crucifixion of Gavin Henderson, the principal of the Royal Central School of Drama, for suggesting that the education system makes a BAME quota system at conservatoire level unworkable, is not.

Central School principal: ‘Quotas would reduce the quality of our student intake’

Henderson has decided, or has been advised, not to enter the public debate, and subsequently the reporting has been one-sided. Lyn Gardner wrote in The Stage that “Henderson clearly believes that diversity and quality cannot go hand in hand”. He does not, nor did he say so. As a reporter I have dealt with him in his different guises as a leader in the arts for many years, and I have never met anyone more committed to all areas of inclusivity, equality and diversity. But quality has always been the first criterion for him.

The problem – as he told students at the student union’s Dear White Central event a couple of weeks ago – begins with the marginalisation of creative arts subjects in the school curriculum and EBacc agenda. It narrows the supply of applicants and militates against those from relatively deprived backgrounds, and too often kids from BAME families fall into that category. The privileged, public school educated applicants have the advantage of specialist drama training giving them a much better chance of winning the audition contest.

We have to find ways of bringing forward those from disadvantaged backgrounds and identifying potential, what Henderson described – perhaps ill-advisedly – to the student body as “the risk factor”. He uses outreach to find students from non-traditional backgrounds, going to prisons, care homes, hospitals and community centres as well as schools to seek them out, but it is in the classroom that the problem has its genesis.

In the recent Complete University Guide league table, Central was first among specialist arts colleges, and Henderson would, of course, want to keep it there; but not, he would say, through exclusivity and at the expense of open access.

An education system that won’t recognise the rights to creativity of the underprivileged in primary and secondary education is the real villain in this piece, one that the likes of Henderson have the impossible task of trying to make up for at the tertiary stage.

Racism is our most difficult problem. It’s pulling apart at least one major political party, but the Windrush scandal has shown that we might be on the brink of achieving something spectacular in our recognition not just of the contribution Afro-Caribbean Brits have made to rebuilding post-war Britain, but that their colour is no longer of any consequence.

Many in the arts thought that was a given, that we had overtaken negative attitudes, and anybody who saw the RSC’s most recent Hamlet will have seen how different cultures, not different colour, can add to our most beloved of traditional dramas.

I don’t know what the ratio of black to white students at Central is – I think it’s on or about the government’s recommended 20% target, clearly not balanced by some reckoning – but quotas won’t work in a system that depends on a judgement of quality. BAME students are not going to be somehow better artists for their colour.

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