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Stephen Pritchard: Here’s a lesson for ministers – arts education, arts education, arts education

The Wardrobe Ensemble's Education, Education, Education at Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh. Photo: The Other Richard The Wardrobe Ensemble's Education, Education, Education at Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh. Photo: The Other Richard
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Prize Day, 2008. The head boy has just made a perfect speech to the assembled school. It is nuanced, witty and heartfelt. The applause is deafening.

“What a fantastic speech! Who is that young man?” one of the governors asks.

“That’s Tom England, the head boy.”

“He’ll go far. What’s he planning to do?”

When I respond he will probably apply to drama school, the governor’s face folds into a mask of dismay.

“What a terrible waste…” Then, a sudden afterthought: “And who are you?”

“I’m head of drama,” I say, before smiling and heading off towards the canapes.

That head boy, Tom England, is playing the headmaster at Bristol Old Vic this week, in the Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education.

The play is a meditation on Britain’s school system, past and present; on what we really need to learn and how we learn it. The year is 1997 and a newly elected Tony Blair has just made his keynote speech, in which he famously set his priority with the words echoed in the play’s title.

The company’s own education in theatre has various origins. In Tom’s case, this was at our school; for others, it was at Rose Bruford or Warwick University, but all were members of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company.

The Wardrobe Ensemble was founded as part of the Young Company’s excellent graduate scheme, Made in Bristol.

In the era that the play is set, drama was emerging strongly as a popular curriculum subject. It is now performed at a time when curriculum drama is under attack. The project to marginalise art subjects, including drama, has been underway for a while.

Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate, supposedly modelled on the European Baccalaureate, betrays the original concept by omitting arts subjects from its core: subjects that are surely essential for a healthy, balanced curriculum and, by extension, a healthy society.

In a recent study of 1,200 secondary schools, around 90% said they had “to cut back on resources for teaching the arts, including lesson time, staff or facilities”.

EBacc will lead to 130,000 missing out on arts GCSEs, research warns

Figures released by the Department of Education have revealed that there was an 8% drop in pupils taking creative GCSEs in 2017, on top of an 8% drop in 2016.

Our creative industries should be highly valued for the vast revenue they generate, for the prestige they give our country throughout the world and for the quality they instill in our culture. It cannot be quantified and should never be taken for granted.

It is wrong to assume that without education in the arts, including drama, the arts will somehow spontaneously flourish

The Russell Group of universities has compounded this error further with its division into ‘facilitating’ and ‘non-facilitating’ subjects, denying the arts full academic credibility and status. It is wrong to assume that without education in the arts, including drama, the arts will somehow spontaneously flourish.

I no longer teach in a school, but nevertheless I’ve organised a theatre trip to Bristol Old Vic this Saturday to see Education, Education, Education. Unlike my former trips, this one is for 15 teaching colleagues, across a range of subjects, who taught Tom England.

One is his former headmaster who, happily, supported drama with similar enthusiasm to that displayed by his fictional counterpart – he fought hard to ensure that we had ample time and resources.

Tom didn’t go to drama school after all – he went to Cambridge – but he attributes his success in theatre to the encouragement and opportunities he enjoyed in drama at school.

Has it been a terrible waste of Tom’s talents, as that governor feared? I don’t think that Tom’s 15 former teachers will think so, nor will the rest of the audience enjoying the Wardrobe Ensemble’s second sell-out run at Bristol Old Vic.

Education, Education, Education is currently on tour around the country until June 8

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