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Richard Jordan: Young people need to be told the real story about careers in the arts

Alexandra Burke starred in The Bodyguard musical in 2014 after winning the 2008 series of the X-Factor. Photo: Paul Coltas
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Last Sunday, Dalton Harris became the 14th winner of the X-Factor, a victory watched by 5.3 million viewers. This came at the end of the same week that Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman, had written a letter to The Stage. She was responding to criticism over her comments suggesting that arts and media courses were at risk of giving false hope to students because of the “mismatch between the number of students taking the courses and the employment prospects at the end”.

Her remarks had been widely condemned by the arts industry. In her response Spielman outlined that the assessment and conclusion she had made was based upon Level 2 study courses taken by students who were often less academic achievers, and through colleges reporting to her that arts courses are the ones where their students are “least likely to progress to jobs in the sector”.

Over the past 15 weeks, the X-Factor has been pushing a dream of instant stardom with viewers watching members of the public audition to win a pop career. The TV show’s makers have been expert at capturing the supposed glamour of a life in the entertainment industry, visits to judges’ luxury homes, personal dressers, star duets and movie premieres all affording a supposed taster of the superstar lifestyle.

With the number of weeks a year that prime-time programming is given over to reality talent shows, and the size of the ratings, consider their influence on young people.

Many do not convey any true reality of life working in the arts industry, but their significant profile may be a cause as to why arts and media courses have been steadily on the rise. Colleges therefore have a moral responsibility to ensure that the right impression of our industry is being conveyed to their students.

As with any profession, colleges must recognise the challenges and demands of respective jobs. But they also need to be based on accurate and extensive professional knowledge. It’s therefore disappointing that Spielmanʼs remarks generalised these; in doing so, this was both disingenuous to the arts industry, and those of us within it, who work hard and care passionately about securing its future.

With the X-Factor final fresh in many young people’s minds it’s inevitable that it will fire some creative interest and ambitions. It would have have been enormously valuable at this time if Ofsted had used its position to highlight the variety of jobs that the arts and entertainment industry affords. In particular, it would have been good to offer young people a focus to think across the full spectrum of careers found within the arts.

But Spielman chose only to reference acting, failing to recognise the multitude of other career opportunities found within the arts and media industries, all of which require a range of different skills and career progression from the practical to the academic.

I’d ask if Ofsted is out of touch on young people’s different career interests. Or, even more concerning, if its apparent lack of recognition of the variety of careers this industry offers reflects its tepid attitude towards advocating arts as being a viable career option?

The arts and media industry is one of the most versatile, inclusive and rewarding industries to work in. By its very nature, many of the career choices in the arts industry may seem left-field.

This is not a career in which you can make sweeping generalisations; those working within the arts take career journeys that are frequently unique and individual. It’s therefore important that institutions understand this while encouraging the optimism and individualism of any young person interested.

Ofsted should be ensuring school’s career officers responsibly support students who are serious about working in the arts industry by recognising and highlighting the many workshops, masterclasses, and programmes that the industry offers for those interested in pursuing a career.

At my old comprehensive school in Norfolk, my careers officer spent our entire meeting telling me I should not waste my life on a pointless career in the theatre, and tried to send me off down a more practical route of being a car mechanic.

Looking back, I suspect his advice came from a lack of understanding of the theatre, and I left school at 16 so a practical steady job was believed to be a better option. Today, when a student shows interest in a more left-field job like theatre producer, careers officers may have no idea what to advise, but that doesn’t mean they should dismiss it.

It takes a truly special teacher to encourage a young person’s creative talent, especially if it’s possibly so far removed from their own career choices. But this point could also be applied to any career that requires an entrepreneurial spirit. Using Spielman’s logic of not creating false career hopes would ultimately suppress almost every great inventor or innovator who has come along with ambition and an idea that may have sounded a bit off-the-wall.

With no sign of the public losing interest in reality TV talent shows, there will inevitably be more young people motivated by what they see as the glamour of the arts and media. Ofsted therefore needs to embrace and better respond to young minds.

This comes in the form of both recognising and understanding the diversity of careers available within the arts industry, and it should draw on practical and knowledgeable professional industry advice.

Like any industry, the arts thrives and survives on a flow of new talent joining across all sectors and from all social backgrounds. If a young person is serious, committed, hard-working and fuelled by passion, belief and practicality to at least try, then no one should ever discourage that.

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