I always love the first couple of weeks of September when theatre has a back-to-school vibe. There is nothing like the start of the new school term to inspire a bit of optimism, the feeling that we can begin all over again. Do more, fail better.
Except, of course, there is very little to be optimistic about when it comes to arts education in our state schools. Last month, a group of arts leaders from major regional theatres spoke of the way that their ability to work with schools is being hit by a narrowing of the curriculum and cuts to arts subjects because of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.
The government keeps insisting that the effect of the baccalaureate on the arts in schools is illusionary, but those on the ground, including teachers, point to a steady decline in arts education in state schools. They have more than anecdotal evidence on their side. The numbers taking music and drama GCSEs decreased again this year. The Incorporated Society of Musicians points to a 28.1% decline in the take-up of creative subjects at GCSE since 2014.
It’s useful to keep campaigning, not least because the widening gap between arts provision in the state and private sector bolsters the inequalities of the theatre industry itself which is edging – sometimes glacially – towards increasing diversity and access.
But sometimes those running campaigns grow weary, and their message grows weaker or at least less well heard. The same thing happens with arts funding campaigns when, too often, they look like pleading by a special interest group. Those working in the arts have seen the power of the arts and initiatives such as Fun Palaces to make people feel happier, more included and more powerful.
It is not the case of pitting weekly bin collections against a revival of The Provoked Wife. But it is not always so easy for the public to see these things as anything other than binary choices. If they and their families have little or no contact with the arts, why should they think that theatre is for them when there is so little evidence that theatre wants to be for them?
You can’t make people go to the theatre, and we need to accept that there are all sorts of barriers to engagement with the arts that have nothing to do with the price of the ticket. The price of tickets matters to a theatre’s bottom line and it matters to regular theatregoers (who are likely to go more often if they can secure cheaper tickets), but for many it doesn’t matter if the ticket costs a fiver or if it costs £50 because the whole idea of going to the theatre is as remote as going to the moon. It is just not relevant.
There is no point in the arts repeatedly saying that they want to include more people if they speak from a place that looks and feels inaccessible to many.
That distancing effect is only likely to increase as a generation grows up with even less contact with the arts than those before them who went on school theatre trips, took part in school drama clubs, and participated in school plays.
We need to accept that there are all sorts of barriers to engagement with the arts that have nothing to do with the price of the ticket
Children are not subject to the same demands by schools who now feel they must prioritise their own standing in the league tables (which means adopting the English Baccalaureate) above the interests, aptitudes and passions of their students.
So as the new school year begins, the question theatre needs to ask itself is not just how it can keep protesting the erasure of arts in schools, but also how theatres might actively be embraced by local schools with the same eagerness they’d embrace a good maths teacher.
What can theatre offer that schools cannot currently supply, but which would benefit the students? How can theatre’s engagement with schools be more generous, more creative and more responsive to the needs of schools? If theatres are finding their ability to work with schools is being hurt by a narrowing of the curriculum and cuts to arts subjects, could there be other ways to deliver the arts into schools.
Where are the alliances of interest? Some are already thinking this way, but not all.
If Battersea Arts Centre and Contact in Manchester can successfully rethink the creative processes used by artists to inspire young people to develop their own business ideas, surely theatres can work with schools to support them in becoming more creative places.
Perhaps, as schools see how the arts can be applied in all areas of the curriculum and all areas of their students’ lives, local theatres and schools will develop partnerships that put art at the centre of learning.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner