Following in the footsteps of stars such as Rita Ora and Daniel Kaluuya, students at Sylvia Young Theatre School are taught not only first-class, diverse performance skills, but also also high academic achievement levels, ensuring they are ready for anything in an increasingly tough industry
The performing arts industry is notoriously competitive – so competitive, in fact, that actors, singers and dancers often have to make significant sacrifices for success. They have to move house. They have to forego friends. They have to abandon their education to pursue performance – something they often rue later in life.
That is not the case at Sylvia Young Theatre School, though. The prestigious London-based school prides itself on offering not just top-notch training in triple-threat performance, but excellent curriculum-centred teaching too. Academic and vocational education go hand-in-hand, ensuring graduates emerge as well-rounded adults, ready to take on the acting world and beyond.
Sylvia Young founded SYTS as a full-time institution in 1981 and remains its principal today, overseeing the school’s full-time course (which runs Monday to Friday for students aged 10 to 16), its part-time performance-only courses (which runs on Thursday evenings and Saturdays for everyone aged four to 18), and its range of holiday courses and adult classes.
“I originally only ran part-time classes,” she says of the school’s founding. “And my students always asked for advice on full-time schools. There wasn’t one that offered all of the three essentials – good academics, good vocational training, and professional opportunities. So we did just that, starting a full-time school and aiming to achieve in all these areas.”
And achieve the school certainly has. SYTS moved from its original home on Drury Lane in 1983, then again to new premises in Westminster in 2010. In that time, it has established itself as one of the country’s leading performing arts schools and produced hundreds of successful stage and screen actors, musicians and dancers.
Actors Billie Piper, Nicholas Hoult, Keeley Hawes and Jenna Russell are all former full-time students, as are musicians Rita Ora, Amy Winehouse and Spice Girl Emma Bunton. Alumni of SYTS’ part-time programme include Dua Lipa and Daniel Kaluuya. The list of ex-pupils is extensive and diverse.
The enormous alumni network in the performing arts is only one side of the coin, though – SYTS is also a centre of academic excellence for its full-time pupils. In 2019, 88% of its Year 11 students achieved five or more 9-4 GCSEs – over 20% more than the national average – with the most able students gaining complete sets of 8s and 9s. In 2018, the statistic was even higher – an incredible 98% of Year 11 students gained five or more A*-C GCSEs.
“Most full-time schools catering for our age group tend to place a heavy emphasis on dance,” says Young, who received an OBE for services to the arts in 2005. “We ensure that all areas are covered well, both vocationally and academically. We ensure that students achieve well and are able to change their future direction if they choose.”
What is the reason behind such success on both fronts? Well, it is partly because of the school’s small size – only around 250 students attend – ensuring that everyone gets an exceptional level of attention, and it is partly due to the expertise of the teaching faculty.
“We have an amazing, highly experienced headteacher – Frances Chave – who leads a very qualified, dedicated academic staff,” explains Young. “They provide a broad-based curriculum on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the full-time students.”
“On Thursdays and Fridays our vocational team is led by Steven Baker,” she continues. “Many of his tutors work in the professional arts world and bring their invaluable experience to the students. We are really proud of all our teachers, both academic and vocational. They make a great team.”
Other factors play a part in SYTS’ excellence as well, though. The state-of-the-art facilities in the heart of London, for example – 11 studios, fully equipped with pianos, sound systems, air conditioning and sprung floors – and the supportive environment that suffuses the entire school.
“We have a great family atmosphere here,” says Young. “We really do care about our students and we have an open-door policy. Our ex-students keep in touch and are always popping in to see us, and we try to go and see as many of them as we can, too, wherever they are performing.”
Sometimes, they are even performing while still at school, thanks to the Sylvia Young Agency, an independent enterprise attached to SYTS that represents students professionally, regularly securing them jobs in theatre, film and TV. In recent years, SYTS students have appeared in Matilda, Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Killing Eve and the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – all while still studying.
Prospective students of SYTS’ full-time course must complete non-discriminatory auditions and academic tests, and although admission usually takes place at age 10 or 11, students of other ages may be admitted depending on availability of places. To make sure anyone can attend if they want to, SYTS offers one full scholarship per year, in association with The Stage, and a range of bursaries based on talent and financial situation.
And who are they looking for to follow in the illustrious footsteps of other SYTS alumni? “All we are looking for is potential in one or more of the vocational subjects – dance, drama or singing,” says Young. “We are not expecting a polished performance. It’s raw talent, passion and motivation that is key.”