Private Viewing: Is the government responsible for the drop in student theatre visits?

Pupils from Woodland Class at Benhall School get ready to take part in The Shakespeare For Schools F

Pupils from Woodland Class at Benhall School get ready to take part in The Shakespeare For Schools Festival at DanceEast with their performance of Macbeth. Students gain self-confidence & increased literacy skills when engaged in theatre.

Arts editor Andrew Clarke is horrified that children now have fewer opportunities to visit the theatre or to perform themselves

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has warned youngsters that if they study arts-related subjects they

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has warned youngsters that if they study arts-related subjects they will be held back for the rest of their lives. - Credit: PA

This week The Stage, the entertainment industry’s journal of record, published a very worrying report. According to government figures they have obtained, children are seeing less theatre and taking part in fewer productions than in any point in recent history.

According to the figures published this week only 32% of five to 10-year-olds had experienced or particiapted in some form of theatre in the past year. The represents a significant drop from 47% six years ago.

The reason for this is puzzling particularly when all local theatres and arts providers – The New Wolsey, the Colchester Mercury, Bury Theatre Royal, DanceEast, Red Rose Chain, the Ipswich Co-op Juniors as well as private organisations like Stagecoach – offer a wide range of theatre-going opportunities.

Such is the demand for acting classes that the New Wolsey has divided their young theatre companies into four age-defined groups to accommodate everyone who wants to experience life on stage. Also the New Wolsey has five pages in their spring brochure dedicated to child-friendly theatre.

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DanceEast also run six dance and performance groups for various ages and abilities in addition to their centre for advanced training which is for youngsters wanting to develop dance as a career.

Brendan Keaney, artistic director for DanceEast, said; “These are fairly shocking statistics and this is precisely why this organisation has been promoting so many high quality dance experiences for young people for over 30 years.

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“Arts Council England is alive to the issue and insists that all of its regularly funded organisations engage with its goals, particularly ‘every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts/museums and libraries’.

“Each week hundreds of young people attend a variety of different dance activities at the Jerwood DanceHouse including classes (increasing due to popular demand), courses, workshops, and the centre for advanced training. Ticket sales for last year’s Christmas Show The Little Match Girl (for 4+years) were up 32% on the previous year and Butterflies (for 4+years), opening December 13 is selling quickly.

“MOKO Dance, a national partnership led by DanceEast, dedicated to opening the eyes of children and young people through dance theatre, has attracted thousands of children and their families to performances across the UK.” DanceEast also hosted The Shakespeare For Schools Festival.

With all these facilities available it seems incredible that only 32% of children are getting access to any form of theatre or performance. Either Suffolk is very rich in theatre opportunities or the rest of the country is incredibly poor. Part of the problem, I am sure, is the way that schools are being discouraged from engaging in the arts by central government. Obsessive regulation of the curriculum means that schools have little or no opportunity to take a class out of school to experience a live performance. There is no better way for a set text to come alive than to see it being performed on stage.

Even better would be to get pupils to stage their own production having seen it performed in a professional theatre.

But, even that is frowned upon. Earlier this week Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove’s replacement as education secretary, warned young people that studying arts subjects at school would hold them back for the rest of their lives. According to Ms Morgan the only subjects to have any value are the so-called STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths.

She should realise that attending the theatre boosts literacy and understanding. Performing on stage gives students self-confidence, the ability to speak engagingly in public and gives them a skill-set which is easily transferable into business and life in general. Judging by the arts-focussed ads placed by a host of private schools in the New Wolsey and Aldeburgh Music programmes, the independent school sector is very aware of these benefits and excellent arts facilities are used as a major-selling point to the parents and grandparents of prospective pupils.

We need to value the arts and provide an all-round education for life not just for passing exams.

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