Curtains for performing arts BTEC? That will be a tragedy for our industry

I often think the Nelson Mandela quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

In 2018, I organised The Big Arts & Education Debate at Birmingham Rep. The symposium brought together 300 students, industry figures, educators and teachers.

The Big Arts & Education Debate, Birmingham Rep, James Graham, Indhu Rubasingham, yours truly, Cassie Chadderton & Ammo Talwar

Anyway, during the interval, one speaker (the West Midlands Regional School Commissioner) walked out as she felt that could not be part of “an anti-Government event.”

Bonkers, right?

I walked on stage to introduce the education panel, explained her absence and said that it was all a bit shit, we continued without her.

Now, three years on and at this moment of national crisis, the government must ensure that a wide range of creative education opportunities remain accessible under its plans to overhaul further education.

The Department For Education’s consultation on plans to reform qualifications for 16-19 year olds in England, known as level 3 has now closed. This includes national qualifications such as BTECs being scrapped.

The Cultural Learning Alliance is campaigning for the continued funding of BTEC qualifications, warning that the reforms will have a “detrimental impact on the ethnic diversity of the cohorts progressing to university.”

A year after the first case of coronavirus in Britain, there are plenty of considerations that need to be paid that are widening existing attainment gaps and class inequalities faced by disadvantaged young people.

Of course, we need an education system that is relevant to the world we live in. Schools, colleges and universities have embraced remote classes in the past year and there are many benefits but others fear the impact on disadvantaged children and young people and a privatisation by stealth. This is a matter of social justice.

For this reason, the news that these creative courses are at risk should alarm us all.

Pearson, the awarding body for BTECs state that post-16 qualifications such as these “have been at the heart of the national need for many years to continue to transform lives and careers.”

Meanwhile, creative education shouldn’t simply be relegated to a position where its only value is seen as being in the service of other subjects which are viewed as core to the curriculum.

We have some of the world’s most passionate, talented and skilled drama teachers and many of them have to fight to defend their subject’s corner and protect the creativity of their students every single day. What will happen to them if BTECs disappear?

Jenny Cameron, Director of Stagedoor Learning, runs the BTEC in performing arts in partnership with Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham and VLUK, she says that the government “needs to rethink entirely.”

Stagedoor Learning and the Everyman Theatre

She says: “Within a BTEC Extended Diploma, there is space for a young performer to develop and grow, for them to focus on the skills which they will need if they are to pursue a career in the arts. Background doesn’t matter – it’s accessible to all. Drama Schools become a playground of the rich, who’ve been to private schools with money, facilities and the time to put on loads of extra-curricular arts, or they shell out for a foundation degree, with no guarantee of progressing to Higher Education.”

And yet, by diminishing the opportunity to experience the arts or to study creative subjects – literature, philosophy, history, religion, languages – we condemn future generations to a poorer and more basic life. The UKs creative sector provides many benefits to the whole of our society and will be vital for the post-Covid healing of the industry and wider society.

It goes further, of course. The arts have increasingly been labelled as soft, lesser and easy and drama has been under threat in our state schools for a decade.

So, by mooting the notion that a BTEC in performing arts is no longer purposeful (translation: not viable) we are allowing the failing of an entire generation who may struggle to realise their potential; whose strengths may lie elsewhere.

As the Head of Faculty at Nottingham’s Bilborough College Sharon MacInnes, says wearily: “For young people to participate in a course like a BTEC, it is more accessible in the way that their life skills are built up. These kids are often from inner-city areas or lower income households. They often go to schools where they are scraping through GCSE’s – it doesn’t mean they can’t develop those skills. Undertaking a BTEC often gives them another chance to shine.”

Cabaret. Bilborough College. Nottingham.

“We do have to engage as many industry professionals as possible, particularly those from working class backgrounds, to speak out about this calamity, otherwise these pathways, into the industry will close forever,” says MacInnes.

The basic point is that BTECs give young people –  those who often aren’t represented in society – experience through direct and unrestricted involvement. Many go on to roles on and off stage, some finding new confidence to pursue careers in alternative sectors.

Consider the challenges we must confront. This is about class, opportunity and the very democracy of theatre.

We cannot succumb to the performing arts BTECs being scrapped.

If we do, this calamity will far outlive the pandemic.