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Guest Blog – Dr Alan Duffield: ‘Performing arts BTECs remain the most readily accessible, egalitarian and flexible provision available.‘

Government proposals that could see the performing arts BTEC scrapped widen inequality in the arts and damage young people’s creative education chances.

Dr Alan Duffield, a performing arts teacher and dance researcher, argues that this move is wrong and will threaten the talent supply to the industry.

Throughout my long years directly involved in performance education, one thing has, sadly,  remained consistent: the lack of a unified, powerful voice in support of performance education as a vital, central part of state schools’ syllabuses. Individuals, and certain institutions have indeed spoken out strongly, as now, though in my opinion not often enough, and not loud enough.

Performing Arts BTECs are under threat. This qualification is the most democratic, approachable form of qualification in state schools/colleges, with developed links for entry to both the professional world of performance, at all levels from administration to professional training, and the academic world of graduate and post graduate work.

A BTEC offers varied entry levels and a very wide based curriculum from which for 16-19 year olds students can select those areas that best suit individual aspirations. Whilst GCSE and Advanced level courses are in several respects highly effective and valuable, I would argue that the BTECs remain the most readily accessible, egalitarian and flexible provision available. This is a qualification we should all fight tooth and nail to preserve.

Jeremy Eden, Head of Drama at Falmouth School, has been involved with BTEC since 1993 says: “In the last few years universities, with the exception of Oxbridge and Durham, have taken them as an equivalent to A levels. In fact, in performing arts, some universities have even given preferential treatment to Btec students because they know that those students will be more rounded in production values, and larger scale teamwork performances.”

He went on to add: “Now more than ever we need to offer creativity to young people. Btecs are a wide-ranging, highly challenging but incredibly satisfying way of learning about all kinds of performance, acting, dance, musical theatre and production styles, as well as giving students the opportunity to follow their own interests. At L3 I currently have one student writing his own stand-up show while another in the same class is directing her peers (not on the course) on Zoom in scenes from Macbeth. They instigated those ideas and we allow them to follow them.”

These views are representative many teachers/lecturers working in schools and colleges, where the BTEC has been increasingly adopted in recent years. This reflects the realisation that the flexibility, range and wider access BTEC offers is increasingly suited to the present and the variety of ways students now access and use and process information. The value of performing arts BTEC courses is undeniable.

In 1966, leaving Goldsmiths with a Teaching Certificate in Drama, I was one of a small but growing number of Drama trained teachers at the forefront of the development of Drama and Dance in state schools. Drama was then firmly tied to English and Dance to PE. Art and Music were already established subjects within the curriculum. However, this was a time of optimism, growth and change, with the establishment of comprehensive education providing an opportunity to innovate within the general curriculum. Drama teachers maximised this and effected rapid developments.

By the end of the 1980’s it was possible to have contact with drama, from school entry, through to post 16, post 18, graduate and postgraduate levels. In state schools, Drama for Key Stages 3 & 4 was increasingly provided by independent departments, whilst for stages 1 & 2 by staff with some initial drama in education training or often through support from local education authority provided in-house courses. Dance, which had a more difficult time establishing independent departments, thankfully followed suit. State examinations at 16 and 18 were pioneered and developed, including BTEC.

Kneehigh Theatre in action (Image: Steve Tanner)

By the end of the 1980’s attacks began on such provision by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher and particularly during Kenneth Baker’s tenure as Education Minister. Support services – advisers, TIE teams, Arts Centres – were the first to lose financial support from within an education budget and their work ‘outsourced’. As always with Tory governmental approaches to education, it is the arts subjects that come under fire first.

Nevertheless, a strong level of provision remained the case into the 21st century, though pressure rapidly increased on that position from the time of my retirement from teaching in 2005. Draconian education funding cuts, continual, backward looking alterations to the national curriculum and frequent negative public statements by government ministers have led to Drama departments throughout the country facing reduction in size and provision, even closure and relegation back to the 1960s levels.

The extraordinary work of educators of creative subjects in all phases and at all levels is being rapidly dismantled and downgraded, with Drama and Dance removed from the core curriculum.

Opportunities for young people to engage performance education/experience are rapidly diminishing, along with the facilities, expertise, initiative and values such experiences offered. The private sector suffers no such privations, and those from that privileged sector now increasingly dominate the public face of professional performance work. The damagingly high cost of audition to, and often unfunded study at Drama Schools adds to this sad drift.

With so much being laid waste, and with the inclusive access to performance education narrowing daily, more than ever a concerted, sustained and unified opposition to current developments is an urgent necessity. I particularly include drama schools in this, which have not often thought it a necessary part of their existence to speak truth to power over attacks on the invaluable work of so many dedicated, trained, determined professional teachers in the state sector.

It is vital, despite the unique challenges of Covid-19, that initiatives are taken to provide the powerful, unified voice that is necessary. Groups already exist that could take this initiative, like FDS and SCUDD for example, adding to the work of National Drama and other professional associations.

Time to act now, it will be too late tomorrow.

Dr Alan Duffield. RTD. Performing Arts Teacher. Dance Researcher. 

Petition: Protect student choice: do not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications

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.