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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

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The Dancing Club, Caroline Jester: ‘Work that inspires me is a diversity of work.’

The Dancing Club is a new play for community owned spaces, school and village halls, libraries, arts centres and theatres. Produced by Pippa Frith and written and directed by Caroline Jester, The Dancing Club is based around the remarkable and inspirational true story of Kidderminster legends Frank and Wynn Freeman and their selfless drive to get a town dancing.

I caught up with writer and director Caroline Jester recently. Here is what we discussed.

Hi Caroline! Can you tell me a bit about The Dancing Club and what led you to this project?

Most of my career to date has been developing work in cities but coming from a town where there is little provision for the arts I have always had a fascination with how to explore these towns in connection with the arts. Towns that have an industrial heritage, so distinct from villages and cities, where the main industry has died out and they are often forgotten in terms of arts provisions. I use playwriting as a tool in many ways in my practice as well as to develop plays for the stage and I wanted to see if a verbatim approach could facilitate audience development in these towns. Verbatim is often used as a response to an event so this was an experiment as I wasn’t reacting against an event but trying to create the event. I thought back to my childhood and remembered the dancing school I went to for six years and started from there. I discovered this had run for over fifty years and started as a ballroom dancing school but became a space where youth culture exploded across the generations, including being a place where the likes of Marc Bolan and Fleetwood Mac played gigs in the room above a butcher’s shop.

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Sounds interesting. How did you go about collecting the testimony and information?

I interviewed over 100 residents of the town aged 25 – 90 and over 150 people came to readings of early drafts, so an audience was developing. Steve Elias had his BBC series ‘Our Dancing Town’ on at the same time where he was connecting generations through dance in Yorkshire towns so we connected and he is now the choreographer on the show that is about to tour.

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As well as The Dancing Club being out on tour you have a new book out: ‘Fifty Playwrights on Their Craft. Tell me more about that, it sounds like a huge project.

I interviewed 25 – my US collaborator, Caridad Svich interviewed the other 25 – very much a UK US collaboration – the premise of it was to think about an intergenerational conversation. So, it is a book of interviews with writers of different generations but writers from different perspectives on their craft and what that means to them as playwrights. A key aim was to ensure 50/50 male-female –Artists in the US seem to have a much greater appreciation or knowledge of predecessors and practitioners.

What did you think about the recent Rita, Sue and Bob Too debacle around ‘working class voices’ being censored at the Royal Court

I didn’t seen this production but I did hear that one of the arguments to reinstate the production was because if it wasn’t shown then it would be one less ‘working class’ voice on our stages. I think we have to be careful when we use the term ‘working class voices’ because to be working class does not mean you are part of a homogeneous group of people. No one ‘working class’ voice will be the same and I feel we should steer clear of the use of the word ‘authentic’ in these discussions as well. From what I know about Andrea Dunbar then she could be categorised as being working class based on economic status and having lived on a council estate but there have been others, there are others and there will be others who also have a similar biography so can’t we look beyond this and have a conversation solely about the work instead? A bigger question is whether there will be any social housing rather than any ‘working class voices’.

What inspires you as a theatre-maker?

Work that inspires me is a diversity of work and I hope I am inspired and open enough to contradict my own beliefs in what is good and challenging work, and this is something that constantly changes.

The Dancing Club opens at Kidderminster College and then tours to Shropshire, Bewdley, Malvern, Bromsgrove, Smethwick, Wolverhampton, Worester & Cumbria.

For more information: https://www.thedancingclub.co.uk/