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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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Chris Sonnex, Royal Court: Is it possible to engineer social change using theatre as a medium?

Interview with  Chris Sonnex : Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at The Royal Court

Theatre as a weapon of revolution

Chris Sonnex has come back from the jungle and is clearly unsettled. How did the Royal Court’s Community Producer come to be in Calais? When we meet, recent clashes between police and migrants have erupted, after authorities moved in to dismantle the part of the refugee camp known as The Jungle. I learn that Chris is working as an Associate Artist with Good Chance Theatre; a company at the heart of an international crisis.

“I walked into the office and Vicky [Featherstone] asked ‘Can you go out to The Jungle?’ It was a case of right place wrong time or wrong place right time, whichever way you look at it. However, it was the most incredible experience for me. As soon as I got there I realised that food and housing are their basic needs to live, but that it is the theatre that makes them feel alive.” Chris is a social activist and he clearly shows theatre to be a weapon of revolution.

Tottenham and Pimlico Residencies at the Royal Court

We discuss Tottenham and Pimlico a Beyond the Court residency project launched in 2015 in two dissimilar areas of London. He explains,“The work is similar to the National Theatre Scotland’s model; go into a community, find out what that community wants and create something for those people.”

The London postcodes were chosen specifically for social improvement within the locality of The Royal Court. “Tottenham was a place that was heavily on people’s minds because of the riots. In Pimlico it feels like there is less of a community. We set up a market stall and engaged with people who made five minute plays and offered workshops to those people. ”

Using drama and theatre to explore the personal and social issues

Is this work reactionary rather than radical? It seems the best kind of contemporary community theatre reflects the ruling-class control. There is a clear mission to use drama to explore the personal and social issues in Chris’s work. He demonstrates that theatre is political because it is a universal weapon. This holistic approach to participation draws on a range of disciplines including forum theatre, youth work and conflict resolution. This model is adaptable and progressive within diverse groups of people to create broader experiences. I wonder what facilitating opportunities such as these feel like. He laughs, “The best part of the job is the people. There’s always a danger that this work can be token-istic. We want to make quality work with a personal, social and political conscience.”

The work he describes appears wonderful, but I ask what the tangible outcomes are. Is the Royal Courts’ Tottenham and Pimlico project an add-on? Chris doesn’t think so. “First and foremost I see participant’s confidence and communication skills improve greatly, more broadly they find their voice about their lives and express a new found truth to power. But they also find each other, establish friendships: they come to know empowerment. We are the Royal Court of London; we should be reflecting what is going on in society.”

Group play-making and participation, critical to cultivating social change

For all the many utensils in the hands of those cultivating social change, whether community practitioners, teachers or outreach workers, one of the most vital elements is that of group play-making and participation. It is about building a community, where each member has equal rights and responsibilities. Sonnex has quietly grown in stature at his own pace, but it’s why being part of the company has been so invaluable. “Innovation and new voices are at the heart of what the Royal Court is for.” He adds, “For 3 weeks in July, Open Court will see thrilling new events, performances, talks and projects taking place throughout the theatre. It’s thrilling.”

What you start to sense is a theatre outreach programme not just giving a voice to its local community but a programme that is truly complimenting the bold work on its stages. Case in point, “I See You ” is presented as part of the International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project. This work is not dealing with vague ideas; it is ambitious and rooted in a lived experience.

Note: It was 5 weeks ago that I did this interview with Chris Sonnex. Goodchance Theatre, which had  been the harbinger of joy and hope for the refugees at Calais for the last six months shut down last week. This was necessitated by the displacement and destruction of the community due to destruction of the camps at Calais by French authorities. You can read more details related to the closure below.
‘Influencing’ – How can the Arts make a difference in the world?