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Education System (Dance)

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

There are few opportunities in the House to debate dance and I am delighted to have secured a debate on such an important topic. I have had a lifelong interest in dance, although only as an audience member. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and I formed the all-party group on dance some years ago, to support the dance industry.

The UK education system is a world leader in defining dance as a subject for study: its history, genres, choreography, aesthetics, politics and relationship to other art forms. In most schools it is taught within physical education, but it is unique because it develops both artistic and physical skills. Dance has an important role to play in getting young people physically active. It appeals to a large number of young people as an activity, including those who do not enjoy competitive sports and who therefore try to avoid PE in schools.

The Youth Sport Trust audit of dance in English schools and the audit carried out by school dance co-ordinators of the schools in their areas show a high number of schools providing dance in England and Wales. Nearly all—90%—of secondary schools provide dance of some form in the curriculum. Even very young children understand the power of dance to express what we think and how we feel. Studies have shown that dance can make a huge difference to a child’s overall performance at school, as well as developing skills to help them to communicate better, work as a team member, analyse further and imagine more. A physical education, school sport and club links scheme survey shows that in England dance is second only to football as the most popular physical activity for young people. The “Dance in Scotland” report published by the Federation of Scottish Theatre in August 2011 states that more people in Scotland dance than play football. That may have something to do with my country’s inability to qualify for international tournaments.

Participation in dance activity in schools is positive, because dance encourages young people to take part in and sustain physical activity—even those of us who do not enjoy competitive sport. That can help to tackle issues of obesity and other health problems. Dance has particular appeal to people who may not readily engage with traditional competitive sports, such as young women and some cultural and ethnic groups. Dance is the most popular PE activity for girls. As most girls stop doing any physical activity after the age of 18, dance offers the greatest chance to engage women in lifelong fitness. Identifying exceptionally talented young dancers at school will help to develop a highly skilled workforce, from diverse backgrounds, supplying the UK’s world-renowned performing arts industry, which contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy.

The work done in schools is supplemented by dance organisations across the country. Youth Dance England is the national organisation that champions excellence in dance for and with young people. In a recently published report on its performance over the past three years, YDE was shown to have made a remarkable impact on young people’s dance across the country. It worked in a unique way with nine leading dance and arts organisations, based in each region of England, to create the first national network to support the local delivery of dance to young people. That was assessed to be an inexpensive and efficient model, which other art forms were encouraged to adopt. Over three years, with a public investment of £5.5 million—that equated to 58p per school-aged child in England—390,425 young people participated in programmes at national and regional level. I am sorry to be so precise, but the figures are important. There were 1,889 performances and 376,133 people attended them; 15% of English schools took part in U.Dance, a programme to increase the number of dance performances. In comparison, over the same period, investment in music education was £38 per school-aged child.

Most of our dance companies do outreach work in schools. Internationally known organisations such as the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert and many others reach thousands of school children every year, bringing a professional insight to the education system and encouraging, supporting and raising the sights of countless students. For most students, dance is an activity that they will enjoy and benefit from. Others see dance as a career. That used to be difficult, but the Dance and Drama Awards scheme, introduced in 1999, has opened up possibilities for many more young people. Those awards offer annual scholarships to exceptionally talented performing arts students studying at some of the country’s leading providers of vocational training in dance, drama, musical theatre and technical theatre.

DaDAs offer reduced tuition fees and assistance with living expenses for a two or three-year course and are funded by the Government through the Young People’s Learning Agency. The performing arts industry contributes more than £3.5 billion annually to the British economy, and students graduating from DaDA-funded courses comprise a high percentage of all new entrants to the British performing arts industry.

I should perhaps mention that my son is a professional dancer, although he did not qualify for a DaDA. Does my hon. Friend have worries about the longevity and the effect, if DaDAs are not there in the years to come, on people moving into professional dance?

That is a worry, but we welcomed the continuation of the scheme by the Government last year. We know that it is under review, and hope that it will continue. That is one point that I wanted to make. When the scheme was continued, that reinforced the view that investment in dance is money well spent. The quality and depth of talent in the British entertainment industry in every discipline is the envy of the world. The economic benefits are clear, and the reputational benefits to the country are immense. Economic and cultural priorities make it imperative that the cost-effective benefits of DaDAs should be maintained and should remain in line with new funding arrangements for higher and further education, which come into effect in 2012.

Those are the positives, and they are very significant. Dance is an activity that has benefits across a very wide spectrum. For every age group it has health benefits. It encourages people who might otherwise be shy of engaging in exercise or sports to take exercise. It teaches children discipline and how to work in a team. It raises their self-esteem and improves their confidence and motivation. At the top end, professional dancers help to contribute to the growing reputation of the British entertainment industry and its massive contribution to the economy, as well as to our image as a country in the rest of the world. In particular in the London area, but throughout the country, there has been an explosion in the number of musicals: I treat my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton as the world expert on those matters.

However, there are also negatives. Recently, the Minister for Universities and Science made remarks suggesting that dance and other subjects were soft options for university entrance and should not be treated on the same level as other more serious subjects. Those comments echoed remarks made by the Secretary of State for Education in opposition and in government, and they are, to say the least, troubling, particularly to a dance industry that has worked incredibly hard to get to the position it is in today. The view of Ministers is misguided and shows a lack of understanding of the benefits of dance and dance training. It seems to me that behind those comments is a very old-fashioned view of what subjects are suitable for academic study—that there are serious subjects that are worthy of study and support, and others that are seen as soft, easy and not to be taken seriously. I do not think that the Government should put dance in that category—if any discipline should be in it at all.

With the help of Dance UK, the industry body that has been central to much of the progress made in the industry in the past few years, I gathered a range of comments on those ministerial views. Most showed the reaction that might be expected when hard-working professionals feel that the work they do and their students’ aspirations are being undermined or not taken seriously. However, the comments that I think best express the reaction of dance professionals came from Andrea Martin, head of dance at the College of Richard Collyer, Horsham:

“Mr Gove’s comments are essentially insulting to both teachers of A-level dance and the young people who study it. I teach students who are taking four and sometimes five A levels, including subjects such as English, maths, further maths, biology, chemistry, law, history etc. Without exception, I am told by my students that dance is one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging, of their subjects. It demands creativity, physical discipline and academic rigour. The multi-faceted nature of the A-level dance course necessitates the development of vital life skills—time management, collaborative working, problem solving and critical thinking. The A2 dance written exam is a two-hour paper requiring students to write three essays using skills of critical analysis, historical contextualisation and knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.”

She asks a valid question:

“A soft option?”

It clearly is not a soft option, and it is important that Ministers pay more attention to dance and try to get some direct hands-on experience.

There is academic content not only in A-level dance, but in higher education training and degree courses in dance. That content does not stop once someone leaves school. If someone goes into professional dance training, there is an academic responsibility. I hope that my hon. Friend thinks that the Minister should take account of that as well.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Two key elements of dance—we see them not just in performances or the way dance is tutored in school; there are many areas where they are crucial—are discipline and teamwork. The Home Office has been looking at dance as a way to help to reform the behaviour of prisoners, for example. Many children with severe learning difficulties or other problems are going into dance courses. Learning about teamwork and discipline is extremely important.

The Secretary of State and I were educated in the same education system, in Scotland. In fact, the school that he went to is in my constituency. I knew him well before he became the Secretary of State—even before he wrote for The Times. He knows that one strength of that system, and it has been for centuries, is the belief that every child should be given the broadest possible education, covering the humanities, technical subjects and the arts. In the Scottish system, children study a much wider range of subjects, but not to the same depth as in the A-level system in England. That comes later, at university. The aims are to avoid too narrow an education and to produce a more rounded adult. What we all want to see produced by our education system is those rounded citizens: people who have knowledge and skills, rigour and discipline, and the ability to think creatively instilled in them, and who have the flexibility to cope with changes in the modern workplace.

Dance is not a soft option for students. Studying dance can provide a child with substantial personal assets, which will prepare that child for his or her future in a complex world. I hope that the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Minister for Universities and Science will put aside their preconceptions about dance and take the trouble to see for themselves how dance training operates and what it achieves, and the progress that children, including many with difficulties, can make.

I can recommend one local authority that would be worth a visit: the London borough of Havering, where the Conservative-controlled council has initiated a programme of dance across all its schools and is reaping tremendous benefits as a result. That excellent example is worth examining. Ministers will find that dance is not a soft option, but rather a key element in training any child for adulthood.

I am pleased to be able to speak briefly in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing it. He spelled out clearly and powerfully the case for dance, both in the curriculum and in the life of our nation, and how it contributes culturally and economically to the United Kingdom.

In the Scunthorpe area, which I represent, dance has always been popular. There is a long tradition of dance being part of the local community. That is down to the contribution of many people in the community, including local dance schools and dance teachers, such as Kay Travis, who, even now, in her 80s, continues to inspire young people by encouraging them to participate in dance. Having been principal of John Leggett college in Scunthorpe, I concur with the points made by my hon. Friend about the rigour of the dance curriculum at A-level and his quote from the head of dance at the college of Richard Collyer. I saw the cracking work done by Bridget Jacques and Shelley Lee, dance teachers at John Leggett, to bring the best out of the young people who participated in dance. Those young people have gone on to contribute in all walks of life.

It is naïve for certain currents of thought within the Government to believe that dance is in any way a soft option. It is not, and I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity today to dispel those myths. Dance is a demanding and challenging subject at GCSE and A-level. As I visited many schools in the past couple of weeks in my constituency, I saw dance being part of the curriculum at primary and secondary levels and the fantastic work that teachers were doing with young people. There are new facilities in schools, such as the Melior community college, built under Building Schools for the Future. Fantastic dance facilities are being used to good value. I was pleased to be at the opening of the new events centre at North Lindsey college in my constituency, when students on the BTEC dance course gave a fantastic presentation to the people there.

I am pleased to support my hon. Friend in the argument that he has made so clearly and cogently today—the argument for dance in the curriculum, for recognising its rigour, and for recognising the contribution that it makes to the UK’s cultural life and economy.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this important debate. I know that he is a strong advocate for dance and for the promotion of dance for its health and social benefits and educational value. He pointed to the creativity and physical discipline involved in learning to dance, and, for some dancers, teamwork.

Dance is important to the cultural life of a country, and it is enjoyed by performers and audiences alike, be it classical, traditional or contemporary. Dance has something to offer to people of all ages, and if the popularity of “Strictly Come Dancing” is anything to go by, it is never too late to learn to dance. I just wish that my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), or indeed the former Member for Maidstone and The Weald, Ann Widdecombe, were here today; they could certainly contribute to the debate. It is also never too early to start to dance. Young children have a natural instinct for movement to music, and that should be encouraged along their path to adulthood. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North also alluded to that in his opening remarks.

The Government believe that every child should experience a wide variety of high-quality cultural experiences, including dance. In April, we commissioned an independent review of cultural education led by Darren Henley, managing director of Classic FM, who also led the review of music education. Mr Henley will be reporting on how we can realise the ambition of giving high-quality cultural experiences to our children while ensuring the best use of public money. That will include experiences within and outside the school day. I know that the main cultural groups have not only responded to the call for evidence, but taken the opportunity to meet Darren Henley to contribute to the review. His report and our response to it will be published later in the autumn. Dance has an important place in schools and I am confident that that will continue.

Does the Minister accept that by introducing the English Baccalaureate, which introduces a hierarchy of subjects and excludes subjects such as dance and drama, and by cutting quotas for drama teachers for universities such as Durham, the Government are placing dance and drama in a serious situation for the future?

I do not accept that argument. I will come to talk about the English Baccalaureate in a moment. The E-bac has always been kept at a small enough range of important, facilitating subjects to allow scope within the school curriculum timetable for students to take a wider range of subjects, such as vocational ones, music, art and economics.

We know from previous surveys that dance remains the second most popular activity, after football, among young people. However, something that interested me, and probably many other people, was the statistic about Scotland that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned. Perhaps it is the prevalence of Scottish dancing that is the key there. It is true also that 97% of all schools provide dancing activity. The popularity of dance is not limited to primary schools, where dance is a compulsory element of the current PE national curriculum; it is also a feature of secondary school education, where it is optional.

As we set out in our White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, we are embarking on a new era of freedom for schools—freedom from unnecessary bureaucracy and from an overly prescriptive national curriculum. The review of the national curriculum was launched in January and is being conducted in two phases. Phase 1 will focus on the overall shape and nature of the new national curriculum and will also consider new programmes of study for English, mathematics, the sciences and physical education. Those subjects will continue to be compulsory in all four key stages. The programmes of study will be finalised in autumn 2012, with first teaching in schools from September 2013.

Central to the Government’s educational philosophy is the view that not all that is good must be centrally mandated or managed. We believe that the new curriculum will allow schools greater freedom to teach beyond what children should be expected to know in core subjects. We are looking to create more room for excellent innovative teaching and curriculum design. We want more time available for teaching in areas such as dance, and the ability to create a broad and balanced school curriculum to meet pupils’ needs.

The hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) raised the issue of the English baccalaureate and her unease that dance is not included within its subjects. Although the English baccalaureate will give pupils the opportunity to study a core of academic subjects, it does not mean that we wish to restrict their choices or opportunities for wider study and the core of subjects is small enough to allow for that. We know that study in other subjects will be just as valuable to pupils, depending on what they go on to do after 16.

Will the Minister accept that a relatively wide English bac will have a natural impact on the nature and number of minority subjects that any school can provide on its curriculum in key stage 4?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. If we go through the English baccalaureate subjects—English, maths, science, one of the two humanities and a modern foreign language—all of them, apart from a modern foreign language and a humanity, are already compulsory to 16. We are talking about two GCSEs: history or geography, and a modern foreign language. Modern foreign languages were compulsory until 2004, and there is a body of opinion that says that they should be made compulsory again. The debate is about history and geography, and there has been a significant decline in those subjects over recent years, which is a cause for concern. None the less, if we add up all those GCSE subjects and add on a humanity, it is still small enough for pupils to study one, two or three more GCSEs beyond those core academic subjects, depending on which combination of those subjects they take. That is right because the Russell group universities and others say that those subjects are the facilitating subjects that keep options open for young people to make decisions about their career choices later in life. International evidence has shown that countries around the world in high-performing jurisdictions are delaying young people from making decisions over career choices. They keep options open for longer so that young people can make the right choices.

Clearly, if the Minister and the people around him feel that that is possible within key stage 4, they have never put together such a timetable. Moving back to dance, is the Minister aware that the highest increase in dance, movement and drama is among disaffected young girls who have a history of non-attendance? Given the Government’s view about the importance of behaviour and attendance, surely there is a good argument for including dance and drama at key stage 4 as a core subject.

The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I do not disagree with anything that she has said. At the moment, about 2.5% of the cohort are taking GCSE dance. I do not see why those figures will not continue, even with the popularity of the E-bac as a concept. I do not believe that the introduction of the new performance measure will have dire consequences for those selecting dance GCSE, any more than it will for those choosing other subjects that are not included in the E-bac combination.

When young people choose their GCSE subjects at key stage 4, it is important that they base their choices on what they need to progress. We recognise the wider benefits that studying subjects such as dance can bring. All pupils should be encouraged to study non-E-bac subjects alongside the core English baccalaureate to benefit from a well-rounded education.

To encourage talented young dancers, I am pleased to say that the Government maintain their support for low-income families through the music and dance scheme. The scheme represents the top of the pyramid for performing arts education and training and is the Government’s main vehicle for funding the training needs of exceptionally talented young dancers and musicians. Although small—the scheme is funded at £29.5 million this year—the scheme, its beneficiaries, its participating organisations and its patrons have a significant impact on the performing arts world. Although we have not made a formal evaluation, we know that MDS-aided pupils go on to become leading members of their profession in ballet and dance companies at home and abroad, some as soloists with international recognition and renown, such as prima ballerinas Darcey Bussell and Lauren Cuthbertson. Royal Ballet School students regularly win major competitions such as young British dancer of the year and the Lausanne international ballet competition in Switzerland.

In September, when I visited White Lodge, the Royal Ballet school, I could see that the standard of our young dancers is world class.

Before the Minister finishes his speech, I would be grateful if he addressed the main thrust of my contribution: why do the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science suggest that the status of a dance A-level will not be the same as other A-levels? Why do they suggest that it should be downgraded and seen as a soft subject when it comes to university admission?

As I have heard the Secretary of State and the Minister for Universities and Science say on numerous occasions, it depends what the young person intends to study and what they want to go on to do. The tragedy is that there are young people who wish to go to a university to study a particular subject, but they have the wrong combination of subjects to help them to obtain a place at that university to study that subject. That is what the Minister is seeking to address. He wants to ensure that young people have the right advice on the right combination of subjects. That was alluded to not only by the Minister, but by organisations such as the Sutton Trust, which is concerned that too many able children from poorer backgrounds are choosing the wrong combination of A-levels, thus narrowing their range of options for universities and beyond.

A dance A-level may well be right, and probably is right, for students who wish to take an arts-related subject at university, but it could be wrong for someone who wishes to study a science at university. Two science A-levels and dance may not be the right combination for many universities offering science degrees. There are examples of young people taking the wrong combination to enhance their chances of getting on those competitive courses.

We remain committed to supporting talented young people and adults in accessing specialist dance and drama provision, with national grants also being available for out-of-school-hours training through 21 designated centres for advanced training.