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Schools: Drama

Volume 774: debated on Monday 5 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage the teaching and study of drama in schools.

My Lords, we want all pupils to participate in and gain the knowledge, skills and understanding associated with the artistic practice of drama. All maintained schools are required to teach drama as part of the national curriculum in English. Teachers are expected to introduce pupils to works from a range of genres, historical periods and authors. Pupils are taught about role play, improvisation and performance, as well as studying the art of playwriting.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the latest figures—among them fairly catastrophic figures for arts subjects—which show a drop in England of 16% in the take-up of GCSEs in drama over the past six years? Does the Minister share the widely expressed concern that with drama being offered less and less in state schools, the acting profession will become accessible to only the well-off and privately educated? If so, what action are the Government going to take?

What the noble Earl says about acting as a career could equally be said about many other careers, sadly, and that is why we have invested so much in school reform over the past five years. Specifically, we have provided means-tested support to ensure that talented 18 to 23 year-olds from all backgrounds receive the training they need to succeed in acting careers, and we have funded the Royal Shakespeare Company to provide all state schools with a free copy of its toolkit for teachers and to support young people performing Shakespeare in theatres.

My Lords, we all know how important the creative industries are to the economy of this country so it seems strange that we are allowing there to be a decline in the creative arts subjects in our schools. The Minister can quote little odd examples but the facts show that for all the creative arts subjects, there has been a decline in the number of hours taught and the number of teachers teaching those subjects. Does he think the new Secretary of State for Education might look again at the cataclysmic effects that the EBacc will have on creative subjects?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of the creative industries in this country. That is one of the reasons why we have reformed computing and D&T GCSEs and A-levels to make them more relevant and ensure that our pupils have the necessary skills to succeed in these great industries. However, I remind him of the situation we inherited in 2010, where only one in five pupils in state schools was studying a basic academic curriculum that would be regarded as absolutely common fare in any independent school and in most successful jurisdictions. That is why we introduced the EBacc, because that curriculum is so important, particularly to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not get that cultural education at home. We have doubled the number of pupils taking EBacc and we intend to double it again, and more. We hope that by stimulating the intellectual juices of our pupils to study better academic and creative subjects, they will in time want to engage in the arts more widely.

My Lords, as the Minister has mentioned the Royal Shakespeare Company, I should declare an interest as a governor and board member of that company. He will probably also be aware that his right honourable friend David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, recently hosted the Royal Shakespeare Company at No. 10 Downing Street in connection with its Associated Schools programme. Therefore, I assume that there is some level of support from within the Government for what the Royal Shakespeare Company and other arts organisations are doing to promote education in the arts. However, the Minister will also know that all those organisations are extremely anxious about the decline in take-up of arts subjects, mostly as a result of concentration on the EBacc. He may also want to know that the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is extremely assiduous and invests heavily in education, is particularly anxious about the, frankly, rather lukewarm support that is coming from government about arts subjects in schools. Can he reassure the House, and beyond the House the education sector, that that support will get a little warmer as time goes on?

I entirely agree that the Royal Shakespeare Company has a huge role to play, and has played a big role in our education system; and I am sure that the noble Baroness is pleased that pupils will now study a minimum of three Shakespeare plays during their secondary school career. In addition to the toolkit, earlier this year we provided funding to help the Royal Shakespeare Company stream “The Merchant of Venice” into all schools. I can assure the noble Baroness that we regard this as an extremely important part of the curriculum.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that although the noble Earl’s sentiment is correct—we must open up professions —the quickest way of opening up professions to people of all backgrounds, especially disadvantaged backgrounds, is to give them a very rigorous academic education that can act alongside arts subjects and other subjects, so enabling them to get into apprenticeships and higher education and opening the doors to those kinds of professions?

I agree entirely with my noble friend: studies have shown that this has had the effect of doing that with pupils. As I say, that is why we are so heavily focused on the EBacc. It is appalling that, until a few years ago, so few of our pupils were accessing such a curriculum.

It is through programmes operated by theatres such as the Young Vic that schoolchildren get the opportunity to experience theatre production, which is so important in learning about and understanding drama, yet the National Association for the Teaching of Drama has reported that, increasingly, schools are removing theatre trips from their timetables because of the difficulty in balancing their budgets. At the same time, the number of drama teachers is decreasing: it went down by nearly 20% between 2011 and 2014. As Sir Peter Bazalgette, the chair of Arts Council England, said, the state sector,

“doesn’t generate quite the creative and acting talent that it could were people in that sector given the same quality of education in performing they get in private schools”.

Sir Peter also argued that it should not be possible for an Ofsted rating of outstanding to be granted to any school unless it offers a vigorous and wide-ranging arts education. Does the Minister agree with that?

We are working with exam boards and Ofqual to make sure that all students see live drama in the theatre, as part of their drama qualifications, and we expect this to be in place from September next year. It is of course not just about GCSEs; many students choose to pursue drama through their school drama societies and in school plays. I cannot think of a school that I have visited which does not have an active drama society and puts on school plays. Ofsted inspects against how well the school supports the formal curriculum with extra-curricular activities for pupils to extend their knowledge and understanding, and to improve their skills in a range of artistic, creative and sporting activities.