Big Brum responds to our recent blog on the crisis in theatre in education

Guest blogs by Dan Brown, General Manager at Big Brum Theatre in Education

Charlotte’s comments on the state of schools touring have elicited quite a response from ITC members, and it was a question particularly relevant to Big Brum, a theatre in education company with an international reputation that has been working since 1982.

Working in this field, do we find it harder than ever to work in schools? We have to say yes, and there is a combination of worrying factors at play:

  • Arranging time away from the established curriculum is harder than it has ever been; unless a teacher has the personal conviction and initiative to fight for space for the input of external artists, an issue like a maths lesson after a drama lesson can be an impossible obstacle to negotiate.
  • Budgets for arts work are being cut; working in scores of schools every year, we are hearing it from school after school.
  • Loss of established local authority support (such as arts education teams) has been harmful, as there are fewer third parties encouraging and supporting arts work in schools. It is possible that in future academy chains may replicate such support structures to facilitate engagement, but this is a long term hope.
  • Pace of change has been so overwhelming that a lot of teachers have been effectively paralysed into inaction. Even where there is will, the sheer enormity of other changes to deal with has disrupted otherwise strong working relationships, as teachers have had to prioritise other areas of their work.
  • The introduction of the Ebacc will further marginalise arts within schools, as it becomes the standard schools teach to, de facto if not de jure.
  • In the long term, there is a worry over the continued flow of teaching professionals into arts subjects, when Ebacc subjects offer a much more secure career.

Big Brum feels this struggle to engage arts work within schools cannot be placed simply at the hands of the changing education system. After almost two decades of comparative growth and community engagement the arts have sadly not become fit for the purpose of reaching all of the communities of the UK, and cuts to arts funding are undoing what gains have been made.

Performance in schools is, in our opinion, amongst the most democratic forms of access imaginable. When a child sees a performance by a professional artist or arts company in their school, all the social, cultural and financial barriers to art are broken down. They won’t be priced out of attending; the school (mostly!) pays. They won’t be unable to catch a bus to the venue; the work comes to them. They won’t be intimidated by the occasion or feel out of place in an “alien” environment; it happens in a space they are used to. Big Brum’s long term collaborator and associate artist, playwright Edward Bond, has largely rejected work in UK theatres yet remains committed to writing for audiences of young people; he has said that when he sees one of his plays performed in a school, then he sees something that Euripides might recognise as drama.

UK’s young people consistently rate as some of the most disenfranchised and displaced in the developed world; the Children Society’s 2014 report revealed that children in England ranked ninth out of 11 countries surveyed for subjective well-being, ahead of only South Korea and Uganda. Young people have the most profound and deep felt need to understand the world they live in and their place in it. They have a driving need to ask questions about themselves and their world as they enter into our society, as thinking, feeling human beings. This space to be reflective, to question and understand, is a space that art provides to them. Is this space provided to them by our school curriculum, with a focus on core subject test results and “British values?” Is this space provided by our arts establishment, as we see an ever smaller percentage of arts funding distributed to small organisations? (Core funding allocated to awards of less than £100k a year has halved in recent years) From the audiences we work with every day, we can see it is a space young people are urgently seeking and are not receiving.

In general, for those small arts organisations that are community based and focused on reaching the needs of the most deprived and excluded communities, the picture is one of ever tightening access to funding whilst the requirements of what we need to do change around us, with little guidance and little support. The intense difficulty experienced by many arts companies in booking their normal schools work is a very harmful part of this wider problem. So we have something of a perfect storm, whereby a range of policy decisions from different corridors of power are combining to create an extremely hostile environment for community focused arts work in general, and work for young people within schools especially.

Big Brum believes that a wholesale recalibration and new understanding is required in our education system and structure of arts funding; a reconsidering of cultural value. Young people have a need for a direct engagement with arts and a meaningful relationship with their culture, and it is this engagement that a morally developed society that is serving the needs of all of its citizens would aim to deliver.

The situation is not terminal; there remain committed teachers, schools, academy chains, artists and funders who will continue to see the value of theatre work designed for young people and support it wherever they can. The struggle to give our young people the arts experiences they deserve will continue, but we accept it will be a more difficult struggle than it has been for many years.