Education – is there a crisis in schools touring?

By Charlotte Jones, Chief Executive, ITC

Recently an ITC company sent me this disturbing response from a teacher in a school they had previously had a long and successful working relationship with:

‘Due to a re-structuring of the school we are no longer able to book theatre companies. Once our current contractual obligations are fulfilled our theatre will shut to outside performances. After 37 years Tory education policies have finally beaten us! The arts are being reserved for the rich, who must, under the latest ideology, be the only truly creative people in our society!!’

This message arrived on the same day that two other ITC companies contacted us to say that their schools bookings had almost entirely dried up.

We have had, in the last few weeks an unusually high number of companies getting in touch with concerns over schools bookings. Many companies with excellent, long-established relationships with schools are reporting sudden, steep declines in bookings and have had to make radical adjustments to their touring and, in some cases, staffing plans.

It is just over a month on from the General Election and already we are seeing the morale impact that fear of potential cuts can have. George Osborne has made it clear that, in order to achieve the promised deficit reduction, major cuts to all departments are on the cards and rumours abound of a possible 10% cut to education. Wearing my other hat as Chair of Governors of a brilliant South East London comprehensive girls’ school I am aware of how tight (and efficiently managed) school budgets are. I cannot imagine a school being able to pare away any more expenditure without serious damage to outcomes for students. Worryingly external arts provision looks like one of the first casualties of a nervous education sector.

It is particularly concerning that the decline is so sudden before any actual cuts have been announced.

Fear of budget cuts, loss of relationships, loss of control resulting from swift conversion to Academy status or take over by large Academy ‘chains’ have all been reported to ITC as contributing to an unprecedented collapse in the schools market.

30% of ITC companies regularly work in schools so this is having a massive impact on confidence in this sector.

Ever since Gove’s proposed Ebacc changes art in schools has been under threat. Schools are reporting a decline in take up of arts subjects from GCSE students despite the successful campaign to reverse the proposed Ebacc removal of arts subjects from the core curriculum.

Recently Nick Gibb (Education Minister) made a speech to reinforce the importance of academic core subjects in the curriculum. Schools are vulnerable to this pressure and focus on Ebacc subjects - especially when budgets are under threat.

Bristol-based Theatre Company Travelling Light has been touring high quality theatre to schools for the past 30 years and had this to say:

‘The emphasis on curriculum subjects has meant that schools now seem to be a lot more restricted about when they can timetable us into the day (eg. they can’t take students out of a maths lesson to watch a piece of theatre).

Overall it seems that individual schools & teachers have lost a lot the power & authority to decide what will benefit their students. They have to prove the direct curriculum value of everything they do.’

Travelling Light also had an interesting story to tell about the impact of their work on the more holistic experience of school:

‘A parent of a seven year old boy contacted us after we visited his school. Her son hadn’t been enjoying school at all, but the day that he saw our production of ‘How Cold My Toes’ he came home & chatted non-stop about it. He was the most excited and animated that she had ever seen him. The next morning he actually wanted to go into school for the first time in ages. She felt that he had finally been part of something at school which had engaged & inspired him.’

Artist and education consultant Susan M. Coles has initiated a campaign to highlight the importance of arts and creativity in our schools and to attempt to engage the new Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan in a reasoned and dynamic debate. It is simply entitled #asknicky and here is the description of the campaign. Apparently Nicky Morgan said, on taking up her post last year, ‘My task is about listening to what teachers are saying, and saying to them, ‘What can we do?’” – So let’s take her at her word and send her lots more examples and clear arguments for prioritising arts in schools. She has a massive role to play in raising morale and confidence. It’s up to us to give her the right information.

ITC would also like to hear from you with your recent experiences of working with schools (good or bad). We need to know more about what is happening on the ground. Look forward to hearing from you.