Drama, dance and the wider performing arts are disappearing from the UK’s schools (except in Northern Ireland, which has hung on to drama in its curriculum). In the National Curriculum, there is no mention of drama. Numbers taking the GCSE and A Level exams have been steadily declining. In the grouping of GCSE exams ‘Performing and Expressive Arts,’ 2014 results show 20,742 students sitting these exams, a tiny rise on the previous year but still accounting for only 0.4% of exams sat, and part of an overall decline in the number of entrants since 2007. Drama GCSE, which is listed separately, has also fallen from over 102,000 students in 2007 to around 75,000 now.
At A Level, the situation is even more depressing. The numbers are small to start with, at only 2,546 entrants for Performing and Expressive Arts subjects. This year was a drop of 8.5% compared with 2013, which was in turn a fall of 11.7% on 2012’s numbers.
The performing arts grouping offers a variety of options, depending on the exam board, not limiting pupils to acting but also giving the chance to study, perhaps, singing; dance; music; music technology; DJ-ing; lighting; sound; set design; costume design; properties; masks; puppets; make-up; stage management; front-of-house; marketing and publicity – where their school can offer these. And there’s the rub for many schools: often, they simply do not have the facilities to teach the more technical aspects. Or they do not have access to the broad teaching skills.
Commentators bemoan the fact that at GCSE Level, drama, dance and related subjects are being sidelined by the new EBacc measurement. The Government’s report soon after the EBacc was brought in, The Effects of the English Baccalaureate, showed that already a quarter of schools were dropping subjects because of the EBacc – and the most commonly dropped were Performing Arts and Drama. Some schools have sidelined drama to after-school clubs, in direct competition with sports.
Where are the boys?
The latter may be one factor in the other striking factor in the results for performing and expressive arts grouping: the lack of boys taking the subject – fewer than one in six at GCSE Level, and only one in ten at A Level. These subjects are at the sharp end of the cultural perception that all arts subjects are for girls. And a strong bias towards female candidates right across arts exams proves this bias is alive and well.
Schools are evidently not able to combat the view that performing is sissy, yet some of our greatest and most popular actors and musicians are men. That we do not have a strong oral tradition in Britain any more does not help. In some parts of the world, it is the males who stand up and deliver powerful, traditional poetry and music at the drop of a hat. Even in the wider arts, the perception is a powerful one. One head of English recalls a colleague saying boys didn’t want to do English because her department were all female; in fact, half of her teachers were football-playing males! There is also a lingering sense that boys must be more driven in their careers, and so parents steer their male offspring away from the performing arts in fear that they will not be able to find well-paid work.