Cutting BTECs will hold back working class theatre makers

In January the press reported that the Department for Education was considering proposals to cut performing arts BTECs from the curriculum. These qualifications were critical stepping stones into the arts for both our artistic director, Paul Smith, and general and production manager, Emily Anderton. Here, Emily writes about her experience of BTECs and why they are so important to working class theatre makers.

  • Listen to an audio version of this post, right, read by Sophie Clay.

My education

Growing up in Hull, I was one of eight children and lived with my mum and stepdad in a council house. Safe to say I come from a working class background and I didn’t have savings in the bank to go to drama school, not that I was keen on being out of my comfort zone and leaving the city. My journey into the arts, then, was different to many.

I went to a local mainstream school and school was school until year 10, when you chose your options. Not really knowing what to do, but also not really wanting to get bogged down in more desk-based learning, I chose the only other options that were available: GCSE PE, art and drama. I hated exercise and was more interested in the lights in the rig than performing in my drama class, but I looked forward to my art lessons.

My art teacher designed and painted the sets for the school productions under the watchful eye of the drama department. That was something I got involved in quite quickly, painting the sets and stage crewing for the BTEC drama exams and Rock Challenge. It soon became an extracurricular activity, doing it most evenings and weekends.

When my secondary school became Northern Premier winners of Rock Challenge, we raised the money to perform in Australia. Rock was a performing arts competition that started in Sydney in 1980, in which schools and colleges brought an eight minute long devised dance piece to the competition and were eligible for a number of awards. Australia felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity and that’s where my passion for the arts began. Those of you who know me will know that I’m not the type of person to conga around the arena on finals day, but the buzz from the whole experience made me want to forge a career in the arts. Behind the scenes, obviously.

Careers days at school always followed a formula. You would go on an away day to Hull College, where girls would be put in childcare or hairdressing demonstrations and boys in mechanics and engineering. You were programmed into thinking these were the only options available. When it came to enrolling in college, I did what most people did at school and signed up for a childcare course.

But during the holidays, abroad with family and away from my friends, I had a realisation: I didn’t need to follow the crowd, but look for something I actually wanted to do instead. So I went through clearing onto the BTEC Stage Management and Technical Theatre Course at Hull College, a course that wasn’t offered to me at school or even openly advertised.

Three performers dance with hands in the air on stage, in the round. A female bassist is silhouetted in the foreground.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything in the Paines Plough Roundabout, 2017. Lighting design by Emily Anderton.

My career

I had to fight my way into the theatre industry via the only pathways that were available to me at the time. After the BTEC I continued at Hull College with a BA Hons Degree in Stage Management and Technical Theatre, graduating in 2012.

Whilst studying I worked freelance for various production companies in and around Hull and, in August 2012, I was appointed the role of technician at Hull Truck Theatre. Whilst in post I continued to work freelance as a production assistant and lighting designer.

Whilst working at Hull Truck I had my first child and, due to the demands of the role and parenthood, I decided to move on, as the late nights and weekends didn’t work well with family life. In 2018 I joined Middle Child on their journey of becoming an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and became general and production manager.

Aside from the touring aspects of my career, I managed to graduate and remain in Hull. This is quite unusual in the arts, as people often migrate to London to start their career, because that is where most opportunities are perceived to be.

My question to the Department for Education is, if BTEC courses cease to exist in the arts and you are unable or simply don’t want to take an A Level, where do you begin in the arts industry?

How do you get the credentials to get into university? Consider an academic subject at A level you didn’t want to do at GCSE level, drop out halfway through because it isn’t what you actually want to do now you have a choice and not secure a place at university?

I strongly believe that the uptake on such BTEC courses in the arts isn’t as popular as others due to the lack of knowledge they exist, but none the less they are still a pathway for many.

When secondaries in Hull became academies, subjects such as music, art and drama were among the subjects cut in both time and budget commitments, with schools seeing them as less favourable. In 2018, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman even said academic subjects were the best route to higher-level study, particularly for working-class children. The result cuts access to the arts at one of its earliest and most accessible sources.

Performing arts isn’t just for the qualification; it is about expression and personality of the individual, whether it be performing, painting or writing, it is so much more than just learning the syllabus and putting pen to paper.

Four performers on stage, posed as a band, singing into microphones, bathed in pink-red light

Weekend Rockstars, 2016. Lighting design by Emily Anderton.

Plans to scrap performing arts BTECs

Recent media coverage has suggested that the Department for Education is planning to “reform” qualifications for 16–19-year-olds. The alternative options would-be A Levels, T Levels and apprenticeships. Other qualifications at level three and below, such as BTECs, will only be funded if they are high quality, are necessary, have a clear purpose, and lead to good outcomes”.

A BTEC is an alternative qualification to an A Level, based around practical rather than academic study, with course work taking the place of exams. BTECs can be done alongside other GCSEs and A Levels in school and college. Some schools offer BTECs depending on their values in relation to the subject and capacity, as the courses usually require attending college. Similar to an apprenticeship, a BTEC is a great way to do work-based learning, but a better option for theatre, as there are fewer apprenticeships available in Hull.

On the stage management BTEC I took, modules were studied and then applied in live productions. We learnt all the roles associated with making a production and what they did, we set up production teams, took on those roles, teamed up with other courses and made shows. Everything was learnt by applying the skills practically and being able to make mistakes without being failed by a teacher. The course work was paperwork that needed to be completed as part of the role; for example a deputy stage manager would submit their prompt script.

Working in the arts you are always learning on the job and there is always something around the corner that you haven’t dealt with before, so a BTEC is a good place to start. I imagine that the A Level equivalent would be very history based and not as interesting to the practical mind.

People who work in the arts will know that you don’t need qualifications to be good at what you do, but it certainly helps with your CV, in the early days, whilst you build your portfolio. Some employers are also still setting quite ambitious requirements in their job advertisements, which require higher education.

What should Middle Child do?

In the long term we have identified, along with other organisations, the lack of technical and production graduates based in Hull. Most creatives and freelancers are brought from London to work with local companies on a show-by-show basis.

Middle Child offer a programme of freelance training opportunities, taking unnecessary higher education qualifications out of essential job requirements. We have a great artist development programme, and are currently looking into how we can incorporate production and technical opportunities into this.

We are under no illusions that the skills do actually exist in the city, but performing arts graduates tend to move on and people in other fields don’t know their skills are transferable into the arts. Maybe arts employers could help by considering where they advertise and make their job advertisements clear that desired skills could be a conversation point. From personal experience Middle Child know that you don’t have to have five years’ experience to be able to do a good job.

The plan to scrap BTEC courses would mean that arts-based courses, like the one I took, would no longer be available, putting a roadblock in the way for anyone from a less academic or working class background to gain arts qualification for their CV.

What else can Middle Child – and the wider theatre industry – do to protect BTEC qualifications and similar routes into the arts for young working class people?

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