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Every child in the last year of primary school in the London borough of Newham has the opportunity to see world-class theatre for free. Becky Lees explains how the scheme has established itself.

Photo of schoolchildren at the theatre

Stratford Circus Arts Centre has just delivered its fifth year of the Every Child a Theatre Goer scheme in partnership with Newham Council. The scheme allows every Year 6 child in the borough the chance to see a world-class piece of theatre for free, and over the five years more than 18,000 children and their teachers have benefited.

We are presenting work to an audience where 82% are Black, Asian and minority ethnic, with 74% speaking English as a second language. We strive to find work that reflects this diverse population and commission companies to make work specifically for the scheme, inviting them to create the work in our space with our local children.

We have worked hard to build this commitment and have seen it grow year on year as schools begin to trust the offer

So far children have seen productions including Akram Khan Company’s Chotto Desh and the National Theatre’s modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet. This year we have commissioned a brand new piece, Gyre & Gimble’s and Fuel's The Hartlepool Monkey.

Feedback from the teachers supports our belief that a live theatre experience can have enormous benefits to the children that support their learning. I always enjoy hearing from the teachers and children about the variety of ways the visit has affected them, from improving attainment and empathy, to broadening horizons, encouraging discussion and leaving children with a sense of inspiration. One of my favourites was when one particular boy realised it’s OK for boys to dance.

Strong partnerships

The success of this initiative is down to the strengths of the partnerships between the local authority, schools and the venue, and the unwavering commitment to the importance of the scheme. We have worked hard to build this commitment and have seen it grow year on year as schools begin to trust the offer and see the real impact it has on their children’s learning and personal development.

When we launched the scheme, we spoke to senior leaders and headteachers in schools to get their initial buy-in. Now that senior leadership teams are committed to it, it has generally been passed to arts coordinators or year group leaders to coordinate. We have found it useful to identify an Every Child ‘champion’ within each school who we can build a good relationship with and can be our main point of contact for organising the trip.

We also always follow up the theatre visit with surveys to teachers and focus groups within some of the schools to speak to the children about their experience. This evaluation is fed back into the programme and has helped the schools feel connected to the scheme.

Building engagement

Every year, we consult with schools when programming the shows to involve them in the decision-making process. We aim to confirm the school’s ticket allocation at least six months in advance as we know the more lead-in time teachers have the more they can build the programme into their planning.

We also work with companies to build an engagement package around the show that includes the following:

  • Practical training sessions for teachers giving them an insight into the production and practical ideas for activities to do in the classroom.
  • Resource packs and online videos with information about the show, curriculum links and activity ideas to help teachers enhance the experience for their pupils back at school.
  • Post-show Q&As with the cast and creative team, which have been particularly successful in giving the children an encounter with the artists.

Each year we also invite councillors and members of the local authority to see a performance with the children, so they can witness the programme in action. Sharing a theatre filled with delighted children each year and hearing the positive feedback from teachers has helped secure Newham Council’s investment.

Equality of access

We believe the scheme is vital to ensure equality of access for all children in the borough to the best possible theatre and aim to commission and present high-quality work to every child in the borough for many years to come. It is an opportunity to ignite debate around relevant issues, inspire young people from diverse backgrounds to pursue the arts and spark a lifelong love of theatre and creativity.

Becky Lees is Creative Learning & Programme Manager at Stratford Circus Arts Centre.

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Photo of Becky Lees