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Industry complains of a chronic skills shortage in areas such as communication and creativity. Yet our education system places little value on subjects that hone those skills, says Jacqui O'Hanlon.

First Encounters with Shakespeare production photograph
First Encounters with Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors 2018

Sam Allard

The latest report from The Open University and the Institute of Directors estimates the UK skills shortage is costing businesses in the region of £6.3 billion. And world leaders agree that it is non-routine cognitive, interpersonal, social and emotional skills that will be most in demand in the future. Skills that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development acknowledges are fostered by the arts: 

‘To date, researchers have been unable to identify a comparable activity that develops the cognitive capacity of children in the same ways or to the same extent as music and arts education does.’

Arts learning interventions build key skills including resilience, tolerance, empathy and the ability to get along and communicate with others. A growing body of evidence also demonstrates that young people who experience an arts-rich education tend to do better at school, are more likely to go to university and ultimately land better jobs. 

Altering expectations and aspirations

The RSC’s Associate Schools Programme (ASP), developed in collaboration with regional theatres across England, proves time and again how children benefit. Based on the work actors do in rehearsals, we use playful approaches that connect with all types of learners emotionally, physically and intellectually. 

As well as supporting literacy skills, the work helps children develop critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and creativity. Its impact is felt in other, more profound ways from better self-esteem and confidence to improved attitudes to school and learning in general. When asked, year 6 children now talk about wanting to be designers or stage managers, whereas before they talked of following in their parents’ footsteps or becoming famous.

When I was growing up arts and culture weren’t part of my life. The life and career I’ve had were made possible because an English teacher at my secondary school introduced plays and Drama into the curriculum. That one teacher transformed the trajectory of my life. While most people agree that potential should matter more than background, it should concern us that this kind of story is still the exception and not the rule.

Unequal access is a major problem that seems to be getting worse. Research shows that a third of young people will only ever access the arts through school. RSC Learning’s work, and the work of theatres and arts organisations across the UK helps to plug gaps and forge long-term partnerships with schools where students are least likely to have access to high-quality arts learning experiences and opportunities. 

New worlds of possibility

Alongside the ASP, we take work into schools up and down the country with our First Encounters with Shakespeare touring productions; this month our production of Twelfth Night begins its tour. For many, this abridged 90-minute version of the play will be their first introduction to live theatre, Shakespeare and/or the RSC’s work. 

As well as watching the live performance, young people will perform on stage alongside the professional acting company and will work backstage in wardrobe, lighting, stage management, set design and making props. For some it will be a fun first introduction to Shakespeare: for others it will open up new worlds of possibility and potential and lay the foundations of future ambitions. 

But while we work with thousands of students each year, there is a limit to what we can do. In recent years, the hours devoted to arts teaching and take-up of arts subjects at GCSE and A’ level have declined. And we see a similar pattern emerging in Higher Education. 

Pre-pandemic, the RSC, Tate and the University of Nottingham asked young people themselves if the arts and the arts in education mattered to them. The answer was a resounding yes and the resulting study, Time to Listen, revealed that arts subjects were the only lessons where young people felt able to think for themselves, make mistakes, try out new ideas, develop agency, build self-belief, confidence, empathy, appreciation of difference and diversity. 

Partnerships between the arts and schools should become the norm

It’s troubling that instead of government intervening, it falls to our industry to tackle the problem. The diversity and the talent we want to see in our industry is already present in our classrooms. Our job is to tap into it, unlock potential and ensure partnerships and porosity between arts institutions and schools become the norm – both in terms of learning and participation and providing pathways into employment. 

As a teaching theatre, the RSC is committed to providing skills development and training to the next generation of theatre professionals. Our Next Generation programme draws talented young people from associate schools and provides opportunities for them to work with professional actors, directors and backstage teams to see if a career in theatre is for them.  

Our new apprenticeship scheme will offer another career progression path. In 2022/23 we will take on 12 young people to work in different departments and will continue to build from there. Longer term, we aim to become a training hub, including, developing flexi-job apprenticeships with theatre partners. 

The UK, celebrated for its creative brilliance, suffers from a curious lack of confidence around the role and the value of the arts. The arts sector itself lacks confidence in asserting the value of an arts-rich education and the rewards of its career opportunities. One of our biggest challenges lies in our ability to come together as a sector and speak with absolute confidence in a united voice. A voice powerful enough to affect a sea-change in attitudes that starts in primary schools and filters all the way through to parents, educators, policy and decision-makers. 

Building a robust evidence base

Research will play an important role in helping us do that, providing a robust evidence base that will help reverse misconceptions. The RSC recently became the first performing arts organisation to be awarded Independent Research Organisation (IRO) status. Our first three-year research programme, funded by the Paul Hamlym Foundation, focuses on creating a suite of measurement tools that can be used across the arts sector to measure the impact of arts learning interventions on the inclusion and engagement of children and young people. 

But perhaps even more fundamental is the need for a national conversation around the purpose of education itself. What are school experiences providing for young people? What kinds of knowledge and capabilities should they equip young people with? 

Whatever purpose we land on, a rounded, full education - one that gives equal billing to arts subjects and in which creative pedagogies are used in all subject areas - plays a pivotal role in removing the blockages and barriers that hold people back. And isn’t levelling the playing field and giving all young people an equal start in life and the skills to carve out a better future for themselves the whole point?

Jacqui O'Hanlon is Director of Learning and National Partnerships at the Royal Shakespeare Company.


@theRSC | @RSC_Learning | @jacquiohanlon

The RSC's First Encounters production of Twelfth Night will tour nationwide 21 September - 12 November 2022. 

Link to Author(s): 
Jacqui O'Hanlon
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Many thanks for this Jacqui, excited to read this as it chimes with so much that we are hoping to achieve with our transformed theatre here in Hertford. Be great to hear more from you.