The death of a student, significant mental health issues and a "clear and worrying picture" of conflict are behind plans to close Drama Centre London.
Drama Centre London (DCL), part of Central St Martins (CSM) college, is to close following an investigation into the death of a student and concerns about the conservatoire’s “course culture and student welfare”.
Bachelors’ and Masters’ degrees in Acting are among five courses at the school that University of the Arts London (UAL) – the parent organisation of CSM – says conflict with its “pedagogy and values”.
UAL cut a review of acting provision short after deciding to end all DCL’s programmes in 2022. Some of the 133 students affected are urging UAL to reconsider.
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But an independent review of DCL’s acting provision illustrates the scale of the issues and the barriers to solving them. The report found complaints of declining resources and inadequate space – students lacked safe changing rooms and staff were working in cupboards – were rife as the relationship between staff at DCL and CSM collapsed.
Each group’s inability to comprehend the other’s core concerns created “two distinct cultures within the one organisation,” reviewer Chris McIntyre wrote.
A tendency among DCL staff to be “resistant to and dismissive of” normal communication and quality assurance practices exacerbated the “disproportionate” number of complaints from students. UAL investigated 19 formal complaints from individuals and groups between 2016 and 2019. Most were at least partially upheld and awarded compensation.
McIntyre’s review says students accused staff of racism; UAL's own review says there were allegations of harassment between students. The university refused to confirm the nature of the upheld complaints, saying it did not want to risk identifying the complainants.
University stakeholders feared for the emotional wellbeing of the drama school’s students, who couldn’t access counselling because of their workload: “It was acknowledged that the courses could ‘push students to the edge’ [and] that mental health issues were significant,” the review says.
The review also said that students faced issues such as high fees, limited bursaries and that the demands of the courses limit opportunities for part time work.
UAL said its decision to close the courses was “further informed” by an unreleased investigation it conducted into the death of an MA Acting student. A separate coroner’s inquest into the cause of death is ongoing.
Students ‘protected’ staff
Despite the number of complaints, McIntyre found many students preferred staff at DCL to the wider UAL establishment. Students had an “arguably overly close relationship” with DCL staff and used satisfaction surveys to “protect” them from CSM and the university at large.
One DCL student told ArtsProfessional she was “incredibly satisfied” with her course and its teachers. Student equity issues and the disconnect between UAL’s academic focus and DCL’s vocational one could be addressed if DCL was “able to establish itself more as a school” independently of the university and start its own alumni association, she said.
“You feel like your own organisation doesn’t want you to succeed.
“The impression that the university gives off is that the course is somehow unsafe or unhealthy … it’s tough, there’s no denying it’s tough, but the pastoral support is incredible.”
Highlighting the distance between DSL and its parent organisations, the review says there was “an atmosphere of distrust and lack of engagement by students”, who at times boycotted meetings with university staff.
"It is clear that students identify as DCL students, not students of CSM.”
UAL believes DCL’s conservatoire-style training doesn’t reflect the direction contemporary creative arts education is heading in. Its own evaluation, run alongside McIntyre’s, says students were “encouraged to build intensive relationships within the group and consider themselves as an ensemble of actors,” and it was normal to work together beyond class hours into the evenings and weekends.
Communication with staff was often personal and informal and McIntyre’s review said interviewees “observed that a lot of staff and students were friends”.
Catherine McNamara, who worked at Central School of Speech and Drama for 16 years, said most conservatoire staff are “fiercely committed” to ethical and responsible teaching.
She said there are exceptions – staff and students who breach codes of professional conduct – but “misconduct was not reported at disproportionate levels” in the courses she worked with.
“We know under-reporting is one of the greatest challenges in this territory and it’s interesting to look at whether some students are less likely to report than others – again, in my experience, it didn’t seem to be the case.”
DCL staff said they were “overly cautious” due to the emotional nature of the courses and believed students were “ultimately safe”.
Anne-Marie Quigg, an expert in bullying within the arts, said theatre professionals increasingly recognise that younger people and students are vulnerable to harassment.
“In response to this there is a growing trend to create ‘safe spaces’ for and within auditions and rehearsals, for example.
“Drama schools have a duty of care to their students to develop policies and procedures that encourage participation while still offering advice, advocacy and protection.
“Rather than simply closing its doors to performing artists, however, it would be better if students and staff in the university were to seek help to identify and implement solutions to its problematic issues.”
UAL said it “remains committed to the future of performance at Central St Martins” and at Wimbledon College of Arts, another of its colleges.
‘Isolated and entrenched’
DCL staff became isolated from the wider university and “consolidated solely around the conservatoire identity”, thinking that senior managers within CSM did not “fundamentally believe” in their work.
The independent review said staff became defensive when problems were raised and resisted strategic actions to improve its processes: “This has led to a sense of isolation and entrenchment, and an arguable lack of ability to encourage their students to benefit from the wider educational and support environment.”
But the review indicates DCL staff themselves were lacking support. Managers were brought in with little training amid changes to the staffing structure and teachers’ ability to respond to students’ mental health issues was limited.
The review also says DCL “did not accept it had an issue with institutional racism, insisting rather than all complaints were singular rather than part of a consistent problem or pattern”.
CSM staff worried that DCL took a “laissez-faire approach to conflicts” and failed to capture information about potentially discriminatory events until it was too late.
They also questioned staff members’ suitability as teachers: “There is a recurring concern that, partly due to lack of formal HE teacher training, the artistic identities and egos of specialist teachers and subject leaders have had a more dominant role in their work than their identities as teachers.”
McIntyre concluded that students, staff, managers and the wider community perceived DCL and CSM as separate institutions “in an uncomfortable and, at times, combative relationship with one another”.
UAL was subsidising DCL’s acting degrees more than any other course across the university, providing about £9000 per student on top of tuition fees.
A viability exercise conducted by UAL alongside McIntyre’s review said DCL spent £743,000 more than it earned and was “unsustainable going forward”.
The university’s decision in October to suspend recruitment while it reviewed the courses was hotly contested by students and DCL’s advisory board, which resigned en masse in protest.
Former Board Chair Chris Honer said the board had asked for years to see UAL’s calculations of the course costs but was never given the detail as relations with the university became “very fraught”.
Costings released to ArtsProfessional are based on income generated per student, staff costs, production costs and teaching space per square metre.
Honer also claimed McIntyre, who is not an expert in drama or music, failed to ask questions about DCL’s curriculum and teaching during the review.
UAL defended McIntyre’s work: “Chris McIntyre, the independent reviewer who has worked in creative arts higher education for over 40 years, was appointed to make an unbiased assessment.
“His report was one of the elements of the review process which informed the University’s conclusion that the acting provision was unsustainable in its current form and unable to be sufficiently aligned with our pedagogy and values.”