HC Deb 25 November 1975 vol 901 cc811-20

10.33 p.m.

Mr. William van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity that you have kindly given me to raise for a few minutes a question which is of great interest to those immediately concerned with it—namely, professional training for drama. I am equally grateful to the Under-Secretary for being present tonight—at short notice I think I am correct in saying—I am, therefore, the more appreciative of his presence. I want to centre the few moments that I have upon a report commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on professional training for drama, which is known as "Going on the Stage".

This is by no means the first time that the House and the country generally have had reason to be grateful to the Foundation for looking closely at one particular aspect of our cultural life. When I was at the Department in 1971, I received an interesting report from the Foundation on music and musical education. Although we did not follow everything in the report, it was very helpful and led to considerable additional expenditure on musical education.

I had something to do with encouraging the Foundation in the present inquiry and I am grateful to it. At a time when the Minister is under considerable financial constraints—as would be any alternative Government—it is not realistic to press for substantial increases in expenditure. I am precluded by the rules of debate from pressing for any changes in legislation, and I should not wish to do so.

I emphasise that the report does not seek to get the Minister to increase expenditure substantially. It starts from the basis of what can be done with existing resources. It is that—rather than a visionary plan—that confronts the Minister, and I hope that he will let us have at least his preliminary reactions to it. The report was commended in a leader in The Times Education Supplement on 26th August which said it avoided all the expensive Utopian solutions. The Minister and I have both seen reports that fell into that trap. I hope that he feels that this report has avoided it.

It could be argued that, at a time of economic difficulty, little or no money should be spent on education in the theatre. I reject that for two reasons. First, the theatre is part of our national heritage and is a great aspect of our national life. The quality of our actors and actresses and the excellence of our stage management and production are the envy of the world. If, as I believe, it can be said that London is the music capital of the world, it can also be claimed that London is the theatrical capital of the world. It is a very important part of our national heritage that we continue and nourish this great tradition.

The second reason is that it is good export business. One has only to look at the number of productions on Broadway to see the export potential of the British theatre. We are extremely fortunate to have the fortune of our language. Tours such as the recent one to India by the New English Shakespeare Company take our language and heritage all over the world. So, even leaving aside the cultural argument, which the Minister and I would rate as being of great importance, there is something here in terms of hard cash.

But, as the report shows, there are problems. We are overproducing actors. It is not possible to assess this as a measure of the unemployment, but unemployment there certainly is. There is evidence that those trained at the leading drama schools stand a better chance of a more rewarding employment than those who are trained at one of the lesser-known schools. Hence the report comes to the conclusion that the present support from public funds, which is not inconsiderable, is uneconomic and inadequate.

Much trouble and care has been taken over this report. It leads to the view that drama schools should obtain formal recognition as a prerequisite of support and that such support should then be confined to schools that have obtained that recognition. I hope that the Minister has noticed the view that the most likely source of support for such drama schools is the local authority.

I remember that when I was in the Department of Education the Department understandably, had reservations about direct grant institutions. I can see the anxieties that they can cause if there is to be proper watchfulness and care. That leads me to hope that the hon. Gentleman will approve of what is said about support by local authorities.

I hope that he will agree that there should be a national council for drama training to oversee the whole of these activities, to advise, to guide and generally to co-ordinate. I like the concept in the report that at least six of the schools should be in the regions. I think we are agreed that too much is concentrated in the metropolis, and it would be good to get as much as possible out to the circumference. It looks as though there will be four "guaranteed" schools in London with hope for others.

The hope is expressed that the Department will issue guidance and that grants henceforward, remaining discretionary, will be slanted towards those institutions approved by the council. This concept is well understood by the Department and has been used on previous occasions. I liked the argument that there was no real case for standardisation. I feel that we benefit in our arts by a variety. I recall the previous Foundation report which called for a conservatoire of music. We rejected that because we felt that on the whole there was a greater benefit from the variety of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music, whch are such great attributes of our musical life. It would be unwise to have that centralisation here, although perhaps there should be greater emphasis upon training in television and closer links, therefore, with the BBC and independent television.

Perhaps one of the most potent recommendations is that Equity, which is one of the interests which has kept closely in touch throughout, should be asked to grant automatic membership to those who have come from one of the schools that have achieved recognition. That would be an extremely significant factor.

It is understandable that the committee is very critical of the conditions in some of our drama schools. The Minister has much experience in this direction. I cast my mind back to my early experiences and visits to that very memorable organisation the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, which has one of the most beautiful small experimental theatres in London and which, in physical conditions well below the standard that we expect and regard as proper in our public provision, trains actors and actresses and those associated with them in brilliant ways. I recall being taken round by the former director, Mr. Norman Ayrton, who contributed so greatly to the training of many actors and actresses, with excellent results, and being impressed by what was achieved in poor physical surroundings.

I end with a quotation from an interesting comment on the report by Mr. Michael Billington, whom many of us read with profit, in The Guardian on 25th August. He described the English attitude to acting as the notion that it is really a profession for semi-literate oafs and that any attempt to apply to it discipline, rigour or academic method is somehow a betrayal of its randon, roistering charm. I hope that it will never lose its" random, roistering charm", but it will be greatly to the benefit of the nation if we can slightly and gently tighten up the professionalism of its training.

The report has done a great deal to draw the matter to our attention. I hope that the Minister, even though he speaks at short notice, will be able at least to give a cautious welcome to what the report says. My object is achieved if I have been able to draw attention to what it has to say to us.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Hugh Jenkins)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) not only on his selection of the subject for this debate, but on the manner in which he has spoken. His interest in the subject is of long standing. It is possibly almost as long-standing as my own. Although I am here at short notice, as the hon. Gentleman said, I am in no way reluctantly here. It is a subject close to my heart, and therefore I regard it as a privilege to be able to reply to a speech made in such moderate and convincing terms.

I welcome the opportunity which the debate gives us to consider a matter which has caused concern for a number of years. In a minute or two I shall say something about the excellent report "Going on the Stage". I am glad that the subject has been raised so soon after its publication, so that it should not have been put on one side and become dusty on the shelves before we had an opportunity to consider it.

Before I say something about the report and its recommendations, I shall try to respond to the hon. Gentleman's invitations. I think that it will be generally agreed that, as I think is the implication of the report, there are rather more than a dozen principal schools of the type commonly known as drama schools—that is, schools, concerned for the most part with vocational training. These are pretty well known. There are a number of others whose names are less well known.

There are many performers who enter acting without first having undergone training at a drama school. But the development of the theatre means possibly a greater requirement for training in future than has been the case in the past. The picture of a largely vocational training provides a contrast with other disciplines for which provision is made in publicly maintained colleges.

In drama, and to a lesser extent in music, a different pattern has developed, with independent colleges more prominent and giving greater emphasis to vocational training than to courses of an academic nature. The difference is associated with the fact that until recently drama has not been seen as an art form requiring the support and encouragement of the State in the same sense as the visual arts and music. Indeed, the stage first established itself as in need of support via opera and ballet. It is not surprising that what has been seen as an area for the entrepreneur or impresario should be among the last to turn to the State for greater support of its training systems.

As the hon. Member for Wokingham has properly said, public funds already make an important contribution to drama training in two ways. First, five drama schools are maintained or grant aided by local education authorities and another by the City of London Corporation. Secondly, students at both publicly supported and independent drama schools may receive discretionary awards from their local education authorities. My Department does not itself collect information about the extent of discretionary support for drama students, but I was interested to see in the Gulbenkian Report that 63 per cent. of students were thought to receive discretionary awards.

If we take the maintenance of institutions and student awards together, it adds up to a fair measure of public support for professional training for the stage. I take the view that what the Gulbenkian report found was an underestimate and that the figure may well be substantially more than a figure of 63 per cent., which is tentatively given in the report.

Despite this, those of us involved with the theatre have been well aware for some time that some of the independent schools are in financial difficulty, partly as a result of inflation and more recently perhaps because of pressures on local authority expenditure. For many years there has also been concern about the employment prospects for drama students in the acting profession. Indeed, it would be surprising if Equity did not see in the inquiry a possible means, if not of closing the shop door, at least of narrowing the opening so that entry into the profession is reduced to manageable proportions. I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the report.

These matters were no doubt in the minds of those who—wisely, I believe—decided that a survey of drama training was required. Tonight I shall concentrate not so much on employment matters as on the drama schools which are of concern to my right hon. Friend and to my noble Friend and myself. Their difficulties have been the subject of exchanges with the Department of Education and Science on a number of occasions in recent years. The report "Going on the Stage", sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, provides an excellent basis for a further look at the problem.

I am sure that all those who are concerned with the state of the theatre, in the profession, the drama schools and elsewhere would wish to join me in expressing our gratitude to the Foundation for sponsoring this inquiry. It is by no means the first occasion on which the Gulbenkian Foundation has made a significant contribution to the development of the arts in this country and I am sure that it will not be the last. We are indebted to it.

Perhaps I should preface my comments on the report by emphasising that it comes from an independent inquiry. It was not commissioned by the Government and there is therefore no commitment on my right hon. Friend to adopt any recommendations made. It is being carefully studied by my Department in so far as it concerns us. Many of the suggestions made are directed at others, such as the drama schools themselves, the acting profession and local education authorities. The report comments on stage schools—that is, schools of varying kinds which provide training in acting skills for children.

There are particular problems about the position of these schools in the drama training system, and these might well benefit from further investigation. But I do not propose to discuss them this evening since they are outside the main theme of the debate. There are three points which in particular seem to require consideration by my Department, and we shall give them that consideration, as the hon. Gentleman asked.

First, there is the suggestion that money should be made available to a national council for drama training, which body would be charged with recognising certain of the drama schools as deserving of public support. Secondly, the report suggests that, while most of the schools so recognised would find support through their local education authorities, a few might require direct grant from the Government, and it is proposed that this should be channelled through the Arts Council. We are still studying these proposals, but it will not surprise the House if I say that their expenditure implications —which are not so great or extravagant as they might have been—give pause at this time.

There are also difficulties which arise from the concept of a grant by the Government to educational establishments through the medium of an independent training council and from the proposed involvement of the Arts Council, quite apart from the Government's attitude towards direct grant for establishments of further education. But the principal question we must ask ourselves is whether additional public money can be given to drama training when other priority areas of education are under severe pressure.

It is suggested in the report that local education authorities be advised to make discretionary awards only to students at schools which have been recognised by the proposed national council for drama training. Adoption of this recommendation would involve a major change in our awards policy, since the essence of a discretionary award is that it is for the local education authority to determine. Mandatory awards are not available to students at the drama schools, although this position could be affected if a drama degree course were established at a school and validated by the Council for National Academic Awards.

Having made those necessarily discouraging remarks on the financial implications of the report—which, I am afraid, are there despite what the hon. Gentleman said—I must make it clear that I am by no means undervaluing it. The Department welcomes a dialogue with those concerned about any developments flowing from the report and will offer help wherever possible. We should naturally want to keep in close touch with a national council for drama training if one were established.

There seems to be much that such a body could do, even without public funds, to create a more coherent and perhaps smaller system of drama training which would still be able to meet the employment needs of the stage and yet embrace a limited number of financially self-supporting independent drama schools whose students would, of course, continue to be the recipients of publicly-financed awards, thus providing State aid at one remove.

The proposal for a national council for drama training is an important one, and needs to be examined by my colleagues responsible for training councils as well as by me. It would, however, be unrealistic to expect that the Government could staff and substantially grant aid a new body whose policies would be wholly independent of Government, and the way in which the task proposed for the council should be faced will need further consideration.

Finally, there is the matter of priorities. Resources are limited, and I should need the advice of the Arts Council on the difficult problem of whether the provision of drama training, the support for drama training, or the additional aid towards drama training by the State should take precedence over the crying need of the arts themselves for additional support from the Government to help them cope with the problems which press so hard on clients of the Arts Council these days, when the proper determination of the Government to bring inflation under control is restricting developments in the arts at a time when they are bursting with the frustrated desire to expand. To be held back and to have to put off planned expansion is painful. But what about the drama schools? This is the question raised both by the Gulbenkian report and by the hon. Member for Wokingham.

All these are questions on which I shall need the advice of the Arts Council. But they are very proper questions, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us all the opportunity to give them their own priority in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.