HC Deb 26 June 1996 vol 280 cc305-13 12.30 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester)

There are some things that this country is quite simply best at—and I am not just referring to football. Theatre is one of those things. Britain can be justifiably proud of its theatrical heritage. We have enormous artistic talent, but the worldwide reputation of British dance and drama has been built on the hard work, dedication and training that are required for success in those demanding professions. Some 93 per cent. of our dancers and 86 per cent. of our actors and actresses were trained professionally, and most of our finest performers began their careers at the small number of independent dance and drama schools that still promote professional standards and excellence in the performing arts.

Together, those independent schools provide a system of training which, as Sir Anthony Hopkins said—a man, incidentally, whose personal contribution to the training of our young people is generous in the extreme— is the envy of other countries; we produce actors who are respected and revered around the world and who can be fine ambassadors for the nation. Those fine actors and dancers enhance our cultural lives, but they also play a major part in attracting visitors to our country. London's theatre life is a magnet for tourists from overseas, and from elsewhere in the country. It is a huge factor in the economy of London and the nation. Around Britain, regional companies rely on, and themselves develop, the pool of well-trained actors and dancers produced by our specialist stage schools. From Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest musical to the revivals of classic dramas, and from the Royal Ballet to the latest contemporary dance, one strand runs: dependence on British performing talent.

Thanks to the national lottery, we are investing in the physical infrastructure of the arts on a massive scale, but we are ignoring human capital in a cavalier way. We also risk destroying the long-term training infrastructure of fine schools that may be forced to close or make invidious choices—schools such as the Birmingham school of speech and drama, the central school of ballet and the Doreen Bird college of performing arts, of which we have every right to be proud.

Young talent must be trained in dance and drama schools, not just at higher education institutions and universities. After years of warning, we are now at the very edge of the precipice. Very soon—apart from the lucky few who live in the right place, or whose parents are prepared to make enormous sacrifices to ensure that they are trained: some constituents of mine have sold their home to fund their daughter's dance training—only the rich and the foreigner will be able to be trained at British schools of performing arts.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber said 18 months ago—his office tells me that he stands by these remarks— This country is famous for its talent in this field. The present policy could lead to a serious gap in training and ability, which, if allowed to continue, will be filled by others. He means, of course, foreigners in his own musicals.

Vocational dance and drama training in the United Kingdom takes place at independent institutions that receive no funds from central Government. As a result, they must charge full economic fees for the courses they offer—typically, some £7,500 a year for dance, with maintenance costs on top of that.

With no central funding, and now no eligibility for mandatory awards, students must rely on discretionary awards from their local education authorities; but increasing numbers of LEAs are saying that they cannot afford to fund students. Some feel that they can use such large sums better by sharing them among more students, while others have a philosophical dislike of private education, which is how they wrongly view the independent stage schools. Others—such as Hereford and Worcester county council in my constituency—have given up discretionary grants altogether. The total cost of dance and drama training in those institutions is a little over £20 million a year, and only a small proportion of that is now being met by the LEAs.

There have been two recent surveys, one of which received rather more publicity than the other. I had conducted my own survey before I realised that the Gulbenkian Foundation, along with a number of other charities and trusts, had commissioned one. I am glad to say that the two surveys produced broadly the same outcome. The Gulbenkian Foundation survey, published on 4 June, said: The situation is at least as bad as had been feared. Twenty-eight per cent. of all LEAs have a declared policy of giving no support to students of dance and drama.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Is not a particularly tragic example that of Kent county council, which scrapped discretionary grants when Labour and the Liberal Democrats took control? A young girl living close to my constituency—a very talented dancer—was turned down for such a grant. What is particularly wicked is that, if and when parents appeal, the appeal is conceded, but the parents do not know that in advance. Parents who do not appeal have therefore lost the opportunity. Moreover, the Lib-Lab county council will not tell Members of Parliament about constituents whose applications have been refused, and whom we could inform of the possibilities of success at appeal.

Mr. Luff

My hon. Friend points the finger in the right direction. I intend to return to that subject later.

The Gulbenkian Foundation continued: Between 1994–5 and 1995–6, the two years covered by this study, the number of students receiving such awards fell by 12 per cent. Of those LEAs which did make awards in this field, less than half met the full cost of college fees and of maintenance at the standard (i.e. mandatory award) level. There is evidence that potential students are being discouraged from applying for support both because they perceive that they have little chance of success, and because of their concern that if they are successful they themselves will have to bear the cost of a substantial part of their fees. Some believe that we can turn the clock back and encourage local education authorities such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) to start making awards again, and increase the number of awards. I think that those hopes are ill founded.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

I apologise for arriving a few seconds late. My hon. Friend has made some very good points, with which I entirely agree. Can he confirm the experience of students in my constituency, that even the charities that have been able to help out in the past are now running out of money?

Mr. Luff

My hon. Friend is right. I am glad to say that organisations such as the Foundation for Sport and the Arts are making awards, but they cannot be expected to make good the total shortfall.

Vocational performing arts training is pretty well the only first qualification for which Government funds are now not available. Music and visual arts students receive mandatory awards, as do academic dance and drama students who go on to teach, and students of Anglo-Saxon and sociology. For my party, which believes in equality of opportunity, the issue cries out to be addressed. The human results are very worrying.

There is, for instance, the misery of those who cannot fulfil their talents. I find interviews on the subject in my constituency heartbreaking. It is almost impossible to look at the girls involved—the students in my constituency tend to be girls, because it contains a fine dance school, the Harlequin stage school in Worcester, run by the principal, Paula Dymock. That school has an extraordinary ability to bring on the inherent talents of girls, but we know that, because they live in Hereford and Worcester, they will not be able to go on to the colleges that they wish to attend in order to develop their talents. I cannot accept that such talents should be discarded.

There is another problem. Some LEAs make partial funding available to students, but that too is a kind of trap, although it is better than nothing. Students try to make up the financial shortfall by working part time while they are on their courses, which means that they cannot deal with the physical requirements of those demanding courses, especially dance courses. There is abundant evidence of increased injuries to dance students through lapses in concentration and simple physical and psychological pressure. As a result, students withdraw from courses injured and in debt.

Whom do I blame? I firmly blame the Labour and Liberal parties which, sadly, are in power at LEA level. They are turning their backs on the problem. They, not the Government, are to blame. The local authority for the Minister's constituency finds the money to spend—not surprising, because its budget increases in real terms each and every year. However, it will not find even modest sums for the most talented dance and drama students who want to go to college.

Labour postures, but has nothing to offer. Labour floated an inadequate solution in 1994, but it seems to have sunk without trace. That party's document, "Lifelong Learning", which was published last month, alludes to the problem tangentially. Its introduction states: whole categories of students have no mandatory entitlements". I searched in vain for any explanation of how that would be overcome. Even the inadequate solution that Labour was canvassing of a small number of accredited schools, not courses—many of which are already in the higher education sector—seems to have been dropped. No doubt Labour's shadow Arts Minister is afraid of the shadow Chancellor. So much for new Labour's commitment to the arts.

We must first make sure that schools and courses are up to the mark, then provide direct public funding as for any other career or qualification. There must be accreditation, to make sure that schools deserve the public money that I want them to receive. Drama schools were the first to be accredited, followed by the Council for Dance Education and Training—whose procedures are exceptionally stringent and effective.

The drama sector admits that dance education is in the lead in that respect. The National Council for Drama Education plans to catch up, using new accreditation procedures. The CDET accredits courses, not institutions, and aims at raising standards throughout the country. Its system was devised after extensive consultation with Ofsted and experts. Visits are made by trained inspectors, including former members of Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools.

That serious exercise began a year ago, and seems likely to result in a significant reduction in the number of accredited dance courses, which will in turn lower the number of students eligible for discretionary awards by two thirds. Dance schools have gone through a tough process, and deserve credit for their approach. My hon. Friend the Minister can be confident that the courses remaining will deserve the taxpayers' money. The accreditation procedures in place or being developed will have to be approved by the Department with a rubber stamp, but we do not need the new bureaucracy proposed by Labour.

Public funding would end the system whereby LEAs make discretionary awards. They do not want that discretion, but are anxious to surrender it. Some voices in the Government say that we must not deny any discretion to LEAs or local authorities. In fact, that discretion creates more problems than it is worth.

It is easier for the Government to solve the problem in drama training, because students are typically post-A-level, and it is effectively a higher education sector. Drama students could go straight for mandatory grants, with the schools funded centrally. Dance education is more complicated, because its pupils normally begin intensive vocational courses at a much earlier age, to develop muscle memory and so on, before taking their A-levels.

The Government could adopt a range of possible solutions—I am not concerned which, provided that the outcome will be mandatory awards for dance students. The Government could expand the music and ballet scheme, make direct grants, develop a permanent role for the Arts Council or—my personal preference—establish an independent funding council for dance education. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) was Prime Minister, he made music students eligible for mandatory awards. I hope that the present Government will do the same for other students.

The Government are already doing a lot that is right. I welcome the expansion of the music and ballet scheme. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced an extension of the specialist schools programme to sport and the arts, including the performing arts. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage has said that lottery money can be used to develop young talent. However, the fundamental injustice remains. I want the Government to develop a sticking plaster solution—a short-term remedy—while they work out the longer-term answer.

I do not believe that the Arts Council represents the long-term solution. Given the huge contribution to our lives that the performing arts make, they should be treated like any other academic or vocational qualification and be funded by the same sort of institutions—although, in the short term, the Arts Council must be involved.

On 1 April, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage issued new guidance on lottery funds that instructs the Arts Council to take into account the desirability of developing talents, skills and creative abilities—particularly among young people—while having regard, rightly, to the importance of not entering into long-term commitments or creating long-term expectations that might limit the money available for distribution in future. The mechanism exists for a stop-gap solution while my hon. Friend the Minister and his officials develop a longer-term answer.

The Arts Council for England has established a small group led by Clive Priestley to analyse the current situation. It will report next month to the Government and its recommendations will be passed to Sir Ron Dealing. I am pinning my hopes on Sir Ron's higher education review, which is due in the middle of 1997. I hope that the Minister can confirm that dance, with its relatively young entry age, and drama could fall within Sir Ron's terms of reference. The report will not be implemented immediately for a year or two after publication, so for three years, dance and drama students will be in jeopardy. There is a risk of throwing away a whole generation of talent and of destroying the skills base of schools.

My hon. Friend the Minister has a deep sense of justice and fair play, and I am sure that he will demonstrate those qualities in his reply. I hope that he will offer a short-term solution and guarantee that the longer-term remedy will lie in Sir Ron Dealing's remit. Who knows how many superstars of the future will be lost if we do not act? Who knows how many we have already lost? The chances are that many have been lost, and we must not lose any more. We must not let down the Darcy Bussells, Sarah Brightmans and Sir Anthony Hopkinses of the future.

12.45 pm
The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Mr. Eric Forth)

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) painted a gloomy picture of the situation facing students who are seeking discretionary awards in dance and drama from local education authorities. He mentioned the research by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which underlies much of his analysis, and the efforts of the Gulbenkian Foundation to get at the facts.

I have no doubt that the findings of those two bodies and of my hon. Friend, which are based on a survey of LEAs, are broadly accurate. They reflect points made to the Department about LEA policies for some time, including those of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait). There has been a significant decline in the number and level of LEA discretionary awards in the past two years, and it is clear that dance and drama students have been particularly affected.

I take issue with my hon. Friend's suggestion that dance and drama students are uniquely disadvantaged. I am aware from representations by other hon. Friends and interested parties that osteopaths, chiropractors, horticulturists and certain private agriculturists feel similarly disadvantaged, which proves that it would not necessarily be inexpensive to correct the problems identified by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

One of my constituents will, after much competition, be attending a London drama school. He does not want to enter one of the universities offering drama courses, because they are theoretical, and he wants to be an actor. Is not the problem that a mandatory grant would be available for theoretical university drama courses but not for the alternative?

Mr. Forth

The right hon. Gentleman makes a clear point that goes to the heart of the debate—that everybody has to make a judgment as to the relative value to society and the individual of different kinds of vocational and other education and training, and the priorities that we award them. That consideration underpins my hon. Friend's case.

I am aware of the views of students, teachers and others directly involved, and acknowledge the level of anxiety that has been expressed.

Interestingly, in discretionary awards—which are so key to what we are considering—as a whole, the numbers rose between 1990–91 and 1993–94. Indeed, the number of awards even in 1994–95, when the sharp decline had started, was still some 66 per cent. higher than the number of further education awards a decade earlier. Spending on further education discretionary awards was almost 60 per cent. higher in real terms than it was a decade before. Again, that shows that we are talking about the ordering of priorities within an overall amount of expenditure, those priorities being determined largely by LEAs. Therefore, the position overall can conceal a much worse situation in individual subject areas. That is what we are talking about today.

It is important—and it is another legitimate area of judgment and debate—that we acknowledge, as my hon. Friend did, that we are talking about discretionary awards, which are at the discretion of local and accountable LEAs. They have to consider applications on their merits, across the whole range of subject matters. The number and level of grants is a matter for those elected LEAs, taking account of their financial situation and their views on and judgment about local priorities.

That is the way the system works. Unless and until there is a significant policy decision by this or any other Government to alter that, that is the context within which we must all operate. LEAs must listen to local views. It is up to everyone concerned—not least my hon. Friends in the Chamber today, individual students, their families and others—to influence LEAs to alter their judgments and priorities if people believe that there is something wrong with them. That is the way to do it.

However, in doing that, a number of questions arise. We must acknowledge that all public bodies, central and local government are operating with tight resources, which means that the focus and the priorities must be ever sharper. It involves ever more difficult decisions being made.

Those who seek additional money, as my hon. Friend has done openly today, ultimately have to say how they would alter the priorities to find that additional money. They also need to show that the number of places available currently, or if enhanced, is justified. They need to ensure that provision is not fragmented. It is essential that they show that the training is of an acceptable standard. In that respect, I am encouraged by the recent accreditation work of the Council for Dance Education and Training, to which my hon. Friend referred. They always need to show that costs are realistic. That is an important point, especially as dance and drama courses are expensive. All those points must be addressed; indeed, many are being addressed already.

The difference in emphasis between local authorities highlights my point. There is an enormous disparity between what different LEAs do. They have a voluntary code of practice, which we welcome. However, there is an issue about what some people call black hole provision. We shall continue to reflect further on the implications of that and on what changes may be necessary.

I am aware that, in Scotland, responsibility for discretionary awards has been transferred to individual institutions from local government—something akin to my hon. Friend's suggestion. We are continuing to discuss the matter with our counterparts at the relevant Departments. The truth, as my hon. Friend recognised, is that, under the current system and current legislation, there is no scope for the Government to intervene. We cannot substitute our view for that of the LEAs.

Another suggestion has been to ring-fence funding for discretionary awards. LEAs have to take decisions based on their full understanding of the position and the resources available to them. We should not constrain that freedom, as that would involve a major departure in the relationship between central and local government—and, indeed, the role we envisage for local government. Although many people may be tempted to seek such a change, it is more for the medium or longer term. We should pause before going down that route.

My hon. Friend suggested that mandatory awards should be extended to dance and drama students. That is a solution, but perhaps for the medium term rather than for the immediate or short term. It would involve a change in both principle and practice in the approach taken up till now. It would mean either an increase in overall public expenditure or a reordering of priorities within the existing provision.

That leads us to the point made by my hon. Friend about the committee of inquiry into higher education, and the input that the Arts Council intends to make. It is legitimate to consider whether the very wide terms of reference given to Sir Ron Dearing and his committee could encompass the matter that we are debating today— if only because, as the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said, certain elements of the provision are already covered by higher education. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the committee to consider whether that should be broadened or changed in concept or in delivery.

I do not want to pre-empt any of that. So far, we have taken the view that the current system of mandatory awards and loans is intended and designed for full-time undergraduates. It has, until now, been thought to be unsuited to the wide variety of vocational courses and the needs of their students. All that is legitimate territory for representations to Sir Ron Dealing and his committee. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to look at all these questions in the light of the changed circumstances since the Robbins review 30 or more years ago.

I want to say a few words about the music and ballet scheme, to which my hon. Friend referred. It was designed to support school-age children of outstanding potential to train for a career in dance and music. At present, the scheme is limited to the Royal Ballet school and four independent specialist music schools. They were selected to participate in the scheme because they are both pre-eminent in their specialist field, and offer high standards of teaching and learning across a broad and balanced curriculum, including a good range of A-levels.

We are expanding the MBS from September this year, by allocating further aided places to existing schools and by bringing in two new schools—the arts educational school, Tring, Hertfordshire and the Elmhurst ballet school, Camberley, Surrey—both of which will offer ballet places.

The scheme is means-tested. Parental income assessments are identical to the arrangements under the Government's assisted places scheme at independent schools, although the contribution scale is more generous under the MBS, to reflect the fact that it covers boarding costs and the best specialist music and dance tuition available. It is possible that some colleges might be candidates for incorporation as further education institutions, but the criteria are deliberately strict, and I would not wish to raise hopes unnecessarily high.

My hon. Friend mentioned the role of the Arts Council. Lottery proceeds may be a possible solution to some of the problems we are debating. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage announced on 1 April a new direction on the distribution of lottery proceeds. That requires the Arts Council to take account of the need to develop the skills, talents and creative abilities of young people.

The council has not yet published details about how it intends to implement the direction. I understand that, before the details are finalised, there will be an opportunity to comment. That is another opportunity in the short term to try to influence the way in which things are moving in that area.

Any suggestion that we should require the Arts Council to target lottery proceeds on dance and drama students should be treated with some caution. This House agreed that the distribution of lottery funds should be carried out at arm's length from Government, albeit in a framework set by Ministers from time to time. The House also decided that the decisions on allocating funds should be taken by the distributing bodies.

These matters are rightly for the Arts Council. However, as my hon. Friend mentioned, it has been decided to establish a group chaired by Mr. Clive Priestley to look into the problems of dance and drama students. I understand that the remit of that group includes the possibility of using lottery money for that and related purposes. That is another avenue of approach open to those who share my hon. Friend's anxieties through which they can try to influence the course of events.

I need no convincing that those involved with dance and drama consider that there is a need for more expenditure, as my hon. Friend has laid out, and I have no doubt about the genuineness of their enthusiasm and anxieties. As I have said, aspects of the student support system need to be looked at, and the higher education inquiry is the vehicle to enable that.

At this stage, on the evidence provided—even in this debate—I am reluctant to contemplate the kind of increases in public expenditure that my hon. Friend suggested. We shall, however, keep an open mind, and continue to monitor the position. Opportunities to press the case are available, and I hope that my hon. Friend and many others who I know share his view will take every one possible to—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)


1 pm

Sitting suspended.

Forward to