UK THEATRE FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES: A MODEL OF DELIVERY
50 years practical experience leads to some simple policy proposals. Paul Harman is Chair of TYA‐UK
Centre of ASSITEJ
Arts Education in the UK has been subject to changing Government priorities over the last 60 years.
For the last thirty years Governments have sought to use the State education system to serve the
future needs of business and have responded to public anxiety about perceived weakening of
academic rigour and discipline and loss of basic skills. The arts have been seen as a distraction from
teaching basic skills in literacy and numeracy.
There is no evidence that measures taken to centralise and focus the curriculum have succeeded
either in making the UK economy more productive or in reducing the core commitment by public,
schools and teachers to the importance of the arts in education. Business people still complain of
skill shortages, despite a huge increase in numbers of graduates and the public still complain that
young people cannot add up or speak correctly. The arts are flourishing.
The UK economy has relied for wealth creation on the financial sector and imports of goods and
skills have filled the gaps in production or training. Roughly one third of the population are still
excluded from full participation in society through lack of employment and success in formal
education. Government has responded by calling on the arts to help ‘change the attitudes and
behaviour’ of the poor, unhealthy and unskilled. There are therefore significant pots of money for
artists to work with the very large prison population, with ‘disadvantaged and excluded
communities’, meaning ethnic minorities, and with young people at risk of dropping out of or failing
to enter the workforce.
At the same time there has also been a rather belated recognition that design and creative
industries, from F1 car design to fashion and advertising, are another growth sector in the UK
economy and so worthy of investment. Creative Education has been a headline for many years,
although close examination – for example, by one of our WAAE 09 participants – suggests the many
pilot projects have not influenced mainstream practice in schools. Creativity is for the talented few,
rather than the serving many.
In the 1960’s a widespread movement within British professional theatre sought to democratise the
access to and forms of theatre. New civic theatres were built in many towns and cities and local
councils paid the wages of Theatre in Education teams to provide a free service to local schools.
Other theatre artists came together to create a new wave of independent companies with openly
political purposes, to reflect the interests of the working class or minorities by race, gender, sexuality
and disability. With the earlier wave of new writers for the more traditional theatre, Osborne, Pinter,
Bond etc, a lasting legacy of a theatre which regards serving the widest possible social spectrum as
its principal duty, rather than serving the interests of an art form, has been established.
The best example of a successful democratiser is Alan Ayckbourn, a product of the mixed economy.
Ayckbourn has always had a publicly funded provincial base in the seaside resort of Scarborough on
the North East coast of England where he has created his vast repertoire of highly popular plays. He
has directed his own work at the Royal National Theatre and in London’s West End, but at home
stages his plays in the round, with the audience on four sides and theatre at the centre. His plays are
about average people, middle class attitudes and relationships.
UK theatre for young audiences is part of that legacy of social commitment which has its roots in the
post‐1945 settlement and principles which enshrined the ‘education of the whole child’ at the centre
of the curriculum. Lunches in school, collective worship and putting on plays were the peculiarly
British embodiments of this principle of the school as a community within the wider community,
rather than an intervention by the State.
Drama in education and political theatre met in the participatory forms of Theatre in Education. As a
twenty year experiment in collaborative practice between teachers and artists TIE has much to tell
us. It was a very expensive form and required mature skills in performing and educating. It collapsed
in the 1980’s under the weight of its own contradictions, one could say. A right‐wing government
party was disturbed by the increasingly strident left‐wing TIE practitioners, who were effectively
employed by the State but demanded the right to determine their own policy approaches,
production and delivery targets. The result was predictable and a decade of consolidation and
There is some evidence that a social commitment is weakening as a generation brought up in the era
of neo‐liberal hegemony takes over leading positions. A still younger generation has grown up in the
New Labour era of centralised control, targets and initiatives, higher investment in university
education and schools and a continuing belief in big businesses – public or private – as the natural
leaders of society and providers of efficient services. UK society is in flux.
The real success story in UK theatre is the massive growth in the number of professional companies
delivering appropriate and sophisticated experiences to most of the 8 million school population.
While the publicly funded sector, supported through Arts Councils, has a limited impact, small and
independent companies deliver the bulk of shows to most children.
In recent years some UK professional companies have drawn strength and inspiration from work
elsewhere in the world, notably in Western Europe, where aesthetic values have a higher priority.
UK companies have always been ahead of Government in the practical delivery of education in and
through the art of theatre, maintaining the close links between drama education and theatre
practice which have characterised the UK scene since the 1950’s.
Unlike almost everywhere else, Government regulation has been absent. As a result, those outside
the public funding sector have delivered a service moderated only by the companies, schools and
teachers themselves. This self‐regulation has not had the disastrous consequences seen in the
financial industry because markets have been more genuinely open and free. The quality and variety
of shows has been matched more to the demand from teachers than to any ideal artistic aims and
The result is that most UK children have experienced theatre and so some part of UK obligations
under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – ‘participation in cultural life’ – have been met,
if somewhat by default.
When in 1953 Brian Way formed his pioneering company Theatre Centre to perform shows about
real life, presented ‘in the round’ in school halls, he started a movement which would continue in
2009 with a prize for new writing in his name and a vibrant company exploring new approaches and
delivering real theatre to real children. No Government initiative since then has lasted that long nor
had such a profound influence.
From UK experience I derive the following policy recommendations to Governments:
• Encourage the formation and activity of a large number of independent small professional
touring companies, rather than a few large ones in expensive buildings
• Support networking between them to exchange ideas and organise their own continuous
• Promote academic research into their activity and publish the results rather than start new pilot
• Reserve time within the curriculum for exposure to professional arts experiences and the
practice of the arts. Establish a cultural entitlement in law.