Dance schools to face the music in inspection purge

A controversial new system of inspections for dance education and training institutions could result in the withdrawal of accreditation from courses at nearly half the country's leading dance schools, including one that has been open for nearly a century.

The results of the first round of inspections, which are being completed this week in the style of those carried out by the Office for Standards in Education, will be announced later this month. Only those courses gaining accreditation will be eligible for funding for students under the new discretionary grants arrangements announced last month by the Arts Council.

Under these arrangements, seen as a three-year interim measure, students of dance and drama will be supported by funding from the National Lottery and the Department for Education and Employment, with additional contributions from local education authorities (TES, October 18).

The more rigorous accreditation system has been introduced by the Council for Dance Education and Training (CDET) following widespread concern in the dance profession that standards in the schools have recently been slipping. But some school principals, including several whose courses have failed an inspection, say the new process is seriously flawed.

They claim the criteria for inspection are too academic for dance teaching, that the timescale has been too tight and that the schools have not been allowed to comment before the inspectors' reports have been finalised. They also claim there is no proper independent appeals procedure. "Any appeal to the CDET would just go in the bin," one critic says.

Criticism has also focused on the inspection panels. "Many schools were assessed by people who had no teaching experience or any teaching qualifications," says David Watchman, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Dancing. "The system is flawed, and needs to be improved urgently."

An unpublished report on the new system, presented last week to the CDET executive, supports some of these criticisms, especially the absence of a proper appeals mechanism and the inadequate training of members of the inspection panels. It also highlights instances of panel members acting in "an unprofessional fashion".

But the report also criticises some principals' adversarial attitude to the inspectors' visits, which it says led to "a climate of perceived hostility within which even constructive criticism was seen as being unhelpful". It also refers to "an unacceptable amount of 'blue-pencilling' of proposed panel members by the schools".

The report's author, Michael Sparks of the Sir John Cass Foundation, told The TES this week: "The dance world is a very closed and sheltered environment, with intense rivalry between the schools. Regrettably, some are still living in the past. They must realise that if they want public money, they have to be properly accountable, in a way that they were not under the previous system. "

The visiting inspectors apparently highlighted serious problems in certain schools, whose annual fees range from Pounds 7,000 to Pounds 9,000. These included insufficient space, inadequate study facilities, lack of access for students to medical care and counselling, and poor health and safety standards.

"In some schools, students were being admitted without proper medical checks, and were being asked to do things they were physically incapable of," Michael Sparks says. "I am afraid most were getting places there not because of their ability but because they had the cash in hand."

At a meeting last week, the CDET set up a sub-committee to work out details of a new appeals system, which will allow any school to contest inspection findings if it believes that procedures have not been followed properly.

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