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Stage set for dance and drama tragedy

The drastic decline in discretionary awards is threatening the future of dance and drama, the Prime Minister was warned last Friday.

Members of the Council for Dance Education and Training and professional dancers, led by Ian Waller from the new West End musical, Tommy, handed in an 18,000-signature petition to 10 Downing Street. It warned John Major that the discretionary award system was failing to provide training for talented students.

Dance in particular is vulnerable because most post-16 training takes place in independent establishments which do not receive Government subsidies and so do not attract mandatory awards.

Last week Cheryl Gillan, the schools minister, announced that 100 new state-funded places would be available under a music and ballet scheme which started in 1981. It provides places at four music schools and the Royal Ballet School and has many similarities to the Assisted Places Scheme.

However, the CDET, the accrediting body for the profession, says that the scheme, though welcome, will not help the vast majority of vocational students. It wants the Government to set up a council to be funded by the Department for Education and Employment with cash diverted from local authorities. The council would be responsible for funding vocational dance education and training for students over the age of 16.

The CDET's equivalent in the world of acting, the Conference of Drama Schools, is equally worried. It is pressing for mandatory awards as figures show that the proportion of local education authorities which paid full fees has dropped from 83 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent in 1994. Only 3 per cent gave no awards in 1987 compared with 22 per cent in 1994.

Mark Pemberton, information officer of the CDS, said members were concerned because schools had traditionally relied on education authority grants. "Their demise is leading to an inequitable system. It is denying young people the choice of the kind of training they need," he said.

Ann Stannard, a director of the Central School of Ballet in London, said 10 years ago only three students out of 80 found it hard to get grants. This year, out of the 36 education authorities approached for funds, 13 gave nothing, seven paid more than half the fees, seven gave 50 per cent or less - one handing over Pounds 200 towards the Pounds 8,000-a-year cost. The rest paid up in full, but two will not do so in future, she said.

The picture was the same at the London Contemporary Dance School and the Laban Centre. Graham Marchant, general manager of the school, said 15 years ago it was reasonable to expect local authorities to pay up. "But it has steadily deteriorated to the point where out of 40 entrants last year only two had education authority funding. We will be unable to keep going without a severe drop in standards and we don't want to go down that route."

Marion North, director of the Laban Centre, said the situation was "abysmal".

In common with the other schools the Laban Centre had been forced to take foreign students to make up numbers and cover costs. Of the 80 first-year students only four had got full grants and a few partial grants. Students aren't applying for places because they know there's no funding, she said. "It is very disastrous."

Prue Skene, who chairs the Arts Council's dance advisory panel, said it was likely that some schools would have to close unless the Government acted quickly.

Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, had been discussing the issue with the education and heritage secretaries, said Ms Skene who was speaking at the launch of the Art Council's policy document which aims to raise the profile of dance throughout the country and give it a coherent framework.

Jeanette Siddall, the council's senior dance officer, said the problem was "hugely urgent", but there did not seem to be any political will for change.

The policy for dance of the English arts funding system is available free from the dance department, the Arts Council of England, 14 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 3NQ.

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