Thespians warn of cultural desert

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Britain will become a cultural desert if the Government fails to invest in the nation's dance and drama talents, actresses Diana Rigg and Patricia Hodge warned this week.

They were speaking in London at the launch of a report which showed that dance and drama students are facing increasing hardship as discretionary awards dry up. The National Foundation for Educational Research report, published this week, shows that overall spending by local authorities has fallen 41 per cent below the level of 1990.

Mandatory awards are available for music and arts students, but dance and drama students have to depend on the "vagaries" of discretionary awards. Their prospects depend on where they live, and disparities have widened. More than a quarter of authorities gave nothing, whereas others fund up to 40 awards a year.

The NFER survey found: * 28 per cent of education authorities did not give discretionary awards; * Less than half which gave them granted the full amount for course fees and maintenance; * between 1994 and 1996, the number of students receiving awards fell by 13 per cent; * the average cash value of discretionary awards has dropped by 48 per cent in real terms since 1990 (Pounds 1,168 to Pounds 702); * more than a third of education authorities experienced a decrease in applications for dance and drama awards as students are discouraged from applying because they believe there is little chance of success; * Between 1994 and 1996 the number of students receiving awards fell by 12 per cent.

Many LEAs complained about the high cost of courses: at least Pounds 5, 000 compared to about Pounds 750 for ordinary college courses. One metropolitan district said it could fund numerous further education students for the amount needed for one drama or dance student.

Growing concern about the problem of discretionary grants is indicated by almost simultaneous publication of the NFER survey, sponsored by the Gulbenkian Foundation, with the announcement of an enquiry by the Arts Council into the decline of awards. It will report to the education and employment and heritage departments in July.

Dame Diana told the NFER launch that Britain was still reaping the investment made in students 40 years ago. She remembered auditioning in Leeds Town Hall before some 10 Yorkshire businessmen for her grant to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. "There was no way I could've got there without one. We had a major flowering of talent in the Sixties and Seventies which is still there and which we tend to take for granted - a direct result of that funding."

About 10 years ago, she said, she started getting letters from drama students who had won places, but needed help with fees. "Even more tragically, from those who had invested two years of their lives and had their grant cut. "

Ms Hodge argued that a drama or dance student should not be treated any differently from a civil engineering student. If they had been awarded a place, why should they have to go through a second set of hoops?

Michael Gaunt, principal of the Guildford School of Acting, said 74 per cent of his students were given full grants in 1988-89, compared with 24 per cent last year. "They have to work in bars and cafes or monitor phone lines all night so they are too tired to study next day."

Last April, dance and drama students and performers handed in an 18,000-signature petition to 10 Downing Street warning the Prime Minister of the danger to their professions due to the decline in discretionary awards.

Last month, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art received a Pounds 22 million National Lottery award, but many aspiring students cannot take up places because they do not have grants. Nicholas Barter, the principal, said only 33 of the 150 students on full-time courses get full fees paid by their local education authority, with 22 partly paid. Overall, funding had fallen by 30 per cent in the last three years.

The National Campaign for the Arts is calling on students in the 31 key marginal seats in England where no discretionary grants are awarded to lobby candidates and vote for those with a commitment to reforming the award system.

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