Arts education is a postcode lottery. Britain must invest for post-Brexit theatre | Nicholas Hytner

Politicians talk up our world-beating arts scene — then cut the classes teaching children creativity through drama, art and music

The creative industries haven’t had much of a look-in during this Brexit election. As far as I’m aware, culture secretary Karen Bradley hasn’t been allowed out during the campaign to talk about them. “Britain’s arts and culture are world-beating and are at the heart of the regeneration of modern Britain,” says the Conservative manifesto, politely; but the proposal to double the immigration skills charge will do nothing but damage a sector that thrives on international talent.

The Labour manifesto, which is altogether more concrete about what can be achieved, refers to the creative industries as “a source of national pride”, and promises to “put creativity back at the heart of the curriculum”. This stops short of a pledge to add an arts element to the Ebacc – as the subset of GCSEs given special status by the government is now known – but is still welcome.

It would also reverse one of the biggest disasters of the past seven years. In 2015, the then education secretary, Nicky Morgan, advised teenagers against studying the arts and humanities which she said would “hold them back for the rest of their lives”. She was putting her mouth where the money already wasn’t. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of drama teachers in English state schools fell by 14%. The number of design and technology teachers fell by 15%. Entries for GSCEs in arts and creative subjects fell by 8% in 2016 alone.

Meanwhile, the prospectuses of private schools compete for fee-paying parents with ever more lavish music and drama facilities. If you pay for your children’s education, you’re assumed to want them to be introduced to worlds that are being slowly withdrawn from those in the state sector.

“We want to build an economy that works for everyone not just the privileged few,” said arts minister Matt Hancock in a speech to the creative industries last September. “No one should be excluded from any of your industries because of their accent, their gender or their postcode.” When he’s finished wagging his finger he might ask himself why the wrong postcode denies you an education that only the privileged few can afford. “Talent knows no boundaries,” he said, and I agree. But talent needs the building block of a decent education in the arts.

It’s the accelerated move away from creative subjects in state schools that will hold teenagers back for the rest of their lives. And that’s not just because it will deny so many of them the opportunity to work in the creative industries. The Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari has suggested that artificial intelligence will, over the next few decades, outperform and replace humans in more and more jobs. It must surely be time for politicians to confront this.

Harari imagines “the useless class” finding meaning in life by playing virtual reality games. My own experience is that the most significant consequence of the digital revolution for the performing arts is not that it has driven audiences away to computer games, or even that it has opened the door to digital distribution of live performance, but that it has led to a resurgence of the real thing. The instant availability of everything you want at the click of a mouse turns out not to include the thing you want most of all: human contact. You want to be there when it happens.

If you deprive schools of the resources to introduce kids to what’s on offer, you’re not just making it harder for them to consume the arts. You’re taking from them the possibility of participation in something that may, in future decades, be the focus of their lives. In a post-work world, creativity will not be reserved for those who create to earn a living. It could be what gives us purpose.

For the present, everyone seems to agree that the cultural economy needs rebalancing away from the south east. My colleagues in the London performing arts have decided not to contest the idea that funds should be diverted away from the capital. I have no skin in the funding game any longer: the Bridge Theatre, which I’m opening in October with my producing partner Nick Starr, is an entirely commercial venture, and will never trouble the Arts Council with an application for support.

But I want the theatre to be properly funded, whether it’s in London, Leeds or Manchester. The commercial theatre is only a part of an interconnected arts scene where talent is vibrant and audience demand is growing: ticket sales in London are up 25% over the past 15 years. It’s irrational to cut back public investment in a sector which Britain can be genuinely proud of, and which promises not just economic benefit but a vision of a future in which humans are liberated by technology. If there’s an issue with London’s hegemony, the answer isn’t to punish London butto invest confidently in arts and arts education throughout the country.


Nicholas Hytner

The GuardianTramp

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