Education: A prop for stage students: With many local councils ending grants, talented youngsters are having to struggle for places on drama courses

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The Independent Online
The author is principal of the Central School of Speech and Drama, Eton Avenue, London NW3.

IT IS possible to put your daughter on the stage, and your son. It can be done by sending them to a college which runs a degree-level drama course and is part of the university and higher education system. This will entitle them to mandatory grants for fees and subsistence.

They will receive full professional training, a university-validated degree and a provisional card from the actors' union, Equity. Whether they win places will depend on their talent and potential: A-levels are not a prerequisite.

The Central School of Speech and Drama was the first and largest school in London to achieve degree- awarding status - a recognition that its professional training is equivalent to the demands of academic courses. Maureen Lipman has praised this move: 'It sets a precedent which hopefully other schools can follow.' That is exactly what is happening; even some private schools are seeking university- validated degree status and public funding.

While some people decry the new arrangements, students are voting with their feet. In recognition that the degree course proposed by Central included no significant changes from the school's former diploma course, the validating authority agreed to backdate the validation by one year. All eligible students, given the option, chose to take or transfer to the degree course. Some of them are related to distinguished professional actors; clearly they had not dissuaded students from a degree- status course.

The move to degree courses is not merely a cynical, but pragmatic, way of obtaining mandatory awards for students. There are several other important advantages. The discipline and rigour of drama students' skills training are publicly acknowledged by validation and each student brings additional public funding, which improves the school's resources.

The degree also has wider currency in the employment market. Although the aim is to equip students for a career in theatre, some might later want to diversify, perhaps by going into teaching or by taking postgraduate courses.

The steep decline in the award of discretionary grants for students on non-degree drama courses has accentuated the fact that drama is the least secure field in training for the arts. The Government needs to establish a clear policy in this area. Ministers could advocate degree status for more colleges, or allow higher mandatory awards for acting to cover the costs (as is the case with the funding of musical training). They could even consider funding a new national consortium for theatre training.

During my years as a teacher and a member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate, with national responsibility for drama and theatre training, it became clear that very able and talented young people, with good potential for actor training, were not applying for places.

Peer pressure, school and parents' expectations can prevent young people straying from the conventional academic routes. At Central, students can now train, be supported by mandatory awards and take a degree.

I hope that more students will take the option; not because the schools need the students (the figures suggest that it is at least 10 times more difficult to gain a place on the acting course at Central than a place at Oxbridge), but because we want the best. And we want equal opportunity for all candidates who have the potential and desire to train for a difficult and rewarding profession.