Education: Inspector Morse's toughest hurdle: With many local councils ending grants, talented youngsters are having to struggle for places on drama courses

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The Independent Online
ASPIRING young actors who happen to live in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, had better think again. Warwickshire, like an increasing number of local authorities, is awarding no discretionary grants to students on traditional college drama courses.

That is bad news for Gemma Langley, 19. She has wanted to be an actress for as long as she can remember, has won awards in drama and theatre studies at school, was auditioned by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 15 and shows considerable talent. But she lives in the wrong place.

The disintegration of the discretionary awards system offered by local authorities to students on non-

degree courses has hit drama students particularly hard. A single parent wanting to study a 'shortage' subject, such as engineering, might qualify for a discretionary grant, but hopeful students of the performing arts face a much more difficult time obtaining financial assistance.

Drama schools are not short of talented applicants. Every year about 1,500 people apply for 30 coveted places at Rada. 'Now the drama schools tell you not to bother to apply unless you expect a grant or are able to finance yourself independently,' Ms Langley says.

A survey carried out by the Arts Council at the end of last year and presented to John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, showed that the number of students turning down places for drama school because they could not obtain grants had risen by 75 per cent for drama and 100 per cent for dance in a single year. About one-third of the students taking up places were doing so without state funding.

A survey by the Drama Centre in Kentish Town, north London, last year showed that only one in seven local authorities was offering grants for performing arts other than music. Authorities surveyed included Brent, Haringey and Lambeth in London, the Isle of Wight, Sheffield, Strathclyde and Gloucestershire. John Thaw, the Manchester-born actor who plays Inspector Morse, might never have made it if he was applying to drama school now.

'Neither would Kenneth Branagh if he was living in the wrong area,' says Charles Morgan, of Campaign for the Arts. 'Add to that list Robert Lindsay, Alan Rickman, Albert Finney and many more - all highly talented actors who would never have had the financial means to pay their way through drama school.'

Ms Langley has been reduced to nannying for members of the Royal Shakespeare Company - the nearest she can get to acting. 'There is nothing more heartbreaking for a young talent than to be accepted, and then find they cannot afford to go,' Philip Hedley, artistic director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, says. 'There are parents who are mortgaging their homes and taking on two jobs to pay for their son or daughter to attend drama school.'

Fees for drama courses are high, averaging almost pounds 6,000 a year, about twice the cost of a university non-

science degree course.

Drama training is, by its nature, labour-intensive and therefore expensive. 'There has to be more individual student attention because it's a practical kind of training,' Mr Hedley says. 'Then there is the added expense of putting on full-scale shows.'

For those who manage to finance themselves, the sacrifices can be enormous. Mark Longthorn, a former dancer who decided to retrain following an accident, is in the second year of a stage management course at Mountview Theatre School in north London. To pay the fees of pounds 2,050 a term plus living expenses, he works most evenings in London theatres for the cheaper 'show' rate paid to unqualified part-timers.

'I have lived in Portakabins, slept on floors and camped out with friends,' he says. 'I've sold virtually everything I own - my car, cameras, clothes. Fortunately, I have good friends who feed me at weekends.'

An unqualified person can become an actor without professional training, but those who want to work backstage must obtain a qualification because of safety regulations.

Several solutions are being considered. One is to change performing arts studies into degree courses that would guarantee students a mandatory award, as Guildhall, the Central School of Speech and Drama and Rose Bruford College in London have done. But some are worried that this would make drama training too 'scholastic'. An alternative is to try to include drama training in the framework of national vocational qualifications, an option that Raphael Jago, of the Webber-Douglas Academy, south London, is investigating.

The inequity of the system is exemplified by the preferential status awarded to music students, most of whom qualify for mandatory awards. 'Twenty years ago, music was in the same position until Edward Heath used his influence as prime minister to turn the music colleges into conservatoires and give them higher education status,' Charles Morgan says.