On a cold winter's day in east London a class of eight- and nine-year-olds are wrestling with some big questions. Is it right to steal from the rich to give to the poor? Should someone's choice of job be restricted because of their gender? These are just some of the issues thrown up for the children after watching a production of Robin Hood.
The previous day the children, from Nightingale Primary School in Woolwich, south-east London, could be found laughing uproariously at the show at Greenwich and Lewisham Young Person's Theatre, which they attended for free as part of a groundbreaking programme which aims to bring the arts to children from deprived backgrounds.
Research shows that the numbers of primary school-age children visiting theatres, galleries and museums have plummeted over the past five years. But the situation is worst for children from poor backgrounds and thousands of them leave school without ever having set foot in one of these establishments.
Government statistics show that the number of children going to the theatre has fallen from just under half in 2008-09 to fewer than a third last year. Only 30 per cent of primary pupils engaged in dance activities in 2013-14 (compared to 43 per cent in 2008-09), while 37.2 per cent partook in a musical activity out of school (down from 55.3 per cent five years earlier).
The Start programme aims to counter this decline by linking participating schools with local arts venues and funding a programme of activities which take pupils to visit theatres, galleries and museums and sends artists back into the schools. The programme has linked leading venues such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings with schools in deprived areas.
The scheme was set up in 2006 by The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts – a charity founded by Prince Charles after he visited a pupil referral unit in Birmingham and found children studying Romeo and Juliet without ever having seen the play.
At Nightingale School, in one of the UK's most deprived wards, very few pupils had ever been to a theatre before their school joined the programme. Under the scheme they will watch performances at the theatre and take part in follow-up workshops.
Matthew Smith, who teaches the year four class at Nightingale, says: "The experiences the children have had have been truly life-changing. These are activities that these children would probably not have experienced otherwise. They have done some inspirational things and have had some wonderfully rich experiences.
"The children love visiting the theatre to watch the performances; for many it is the first time they have seen a piece of live theatre. It is wonderful to watch how animated they become when discussing the plays and for many of our children it has completely opened their eyes to the performing arts. The plays, I feel, are particularly well chosen; promoting classic literature in a very accessible and entertaining format.
"From my point of view the programme has given me, as a teacher, new ideas that I have adapted and used in the classroom. I particularly enjoyed making newspaper puppets and have used this as a stimulus for writing back at school."
For Jeremy James, the artistic director at Greenwich and Lewisham Young Person's Theatre, the scheme is an invaluable way of reaching a new audience. He says: "The children's reactions are amazing. It is wonderful to see their responses to seeing live theatre for the first time.
"But while a show such as Robin Hood puts a lot of emphasis on children enjoying the story, we work with writers who create ideas to explore in the piece. Gender stereotyping is a big issue in this story – is it right that girls are not allowed to do archery? We give teachers a platform to jump off and follow up in the classroom."
The theatre has also seen young people involved in the Start programme begin to visit the venue out of school, with their families and friends. Staff say that it helps that children become familiar with the venue and the people working there, and over the years they take part in the programme, remembering names and eagerly greeting workshop leaders if they meet them again on a visit out of school. Staff report finding it "heartening" that the least-confident children have blossomed after working with the theatre, and have returned to school more willing to join in with class discussions, whereas previously they would have remained silent.
Jeremy Newton, chief executive of The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts, is extremely concerned at the drop in primary school pupils' engagement with the arts shown in figures published by the Department for Culture, Media and the Arts. Although the Government statistics only chart the decline of out-of-school activities, Newton believes that the arts are also being squeezed out of schools.
"Over time, and particularly over the past five years, the likelihood of these children being taken to a theatre or gallery or museum by either their parents or their school has fallen substantially," he says. "There is a general squeeze on the arts in schools. Unless the arts are built into the curriculum in important ways they get relegated to the peripheral area of extra-curricular activities.
"At primary school there is very little time and even less money for extra-curricular activities. Schools in poorer area have ever bigger problems as it's difficult to expect parents to contribute financially for trips. I am very concerned that a generation of children at a crucial stage of their development are having a weakened education diet because it is not being informed by the arts."
Since 2006 Children & the Arts has worked with 99 arts venues and 121,000 children have taken part in the programme which runs in each school for three years and has reported some impressive results. After involvement in the Start project, 75 per cent of teachers felt that their pupils had improved self-esteem, and 87 per cent reported an improvement in academic skills.
A new report by the National Foundation for Educational Research found that children who took part in the Start programme gained a new enthusiasm for the arts but also confirmed that academic skills improved as a result of the programme. Researchers discovered that pupils who attended the programme from schools in Burnley, Manchester, Coventry, London and Ruthin in Wales, had a wider vocabulary and stronger writing skills after taking part. Pupils' communication, team-working, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills also showed improvement.
Pupils told researchers that they had been scared when they first heard they would take part in the programme because they did not know what it would be like at the theatre. Theatre staff reported that pupils – most of whom had never been in a theatre before – had been hesitant in the auditorium and nervous when the lights went down at the start of the play.
Researchers found that some pupils "thought at first it would be a waste of time" but after taking part said they had gained a huge amount from the project.
The study further found that it was critical to the scheme's success that pupils were given "authentic creative activities", saying that students appreciated working with professional artists who treated them as fellow artists while giving them the benefit of their expertise.
The study concluded that the programme left a creative legacy in schools which would last far longer than the three years that pupils took part in the scheme.
Because the scheme runs for that length of time – far longer than most other arts partnership schemes – it provides schools and arts venues more opportunity to build deeper and longer-lasting links.
Teachers taking part have access to training sessions which "equip and motivate" them to use their creative skills in the classroom in the longer-term, according to the report. This training increased schools' ability and willingness to engage with the arts in other ways, meaning that the Start programme would benefit a much larger group of children.
According to the report: "The Start programme can lead to real, positive impacts for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds through their involvement in arts activities. Overall, Start has acted as a catalyst for growing and sustaining creative activities and created a lasting legacy of arts engagement between schools and UK arts venues."
But for the children at Nightingale School the project has primarily been about the fun they have had. Or as eight-year-old Juwon Bamiro put it: "Yesterday was the funniest show I had ever been to. Oh my days, I was so excited!"
The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts: childrenandarts.org.ukReuse content