Just How is Drama Training Regulated? Equity-Spotlight Criteria Examined By Annemarie Lewis Thomas

Annemarie Lewis Thomas is a musician, composer and director of the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), named by The Stage as School of the Year in 2012 and 2017.  Here she gives her opinion on the joint announcement made by Equity and Spotlight in May 2017 (which outlined the course criteria that they would recognise following […]

Annemarie Lewis Thomas is a musician, composer and director of the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), named by The Stage as School of the Year in 2012 and 2017.  Here she gives her opinion on the joint announcement made by Equity and Spotlight in May 2017 (which outlined the course criteria that they would recognise following the demise of Drama UK last year). She also gives  her initial thoughts on the newly formed ‘Federation of Drama Schools’ AND, as a passionate educator and campaigner  for mental health issues in the Performing arts, draws our attention to her admirable #time4change charter.

Since Drama UK closed shop in 2016, there has been nothing officially monitoring or regulating drama training in the UK. Now I say this, but in truth I would (and indeed regularly did) argue, that Drama UK didn’t monitor or regulate drama training before its demise either. To put it in context, Drama UK was the love child of the NCDT and the CDS, born in June 2012. The NCDT used to accredit courses (never colleges…always courses), and the CDS was. . . .you know, don’t even worry about it.

“I don’t get it either”

When the two organisations merged, it took them a year to work out that it was less confusing to all concerned if colleges were accredited NOT courses. Indeed had they been rigorous in this belief they might have improved the overall standard of training in the UK (which after all you’d think would have been their remit).

The accreditation would last for 5 years, after which time the colleges had to reapply to be approved for a further 5 years. Within that time colleges though had to provide data to prove that they were still meeting Drama UK’s high standards.
There was so much wrong with system – for starters the people on the Board of Drama UK were effectively your competition, so was it really in their interest to pop another competitor into the playing field? As for colleges submitting their own data. . .how was that going to be verified? Surely if you felt that being part of Drama UK was something worth fighting for, then it wouldn’t be a stretch to give the edited highlights to be verified as opposed to a potentially more damning full disclosure account.

Then there was the fact that Drama UK never actually stated how it managed to open with the same ‘team’ of NCDT accredited colleges already on board. In spite of several sources asking them to verify if the ‘Drama UK colleges’ had gone through the scrutiny of the new organisation, they stayed quiet. In fact…they stayed quiet on everything.

Take a few minutes to read the charter.

Since I opened The MTA in 2009 I’ve been campaigning for better Mental Health provision in drama colleges. Part of this campaigning led me to various confrontations with Drama UK (usually in my nesting ground of Twitter to be fair). I was horrified to receive the answer from Drama UK that they didn’t actually insist on how a pastoral care package was delivered. . . they left that (they told me) up to the individual colleges. Just as long as the policies were in place? Now I have a huge issue with policies – they look lovely, but if they’re not acted upon, they’re not worth the virtual paper that they’re written on.

Finally (and critical for a small college like The MTA), the cost of going through the application process, and then the ongoing cost of staying in ‘the club’ were astronomical, with no obvious return, except for saying that you were in ‘the club’.

Anyway. . . I won’t bang on about Drama UK, but I suspect that you’re getting an idea of why I wasn’t sad on the day that they finally announced that they were going to cease to exist. In the meantime The MTA had taken the unprecedented approach of simply publishing our stats annually in order to verify that our
course worked. We also ensured that those stats could be verified on our website – so any doubters out there could actually see for themselves how we reached the percentages that we did.

So for the past year the training sector has been without it’s much lauded accreditation system. People started saying that the Trinity Diploma was equal to accreditation (probably based on the fact that this was a key component in the DaDa Awards). However in truth there was nothing that a course or college could grab onto to claim that it ‘met the standard’, as nobody actually knew what ‘the standard’ was.

Then from nowhere last month Equity and Spotlight issued a joint statement, in which they set out a course criteria that they would both recognise. In other words, the students on courses which met all of this new criteria would be permitted to become Student Equity members and they would be permitted to
go into Spotlight.

Getting students ‘Industry ready’ should be the focus.

For the uninitiated the Equity membership is actually neither here nor there. Personally I think that joining a union is important, and that we’re ‘stronger together’, however thanks to the days of Maggie Thatcher and the abolition of the closed shop, you don’t have to have an Equity card to work anymore. However the lack of a Spotlight number is a game changer. Spotlight is a casting directory AKA it’s like the Argos of the performing world. Actors pay to get their headshot and CV onto their site, and casting directors and agents use it as a means of shopping for those actors. It’s the portal through which most major castings are communicated.

Your Spotlight number is essentially your passport into the industry. Without that all important view number, you’re going to discover that getting an agent is really hard. . . as they need that number to ‘sell’ you to the casting directors…and so a vicious circle is formed.

So what was the criteria? Here it is…with a few of my thoughts tagged alongside.

1) Courses needed to be vocational, with an emphasis on the practical rather than the theoretical. Now you’d think that this would be a no- brainer wouldn’t you. . . but there are courses that are currently running with barely any practical element at all. People are graduating from courses claiming to get you industry ready, without having been in a full production.

2) Equivalent to NQF level 4/SQF level 6. I run a purely vocational college, so I found it particularly forward thinking of Equity and Spotlight to finally acknowledge that the qualification itself wasn’t the end goal. So the word ‘equivalent’ really levelled the playing field between vocational and degree courses

3) Contact hours in excess of 36 hours/week. Again you’d think that this would be a no brainer – but some uni courses are currently claiming to get their students industry ready working just 16 contact hours/week. If you’re paying from £9k upwards for your child’s training, you want to be packing in those all important contact hours. . .because believe me. . . they are going to need them.

4) No more than 22 students/class, and 30 wks/yr instruction. Now I think that this is a game changer. With the advent of colleges getting bigger and bigger, but getting away with it because they split the year
groups in two or three, thereby rightly claiming that their class sizes are rather smaller than the amount of students you’ll be seeing on their showcase stages. 22 if upheld is an interesting number. If a college
currently has 60/year, they will have to run 3 classes/year in order to meet these new guidelines. Now it’s a rather well known under the counter fact, that many established colleges are going to fall foul of this
ruling, so it’ll be interesting to see how this particular criteria pans out. On a personal note, at The MTA we only take 22/year so we have no worries on meeting the criteria.

It’s show(case) time! ..Where is everybody??

5) Courses that offer a professional showcase opportunity, attended by industry. Quite how a college can vouch that industry attend their showcase opportunity I don’t know?

6) Courses that offer professional development programme with industry engagement. Well that’s a rather strange sentence isn’t it? However one would hope that it’s urging colleges to ensure that their
students are ready for the business side of the industry as well as the performing side. One would also hope that this is about building bridges for your students to enable them to cross into the professional world after graduating.

7) Access to professional facilities. Again it would be nice to have some clarification as to what they deem ‘professional’, as there are a fair few colleges not meeting this basic requirement right now by my understanding of the sentence.

8) Clear commitments on safeguarding, bullying and harassment and diversity. A tick box exercise or one that they’re going to police?

I think that it’s a wasted opportunity to have not included a Mental Health component here. As we started the #time4change initiative (as supported by this great website infact) I’d clearly like to see the Mental Health charter included as a basic requirement for good training – or indeed any Mental Health/
pastoral element. Overall though I think that this is a good starting point IF they police it properly.
I understand that a new organisation is going to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of Drama UK very soon aka another ‘club’ which might very well have an instant pass into the hallowed chambers of Equity and Spotlight – however I really hope that they have to meet this new criteria.

There are huge implications for universities within this ruling though. As there are very few universities meeting the contact hours (let alone a few of the other points). Could this see the end of the ridiculous few years that saw degrees being
forced upon an industry that really has no need for them? Other than for ‘life skills’ and ‘transferable skills’ they are seldom worth the paper that they’re written on, meaning that poor families are having to essentially fork out the same again for a truly vocational course.

If this criteria saves you £27k that you could put towards a proper vocational course(be that a degree course which meets the criteria, or a diploma course), which will give your child a really good chance out there in ‘performing world’, then it gets my vote.

UPDATE: Since writing this article a Phoenix did indeed rise from the ashes of Drama UK. In a most extraordinary move 20 of the colleges that were long term members of the ‘accredited’ club have banded together to form ‘The Federation of Drama Schools’. I say extraordinary as the Feds (as I like to call them) actually stand for nothing. Yes, they have a ‘basic requirement’ for their students, but that basic requirement is embarrassingly low. They are needing the ‘club members’ to guarantee that 1 in 2 of their graduates get an agent or get a job. 1 in 2!!! They ‘guarantee’ that their members will be giving a minimum of 900 contact hours/year. Slightly awkward as whatever you look at it, they fall short of the
criteria set out by Equity and Spotlight.

Nobody will regulate the ‘Feds’ and nobody can join them…for a year. Then in ayear’s time, the implication is that colleges could apply to join the club BUT only if a college is running a 3 year course? So for an organisation which has heralded its arrival by stating that they’re forward thinking, they’ve flown directly in the face of the recent thinking that degrees should be reduced to 2 years. The only thing that the Feds and the new criteria have in common is that neither of them have addressed the Mental Health crises facing our industry. Just . . .

 Find The MTA @ PerformingArtsTutor.com