At specialist schools the arts aren't optional extras, they make up a sizeable slice of the curriculum. It means harmonising the three Rs with the likes of a full musical programme, ballet and learning lines.
It's a lot to ask anyone to take on, let alone an 8-year-old. But for children with performing arts talents, this kind of education can, and undoubtedly does, work.
As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe or Charlotte Church standing. And sometimes, just sometimes, parental pride is justified.
Many Harry Styles and Billie Piper wannabes grow up and grow out of it. But what if there's true talent lurking behind that precocious façade and your child continues to show real promise?
Are they worth it?
The advice from Drama UK (which accredits a number of full-time vocational courses in acting and stage management at higher education level) is keep your head. Don't let those stars in your youngster's eyes blinker you to the wider educational picture.
They recommend that young people who want to earn their living in the theatre stay at mainstream school and complete their education. Then, at age 17 years, apply for a place on a full-time course in a drama school, preferably one offering courses accredited by Drama UK. Graduates of accredited courses are eligible for full Equity membership.
But for those few whose talents are exceptional, specialist schools really can offer the best of both worlds. And while acting does not depend on early specialism, for those aiming at a classical dance or musical career professional early training is vital. The rich mix of artistic and solid academic training offered by specialist schools, not to mention an environment where prodigious talent is the norm not the exception, can be a winning combination.
Choosing a specialist arts school
If you decide - usually with encouragement from teachers or other educational experts - that your child needs a specialised environment to realise their full artistic potential, you’ll need to choose the right one. The pressure of making possible life-moulding decisions for your children in the case of specialist music, dance or stage schools and the high stakes of making such a choice can feel overwhelming, so where do you start?
We can help
Good Schools Guide Education Consultants has experts in specialist arts schools and in scholarships and bursaries. We can work one-to-one with you to find the right school for your talented child. Contact us: [email protected] or 0203 286 6824.
We review specialist schools. Our experts have visited and reviewed many excellent specialist stage, dance and music schools:
Let's take the Wells Cathedral School in Somerset. It is one of the five specialist music schools in the country funded by the government's Dance, Ballet and Music Scheme and, as you’d expect, the music here is very special indeed. Fantastic and inclusive junior choir performs in concerts and all children aged 3 to 11 are involved in the school shows. For the specialists, there are two highly-regarded sets of junior choristers, one for boys and one for girls. May not suit young musicians seeking the hardcore, all-or-nothing ethos of the other specialist music schools, but the parents we spoke to felt this was a strength. Compared with the other specialist music schools, offers a broad and challenging curriculum and the school goes out of its way to address individual needs and preferences, and the results are highly creditable.
Then there's the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey. With under 80 boys and girls aged 8 to 18, size is an obvious difference. But all the pupils here – as opposed to around a third at Wells Cathedral – are seriously dedicated to music, and half of the academic day is taken up by it, plus practice sessions. Everyone has a daily practice target to meet and pupils receive two one-hour lessons per week on their principal instrument, and half an hour on their second study, and everyone learns composition. There are also courses in classical improvisation, choral singing, aural training and general music studies. Virtually all go on to conservatoires. So while Wells Cathedral feels like a ‘normal’ school (where child will not be out of place if they later decide that physics, not music, is their passion), Menuhin’s limited numbers and narrow focus put it firmly in a class of its own.
Pupils at the Arts Educational School in London specialise in either dance or drama alongside normal academic subjects. It is a haven for those aiming at a stage career, and nearly all sixth formers go on to dance or drama college, but some 40 per cent have discovered by GCSE time that the performing life is not for them and head elsewhere for sixth form. Extremely good facilities, some of them shared with ‘the degrees’, as the ArtsEd undergraduate students are known here. The amazing Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre that hosts the school’s major dance shows and concerts is at the heart of the school, along with several smaller studio performance spaces.
Competition for places.
Competition is phenomenal, with schools on the lookout for exceptional ability and potential. The selection process is likely to include entrance exams, auditions and interviews. Just to put this in context, many candidates for music scholarships at non-specialist independent schools will already have achieved Grade 6 or above in two instruments.
Tring Park School for the Performing Arts - described by composer Howard Goodall as 'unique' and uncompromising 'with regard to high standards,’ it has strict conditions of entry, with seven applications for every place. One-day auditions see children showing what they can do in dance, drama and singing and while they aren't expected to excel in all three of these - although many do - the school is looking for great talent and potential in the candidate's chosen specialism, 'and they have to show a real desire to learn,' says head. If they're successful in gaining a place but need funding to take it up, they're called to a second audition.
Elmhurst Ballet School, Birmingham counts Helen Baxendale, Hayley Mills, Juliet Mills, Jenny Agutter, Joanna David, Sarah Brightman, Dame Merle Park, Diana Fox and Isabel McMeekan amongst its old girls. Entrance is entirely on artistic merit and auditions are held at various times in the year in the UK and overseas. Children will have had ballet lessons before they come and the school has links with some of the best local ballet teachers around the country.
Help with fees
Apart from the BRIT School in Croydon, virtually all specialist performing arts schools are fee-paying. Boarding is often favoured - if not compulsory - which inevitably bumps the annual fees well up into the five-figure range. But fear not, bursaries and scholarships are always on offer and the government also funds places at some specialist schools up and down the country.
The music and dance scheme. provides grands and help with fees at eight specialist independent schools in England - four music and four dance:
All but three (Hammond, which we do not yet have enough reports on, plus Chetham's and The Royal Ballet School) are reviewed by The Good Schools Guide. It is not unusual to find that virtually all pupils are fund-aided. So potentially high costs need not be a deterrent.
Choir schools are schools attached to cathedrals, churches and college chapels. Most are as ancient as the religious buildings they serve since they were founded to educate the boy choristers who sang (several times a day, all year) at services. There are 44 choir schools in the UK www.choirschools.org.uk/school-and-cathedral-list/ although only just over 1,000 of the 15,000 pupils are choristers. Many, but not all, are now open to both boys and girls.
Choir schools are liberally distributed across Britain - from Cardiff to Cambridge, Edinburgh to Ely - and many have excellent reputations for both academic greatness and all-round musical excellence. Pilgrims' School in Winchester, for example, sends a significant chunk of its leavers to Winchester College, many with music scholarships.
A specialist musical education for free? The Choir Schools' Association (CSA) website says, ‘Chorister places are subsidised but by how much will vary at foundations under the CSA umbrella. However, there may well be additional financial help available for the child who sings well, who really wants to be a chorister, and whose parents genuinely cannot afford the fees. You are advised to consult the head at the choir school at your initial meeting.’
Schools offer tempting discounts. Some chorister places are completely free while others are partly funded by chapel or cathedral foundations or through the CSA's own chorister fund.
A huge commitment, but worth it? Choir schools do their utmost to ensure that choristers enjoy the same school experience as their peers but being a chorister is incredibly hard work. However excellent the musical education, however generous the fee discount, it’s a high price to pay if your child buckles under the strain of lengthy rehearsals and interrupted holidays (peak demand for choristers is at Christmas and Easter).
Arts provision in mainstream state schools
If the whole concept of specialist schooling leaves you feeling overwhelmed, it's worth remembering that there's a great deal of excellence to be found in mainstream education. Though large parts of the state system are an artistic desert, there are oases of extraordinary achievement despite cuts in government funding. Camden School for Girls stands out for music, for instance; St Marylebone for drama; and Beaconsfield High and Dr Challoner’s High School for dance – just to name a few. Use The Good Schools Guide school search to find specialist schools.
All the school reviews on our website contain information about the provision of music, dance and drama.