Friday, 23 September 2016

Choosing the right theatre school for your child



There are so many theatre schools now it's an almost impossible task to choose. In St Albans alone there are at least sixteeen (yes, SIXTEEN!!) so how on earth can you make a comparison? In this brief blog I'll try and make the journey easier for you (and although I need to declare an interest as founder of Best Theatre Arts, I'll try and stay neutral).

There are the basics, like OFSTED membership, DBS checks on teachers, convenience of location, timings, price etc etc - but let's presume all this is equal.

The best method is word of mouth. Ask people you know and trust. At the very least this will greatly narrow down the field for you.

Then speak to the owners/managers - the people at the top. It is from them that the culture and approach of the school will permeate. Get a good feeling from them and this bodes well. Are they interested in you/your child? Can they describe a cohesive approach to development? Do they have the right energy and drive? What are their core guiding principles and values? What is their staff profile? What is their background? How do they interact with the children? This is best done by visiting the school and meeting them.

Then try the school before committing fully. There are a number of ways of doing this:-
  • Some offer a free trial, others (like us) a paid trial which is then deducted from fees. Free trials are just that - no commitment, no outlay. The upside is it's entirely risk free and you can tour lots of schools until you find the one you want. The downside is that you get one week to make a choice. 
  • We've tried free trials at Best but reverted to a paid two week trial (two weeks for the price of one with the cost deducted on continuation).  We think this gives the child and parent a much better chance to evaluate fully the school and its approach (and us) before committing. And from our viewpoint we get a more committed and interested child and parent to meet (and fewer people just not turning up). The downside is it costs you money - (£13.50 in our case for little ones) - so it's more expensive if you want to try out a number of classes.
  • There are also 'open days' where parents and children get to meet and try out classes. Again this is risk-free and is favoured by the larger franchises as an efficient and well-tried way to bring in immediate numbers. The upside is it's free and potentially quick. The downside is you know it has all been set up for that day and to a process - it's not business as usual so you won't get a real feel for the school in action as you would with a free or paid trial.
So, in a nutshell - ask friends, speak to the boss, visit the school, pick a trial.

There are fundamental differences between schools and I'll try and explain here what those are and the up and downsides of each type (with reference to school in St Albans):-

Firstly, there are the mega franchises/managed units - including Stagecoach, Theatretrain, Pauline Quirke, Perform, Jigsaw. These have centralised slick systems to manage their activities which are run by franchise holders or centre managers. The real advantages here is that their processes and syllabuses are tried out in (literally) hundreds of other schools across thousands of students so you know they work! There'll be lots of goodies too (uniform, newsletters etc), agencies and often the promise of a West End showcase. These companies could not have got where they are without doing what they do very well indeed - thousands of students and parents can't be wrong. The downside is that you are very much part of a (albeit benevolent) machine and whilst the personality of the franchisee/manager can make a difference, their flexibility to adapt to changing dynamics within their franchise parameters is somewhat limited.

Then there are the larger independent companies - TopHat, Theatrix, Act Now, Hurst Children's Theatre, Living the Dream, Excel and, of course, Best Theatre Arts. Each of these is run directly by the owners and each has its own very distinct culture. The downsides - systems might not be so slick and the variations in approach from owners mean that the schools are very much more individual in tone and culture. For example, some will be suitable for the more ambitious parent/child whilst others will focus more on the achievements of the whole group. You may find to that in some instances the owner takes a very high personal profile/brand whereas others manage more discreetly. The upsides are these are local companies which are a genuine part of the community, and if you find the school with the right culture for your child you relationship as a parent with the group will be much more close and engaging. You may also find the staff to be long-standing which helps considerably with the consistency of approach.

Finally there are the small independent companies - Fusion, Little Stars etc. These will be even more directly influenced by the owner and may not yet have built the customer base to get adequate verbal references. But all good schools start from small beginnings and in many ways size doesn't matter. The downsides are that resources may be limited and staff coverage not quite so robust.

So no school can legitimately claim to be any better than any other - it's all 'horses for courses'. But it is worth investing the time to go through a selection process - these schools are not cheap and you could be making a significant investment in your child over a number of years (14 years is our record!!!)  -  its worth taking the time!