Belgrade LifeStage

Thursday 15 June 2017

LifeStage, or Acting Out as it was previously called, has been running at the Belgrade theatre in Coventry for 19 years. The programme is the heart of the Community and Education offer and has twice been cited as an example of good practice in government white papers on Education and Skills.

The aim of the programme has been to provide young people with opportunities in theatre and re-engage those who have become disaffected with mainstream education. The students, aged 14 - 16, are referred to the programme by their school and spend a day a week at the theatre completing a qualification. The programme is open to those in mainstream education, special schools and pupil referral units. The programme was first established as one of flagship courses offered by Coventry City Council’s Work related Learning Department and we continue to work in partnership with them.  

In the 3 years I have been working on the programme it has undergone huge change. Historically we ran 2 groups of 24 students each week who were a mixture of those disengaged with education and those deemed gifted and talented. However, the recent government pressure on schools has meant that teachers became increasingly unwilling to allow academic students out of school. This resulted in a drop in student numbers; in 2012 14 students enrolled, compared with just 5 in 2014. At the same time the students enrolling showed increasingly challenging behavioural, in 2014 most of the students came from pupil referral units.  The financial context has also become increasingly challenging. We receive a fee per student from the council however, our overheads do not decrease depending on student numbers and the theatre has been subsidising the programme for the several years. This is also within the context of the cuts to funding the theatre is receiving from statutory bodies.  

This, combined with the drop in student numbers meant that changes had to be made. In September 2016 as well as renaming the programme LifeStage, we moved from a 2 year model to just 1 year and offered shorter courses so students were able to attend for single terms. We also deliver qualifications in well-being and employability in addition to performing arts. All these changes were made in order respond to the needs of schools and make the programme more appealing to them. So far, this seems to be working. 12 students have enrolled this year and although they still pose challenges, there is a more diverse mix of abilities and backgrounds represented.

Over my time on LifeStage I have heard countless reports from parents and students about how valuable it is. For many it might be the only educational activity they engage with on a weekly basis and we pride ourselves on supporting them, providing them with a space which is their own, and in which they can express themselves. This sounds positive however we still face the constant challenge of persuading schools that the programme is valuable. We receive fantastic support from many schools and individual teachers but this does not always extend to the school’s SMT, as what we are offering doesn’t necessarily fit with government priorities for schools and they themselves are working in increasingly compromised circumstances.  Currently the theatre’s status as a National Portfolio Organisation is in part dependant on its work with young people. However, if this was to change then, in these tough times, would the theatre be able to justify subsidising a programme which doesn’t even break even? It seems unlikely. We must be smarter if this work is to continue. We must find new ways to make money for these programmes and to shout louder about the benefits to young people of working in this way, and the wider benefits this can have for their families and community.  

Hannah Utterly

Hannah is currently running a vocational Work Related Learning programme called LifeStage for 14-16 year olds at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry.

The programme has been running in different forms for 19 years and was previously known as Acting Out. The programme is targeted at those young people who are not achieving their potential in mainstream education.