Saturday, 27 October 2018

A Whole School Approach to Mental Health

When I opened The MTA back in 2009 there was no name for the kind of pastoral policy that we were going to implement. However having worked in vocational training for over 20 years I knew that drama college seemed to involve an awful lot of crying. I hadn't met a singing teacher who couldn't relate to a 'crying student' anecdote.  I knew that I couldn't open a college without a counsellor (having spent the previous few years working in colleges which failed to provide this service).

By way of a fluke actually, the person that I asked to take on the role happened to be a mental health nurse specialist, who was also (by virtue of her day job) an extremely successful life coach. I realised early on that by making the counsellor a key person in the faculty, as opposed to an 'add-on', students would be more likely to engage in using her. I also felt it important that they could self-refer, as opposed to going through a system - thereby making a counselling service an easy thing to connect to.  It was imperative that the service was confidential, which again is impossible if students aren't able to self-refer.

What took me by surprise over the first few years though, was quite how many students who were visiting the counsellor for 'life coaching', seemed to come away with a mental health diagnosis.  In truth I felt that our counsellor must have been being over cautious, however, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't the case, when time after time the local GP's agreed with her diagnosis, and students were quickly given a 'care plan', be that medication or talking therapies.  Of course some of the talking therapy we were able to offer without long waiting lists, and as for the medication, our counsellor was able to give advice on the treatments, and indeed started to liaise with many of our local GP services in order to ensure that the students were on the best treatments straight away. It's easy to forget quite how little GP's know about Mental Health. We sort of think of them as 'all knowing', however, in reality, they probably spent just 6 months looking at Mental Illnesses during their training. So having an expert on the faculty enabled us to take various shortcuts, and more importantly enabled the students to get expert advice.

Initially, I felt that The MTA must have been incredibly unlucky to have quite so many students that were suffering from Mental Illnesses. I mean we're a tiny college (max of 44 students at any one time), whilst acknowledging that the students that we had were extremely lucky to have had a life-changing diagnosis.  Maladaptive coping mechanisms that were enabling them to have a productive life were suddenly being replaced with good health and the difference in every one of them was truly staggering.

However, such was the volume of previously undiagnosed illness I started to do some research and came across a survey from New Zealand. Rocked by an industry suicide they had undertaken a survey of the industry (backstage and onstage), and they had discovered that 1 in 3 of 'their industry' had an experience of personal mental illness as opposed to the recognised norm of 1 in 4.

That epiphany of it was an 'industry thing' was startling. Suddenly everything fell into place, we weren't the exception we were actually the norm. The big difference being that we had accidentally placed ourselves in a position to help people as opposed to simply brushing off symptoms. From that moment on it became a campaign to wake everybody else up - especially as more and more countries seemed to be making the link between our industry and mental health.

I've already blogged and vlogged about #time4change and the Mental Health Charter - but basically I felt like we needed to ring a really loud bell to tell other colleges (and indeed our industry as a whole) that something big was happening, and we all needed to respond to it.  In fact #time4change was the result of shouting about this for a number of years and everybody either ignoring me or telling me to shut up.

Going back to The MTA we just kept going - only now I truly understood that the work that we were doing was vital and potentially life-changing. 

We've always had 2 members of staff on call 24/7, 365 days a year, as we're aware that difficulties don't tend to be limited to the 8:30-5 college day. So our students, staff & graduates always have a mental health professional available to them.

So we have never changed what we've done, it's just in 2017 the government found a name for it - the 'whole school approach'.

We don't start working with our students until we know and understand them a bit. Take the premise of drama college - you go into classes with people asking you to be vulnerable BUT usually, those colleges/staff don't know a student's background - being vulnerable tends to open up a whole can of worms. So we try to find out if they're OK with being vulnerable first.

There's a misconception that this kind of approach is too 'kind', that we're creating a 'mollycoddled' cohort of students. Well, you couldn't be more wrong.  We have 0% unauthorised absence, we have 0% unauthorised lateness. For 99% of the year, we operate with 100% attendance (contagious sickness bugs are the only reason for approved absences). Students who are in the depth of a deep depression still come to college. . . because it's proven that getting up and at least attempting to do something will aid their recovery.   I would argue that we are building a true and honest resilience into each and every one of our students.

I've always held a belief that a large percentage of people go into our industry to escape, since opening The MTA I've added to that belief insomuch as I now believe that some people go into the industry to escape their own minds. I don't believe that the industry makes you ill, I believe that you were susceptible to illness (be that circumstances or genetic loading), and the industry with all of its 'be vulnerable to be great' teachings, have meant that those susceptibilities have been realised. Maybe if people had 'escaped' to a 9-5 office job those ticking time bombs would never have gone off? Who knows?

All of these discoveries were an accident, all created because the only counsellor that I could afford when I started was a certain Angie Peake. . . my wife! It's the most fortunate of accidents - and one that has transformed so many lives and continues to do so on a daily basis.

So there you have it - a whole school approach to mental health.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Vocational Training

I'm beginning to feel old (keep your comments to yourself). I feel like we're all watching a case of the Emperor's New Clothes happening in our industry and nobody is really speaking about it.

We all know that on your Spotlight CV they ask you where you trained, not what class degree you ended up with.  I mean of course everybody is going to write their final mark because everybody would have worked really hard to achieve it, but to my knowledge, no Spotlight breakdown has ever been published asking for someone with a certain class degree?

When you go into an audition room, somebody might ask you where you trained, but they'll never ask you what 'grade' you got. They just want you to demonstrate your talent, and can you meet the brief. They'll ask for a song, or give you some sides to read. They might want to see you dance - but they'll teach you the routine. 

My weathered response to the whole degree/diploma debate is always the same - show me the difference between a degree pirouette and a diploma pirouette!

Over time it's the quality of training that will build a reputation for a college, not what qualification do they offer. In other words - the whole 'get a degree' argument is nonsensical.  People will argue that it's giving people a fallback? Fall back to what exactly? If you want to turn that degree into anything useful you'll need to go back to college to train some more. Your B.A. (Hons) won't automatically give you teacher status (which people insultingly think of as a 'fallback career').

Let's face it - everybody moved to a degree because it gave the colleges and the students more access to funds, NOT because our industry suddenly demanded a qualification.

In truth, I don't mind that per se, however what I do care about, is how suddenly vocational courses are getting penalised.  My students at The MTA are not eligible for ANY government funding streams, as they've just pulled the plug on the PCDL.  

So offer a degree I hear you shout! However to prepare any form of formal accreditation we have estimated it to cost us between £4k-£6k.  To go for a 'formal recognition' as opposed to a degree would set us back around £6k just to apply.  This money though would come from my students' fees. The fees that they pay us in order to get them industry-ready in 2 years.  Now we're successfully achieving our goal year on year - so why would I want to pay to 'prove it'. I have proved it - every graduate is on our website with their Spotlight page attached (if applicable). You can see our proof for yourself, for free.

We're currently working really hard on our #50percent campaign to make up the deficit that the PCDL has created so that we can reassure any prospective student that we are working hard as hard as them to help them out financially.*

However, the discrimination doesn't stop at government funding level.  

Last year Equity and Spotlight issued a new set of criteria, which colleges had to achieve in order to get onto their 'Graduate List'. I applauded this decision having banged on about the lack of regulation in our industry. 

The criteria (and our course) are listed below:
  • Vocational training courses for performers, practical rather than theoretical  
Well, The MTA's course is entirely practical, so this is a big tick for us.
  • Contact hours in excess of 30 hours per week
We guarantee our students a MINIMUM of 40 contact hours/week. So far so good
  • No more than 22 students in a class
We only have 22 students in a year, so the entire college can be no bigger than 44. In the morning dance classes are streamed into 3 or 4 groups...meaning that our class sizes are really small
  • 30 weeks in a year of instruction
Once again we're winning - as we offer a MINIMUM of 40 weeks/year
  • Course offers a professional showcase opportunity – attended by industry
Not only are we the only MT college to offer an Acting Showcase AND a Musical Theatre Showcase, we are also the only college to produce a public performance EVERY term. So I can safely say that our students get a load of opportunities.
  • Course offers Professional Development programme with industry engagement
A nice easy one for us - every single member of my faculty is a current industry professional. So they have nothing but, industry engagement. If by professional development you're talking about understanding that our students are going to self-employed businesses, then yes, we have all of that covered too.
  • Access to professional facilities
Yup...3 dance spaces with sprung floors, mirrors, PA system. 2 studio spaces, an acoustic pod, and all of our shows are performed in a London theatre.  We are housed in the middle of an Arts Centre, so I'm confident that this is a tick too.
  • Clear commitments on safeguarding, bullying/harassment and diversity
We have all of these documents - and indeed they were all approved by Spotlight and Equity as well
  • Equivalent to NQF level 4 / SQF level 6 Qualification issued by a ‘recognised body’
I was confident of this last one too - as our course is more than equivalent to one of these qualifications...but here's where the tale goes sour. They don't mean equivalent - they mean...have a qualification. 

So we, along with courses such as LSMT and Fourth Monkey**, are prevented from going on the Equity/Spotlight graduate list.  In many ways it doesn't matter. Our students are permitted to go straight onto the main Spotlight register, and can apply for Equity's student membership, so their careers are not penalised at all.  However, it does mean that when certain bursaries and scholarships are being considered eg the SOLT bursaries (including the Laurence Olivier Scholarship), we are not even permitted to nominate a student! Instead, all the colleges that are already in receipt of Student Finance and DaDas are permitted to submit their students for even more financial help.

Here's irony, there was a mix up one year and we WERE invited to nominate a student, and yup, you guessed it - after auditioning for the panel they won a substantial financial bursary which allowed them to continue with their studies.  

Or to put all of this another way, students currently studying on a uni degree course have access to the full Student finance package, even though lots of those students will not be eligible for Spotlight membership when they've finished.

Hell, just the other week the NUS (Extra) company contacted me to say that after 5 years of our students being on their approved list, we were being taken off that too . . . all because we refuse to offer a formal qualification.

In case you're still unclear of how mad this is. . . one of the qualifications that the power's that be endorse is the Trinity Level 6 Diploma.  A Diploma that we can't even apply to deliver because one of their criteria is that the course has to be 3 years!

I run a college where 100% of my students have secured INDEPENDENT agent representation BEFORE graduating.
Where 77% of our graduates are still working in the industry. 
A college where 89% of the class of 2018 have already secured their first contract.
A college which remains the only school to have been awarded The Stage School of the Year award TWICE, for our innovative approach to training and pastoral care and (in 2017) our proven track record.
We have initiated an industry-wide Mental Health Charter and are working closely with other colleges in order to support them making the change from 'counselling' to 'mental health'
A college where just 3% of students have dropped out since we started in 2009 (and all but one of those are still in contact with us).
A college whose graduates are working all over the world (including the West End), whose graduates are in festival award-winning films and are working in all areas of the industry.
A college that has ALWAYS provided its graduates with ongoing support be that pastoral or practical.
A college that has had consistent, verifiable results since 2011 when our first group graduated. 
A college that is completely transparent, right down to open book accounting.

Yet in spite of all of this - the computer (very sadly) keeps saying 'no', as the producers and casting directors keep saying 'yes'.

10 years later, I'm disappointed to see that our vocational industry is actively fighting against vocational training.

* If you'd like to make a contribution to our campaign to make 50% of our places available with 50% scholarships check out the ways that you can help on our funding page: Scroll down to the bottom. . . no contribution is too small.
Thank you

**Fourth Monkey moved across to a degree in 2020

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Upselling Education

A Nation of Shopkeepers - or Why is Upselling Courses the Latest Trend?

Back in 1776 (a nice Musical Theatre referenced year), Adam Smith called Britain a 'Nation of Shopkeepers'. 2 and a half centuries later that phrase is still correct. We sometimes only think of America as the 'place of dreams', but here in the UK we are also surrounded by people who have started from nothing and created their own businesses turning them into global market leaders.

I'm in awe of the people that have managed to do that, and admire their single-mindedness. However I believe that education is different. I feel really strongly that people shouldn't profit from education. Now it's a tough one as all colleges are encouraged to have a large financial 'safety net' in case of emergencies, so with that recommendation comes a need to create a cushion of money that's available should something awful happen, so some profiteering is essentially built into the business plans before you start training anyone.

Nowadays to train to be an actor is hugely expensive - indeed to train to be anything is almost guaranteeing you to have a bill of at least £27k. I think that sometimes because the Student Loans have been around for so long, people lose sight of what that much money really means. Many drama courses cost even more than that. In fact you can now be charged as much as £54K for a course at a top college. To put that into perspective, you could buy a house in some parts of the country for what it would cost you to train at a top drama/dance college.

With the average cost of training to be a performer now sitting at around £40k I find it rather upsetting to see colleges effectively upselling.  The most obvious example of this is the number of colleges that you can now apply to, and whilst you don't get offered a place on their 3 year programme, you do get offered a place on their Foundation Course? Now to me this makes no sense. It's like going into a shop to buy bread and coming out with fabric conditioner. It's not what you were applying for, but somehow you've ended up buying it. These courses though are not cheap - you can expect to pay £7k-£10k for a Foundation course.

So to be clear you could end up paying in excess of £60K for your training at the end of it all (and that doesn't include your living expenses).

In addition to this several colleges are now charging extra for certain things - but things that you'd expect to be included in the price of the course. Extra charges for 1:1 singing lessons, 'show fees', where people are contributing to the cost of the shows, in other words we essentially have colleges offering a premium package, whereby if they pay extra you can take part in extra stuff.

All of the above really starts to add up - and nobody is regulating this industry!

In fairness to the colleges that run Foundation courses alongside their 3 year option, they all (as I understand it), make it really clear to the people on their course that there is no guarantee that they'll get onto their main programme at the end of the year?

So to go back to the beginning, you applied for one course, you weren't deemed ready for it, so they've offered you another one in a bid to improve your skillset, you've taken the course (because let's face it, that college was your first choice, so you're hoping to woo them over the course of the year), then at the end of the year the majority of people will be £10k poorer and still won't get into their first choice college. However that is now £10k that you've invested out of your 'training money'.

I understand that lots of people do the foundation courses as they're hoping that their skillset will improve so much they'll be more likely to receive some elusive DaDa funding. So they're essentially gambling with their money in a bid to secure funding for the next phase of their training.  Sadly for the majority of students on these courses though, this won't happen. So when they eventually DO get onto a 3 year programme (or like The MTA . . . a two year programme), they can no longer afford their training, as they spent it on the gamble.

Reading on line, students are turning down places on well respected courses because they've been offered a foundation course at their preferred college. I just don't get it though. I mean if you're from a 'money's no object' background, then do what you like, but a lot of these students are actually from backgrounds where parents are struggling to pay the fees.

I suppose the argument from the college's point of view is that if they were to call them back in order to specifically audition for their foundation courses, they would be costing the applicant more money in travel etc. But surely a every course is looking for something different?

Before everybody comments stating that their foundation course was amazing, and they wouldn't be where they were without it etc, let me be clear. I'm not dismissing the training and the value of a foundation course, I'm just not so keen on the fact that you end up being offered a course that you never applied for.  Maybe I'm wrong, maybe some colleges have something like a tick box on their application form asking you if you'd like to be considered for any of their courses? If so - bravo to them.

For those places who don't make it clear which course people are really going for though - maybe some transparency?

It's an uncomfortable truth that whilst 'we' at The MTA are getting people industry-ready in 2 years, some people are now doing 4 years or more in order to train to be a performer. The costs involved are huge. Just don't spend all of your savings on the gamble.