Choosing a school for a child with performing arts talents

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, Jamie Bell and Charlotte Church standing.

And for some extraordinary – though totally understandable – reason, everyone but us seems blind to our offspring’s God-given artistic gifts. But sometimes, just sometimes, mind, there’s true talent lurking behind that precocious façade, and while many Harry Styles and Billie Piper wannabes grow up and grow out of it, others continue to harbour hopes of life in a more public spotlight and start to show real promise. Whether it’s in music, dance or acting, such budding talent needs careful nurturing and that means finding the right educational environment in which it can flourish.

Is it right to define our children’s future at such a tender age?

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.

The advice given to young people who want to earn their living in the theatre is, first of all, to stay at school and complete their education at the highest possible level.

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

Does that sensible – though not entirely altruistic – statement actually warn parents and children not to put all their eggs in one basket at a specialist school but stick to the broader mix of any primary or secondary instead? It stresses the need for a sound basic education but, for the fortunate few who make the grade, specialist schools really can offer the best of both worlds. Whilst an acting career does not depend on early specialism, for those aiming at a classical dance career, professional early training is vital. For the right kind of child, this rich mix of artistic and solid academic training can be an absolute winner.

Choosing a school for a talented child

If you decide – usually with encouragement from teachers or other educational experts – that your pint-sized prodigy is not suited to ‘ordinary’ schools but needs a specialised environment to realise their full artistic potential, what does that mean?

It means attending a school where the arts aren’t merely seen as extras but actually constitute a sizeable slice of the educational cake. It means harmonising the three Rs with a full musical programme, creating a pas de deux of ballet and biology, learning lines as well as chemical formulae. It’s a lot to ask anyone to take on – let alone an eight-year-old. But it can, and undoubtedly does, work.

For all parents, choosing the right school is a hard task. You can thumb through glowing prospectuses, read between the lines of inspection reports, make personal visits and get an honest, in-depth – though by its very nature, partly subjective – warts ‘n’ all overview from our own worthy publication. But only time and experience will really tell whether your choice – be it private, state, or specialist – is right in the long run. Add to that the pressure of making possible life-moulding decisions for your children in the case of specialist music, dance or stage schools and you quickly begin to realise that the earlier difficult choice borders on the near impossible.

Remember that our own 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: or 0203 286 6824.

We review a large number of excellent specialist stage, dance and music orientated schools. Some are more specialist than others.

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. Less hard-core and tunnel-visioned than other music schools, its 530 senior school pupils include 40 choristers who rehearse five mornings a week before school as well as alternate Friday afternoons, plus singing in services. Its music is, of course, fabulous, but it is the only music school that allows its musicians to play in school games teams – indeed the only music school that has games teams. It is no slouch on the academic front either, with around half of GCSEs and A levels graded A*/A.

Then there’s the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey. With just 75 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. Virtually all go on to conservatoires. Whilst Wells Cathedral feels like a ‘normal’ school, and your 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.

The path to a school place

Low school rolls mean over-subscription and the selection process brings camels and eyes of needles very much to mind. There are entrance exams, auditions and interviews. Competition is phenomenal for the few places up for grabs, so schools will obviously be looking for children with exceptional potential and ability.

The fact that little Ellie can stand up in front of Great Aunt Bess and belt out ‘The Sun’ll Be Out Tomorrow’ with all the force of a hurricane is not necessarily a reliable indicator of true talent or audition success.

These schools pick the best and expect nothing but the best in return. Elmhurst School for Dance and Performing Arts counts Jenny Agutter, Helen Baxendale, Sarah Brightman, Fiona Fullerton and Hayley and Juliet Mills amongst its old girls. No shortage of talent in what claims to be probably the oldest vocational dance school in the country. Excellence in dance tops this school’s list of goals, followed by high quality broad-based academic education and a happy, healthy, well-motivated community both at work and play. Girls and boys are accepted between the ages of 11 and 13, and again at 16. And its reputation, not surprisingly, attracts teenagers from all over the world. As we say, ‘Something about the absolute dedication to a highly disciplined vocation infuses the whole place.’ But alongside this is the possibility of heartache if your teenager is advised at 14 or 16 that he or she is not going to make the grade and needs to move elsewhere – a common factor of dance schools.

Tring Park School for the Performing Arts – described by composer Howard Goodall as ‘unique’ and uncompromising ‘with regard to high standards’ – also has strict conditions of entry. Hopeful pupils, aged 13 or under, must take a piece of art work to an all-day audition. During the morning they will take part in a dance class, recite a poem, sing a song and play an instrument, where appropriate. The afternoon is devoted to academic matters with tests in maths and English. More will be asked of older students wanting admission to the senior school. But the school is quick to point out:

‘This is not a ‘passing and failing exercise’ but an attempt to build up a picture of you and therefore for us to decide whether Tring Park is the school for you! (And for you to decide whether you like us!)’

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 – help is at hand. Bursaries and scholarships are always on offer. And the Government too has put its hand in its pocket to fund places at some specialist schools up and down the country.

The music and dance scheme. This provides means-tested aided places for over 700 boys and girls with outstanding talent in music or ballet. Children aged 8 and over (or 11 in the case of dance schools) can be considered for fund aid and, if successful, will receive specialist training alongside a good academic education without breaking the bank.

The scheme covers eight specialist independent schools in England – four music and four dance. They are:

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.

The Royal Ballet School is at pains to point out:

‘No potential pupil or student should be discouraged by lack of financial means from making application to the School.’

Choir Schools

There are 44 altogether in the Choir Schools’ Association – these are schools attached to cathedrals, churches and college chapels. Just over 1,000 of the 15,000 girls and boys there are choristers (NB many still only have boy choristers), and the mere fact they are choristers has major implications as far as fees are concerned. In fact the CSA web site makes much of this. ‘If you know a child who enjoys singing we have news for you,’ it trumpets. ‘He or she just might qualify for one of the most exciting education bargains currently available to 7-13 year olds.’ It goes on:

‘There is every chance fees can be found for the child who sings well, who really wants to be a chorister and whose parents genuinely cannot find the money.’

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. But it should be remembered that the demands on choristers are high. A cut-price education is a high price to pay if your child buckles under the strain as lengthy rehearsals and interrupted holidays – choristers are needed at Christmas and Easter, for example – take their toll in the battle to keep up with classmates in maths, French and history.

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 around half its leavers to Winchester College, many with music scholarships.

But, at the end of the day, if the whole concept of specialist schooling leaves you feeling slightly overwhelmed, it’s worth remembering that there’s a great deal of excellence to be found in mainstream schools – and The Good Schools Guide records many examples of it. Though large parts of the state system are an artistic desert, there are oases of extraordinary achievement despite cuts in Government funding. Well, it’s a start, anyway.