Performance training vs academics: the challenges of arts school

Principal Stefan Anderson

A rounded education makes you a more versatile performer – principal Stefan Anderson discusses his approach to leading a specialist arts school.

Stefan Anderson is principal at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, an independent school that specialises in dance, drama, musical theatre and music education for ages 8-18.

What challenges do you face leading a specialist arts school?

It's balancing the demands of the performing arts training with the academic side of the school. In a place like this, trying to make sure one has an overview of all the different myriads of education going on at the school, as well as the pastoral side of things. We're not a one specialism school. There are specialist music schools and specialist dance schools that do academic work as well, but we have four disciplines: dance, drama, musical theatre and commercial music and we have the academic side of things. Because we're a boarding school this is also, for many weeks of the year, students' home and we are in effect their parents.

Your teachers come from a range of backgrounds – many having worked in the arts industries – how do you ensure that they're all on the same page?

I trust my directors to lead their departments in an appropriate way. Each area – dance, drama and so on – is headed by a director. Inevitably there are things that one has to get involved in that perhaps one would rather not, but my philosophy is to let the people leading those departments do their jobs. When I was a teacher I appreciated my managers saying, "Ok we trust you to get on with things". Of course you'll need to steer people, but I'm not a dance specialist, for example, so I'm not the person who should dictate what the curriculum should look like in that area.

Do you feel that arts subjects such as music are recognised as academically rigorous?

A lot of people do not consider music to be, but as someone who has taught A-level music for more years than I care to remember, I can say it is an academic subject. There is a practical side to it, but it is academic too. One of the expressions of our former director of academic studies is, "a well-educated performer makes for a better performer". You don't have to be the world's greatest mathematician to be a performer, but having a good, rounded education makes you more versatile. Someone who has had to think, explore, and study things outside of the performing arts is better. It's the thoughtfulness that performers bring to the role that matters.

Are you concerned by the exclusion of arts subjects from the Ebacc measure?

I went to a school in Canada where the arts were strong, but mostly an extra-curricular thing. It is possible to turn out people with performing arts careers who do their training in that way, but music, dance can enrich people's lives even if they're not going to pursue them as a career.

If you rely on extra-curricular activities to provide access to the arts, then cost can be a barrier too – particularly in music where you've got to buy a piano to practise on or pay for one-to-one lessons. Interestingly, at Tring Park, we have students from a whole range of economic backgrounds studying dance. Unlike music, you don't have to buy an instrument and you can have group lessons rather than individual ones.

Although our fees are similar to fees of independent boarding schools, where we differ is that we get a significant amount of funding for scholarships from the government through the department for education and the music and dance scheme at post-16 level. We also subsidise very heavily through school scholarships in musical theatre and drama.

One of your former students, Ella Henderson, made it to the final of the X-Factor. Are talent competitions helping raise the profile of the performing arts?

Programmes like Strictly and X-Factor has certainly made those arts more popular and accessible to a wider audience, which is terrific. But to be truthful, I think there's sometimes a danger that younger people – or for that matter, older people who are nurturing younger people – think that you can become successful overnight and just get your 15 minutes of fame. There are young people who end up being very disappointed when they realise that, actually, to be successful you have to put in hours and hours of training. There have been lots of musicians, Benjamin Britten, for example, who when asked what the secret of their success, replied is: "90% perspiration, and 10% inspiration." There's a lot of truth in that.

How can we counter the "15 minutes of fame" effect?

You've got to have a proper programme of music or dance where you expose children to those disciplines in a methodical and serious way. It can't just be a surface approach where they study music for 20 mins every two weeks, because you can't really get any taste for a discipline in that sort of time.

For the teachers that I know in the maintained sector who are teaching drama, dance or music there's a lot of variation. I know some teachers who have a great deal to give but feel frustrated by the time constraints – others are doing fantastic work because their head supports the arts.

What advice do you have for teachers who aspire to work in a leadership position at a specialist arts school?

On the way to that position, do as much as you can creatively. And don't be afraid, as I was, to move out of your comfort zone. Perhaps the more logical step for me, as a former director of music would have been to lead a specialist music school. I came to a school that specialises in dance as well, about which I know virtually nothing – I think I'd seen Nutcracker twice as a kid. But I found it incredibly interesting to move into something that's similar but not my own speciality. You can get very locked into your own discipline.

Dance Schools Interviews Tring Park School for the Performing Arts