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Jackie Clune: The class ceiling

On 26 November Equity Councillor Jackie Clune spoke at the launch of the Performers' Alliance APPG inquiry into the decline of social mobility in the creative industry. You can read more about the inquiry here.

I am speaking today as an Equity Councillor and Vice chair of the Equity
Stage Committee. I am an actor and writer, born and bred in Essex, the third
of four children born to Irish immigrants to this country, raised on a council
estate in a post-war new town which my parents were always grateful for. I
went to a mixed comprehensive school during the late 70s/early 80s - it
wasn’t great, and expectations were low. I was one of only three people from
my year who went to University - and that was a bumper year. There wasn’t
much to do where I lived (if you weren’t into glue sniffing) - apart from the
local theatre. It was a brutalist beauty of a building rising up from the
roundabouts and local shopping centres like a beacon of hope, a place of
enlightenment and somewhere to hang out with like minded friends. That
theatre saved me. There was no drama at my school, just a couple of
extraordinary teachers who helped me to love literature and art, and
encouraged my theatrical hopes. I was lucky to have them. I went to the
youth theatre and never looked back. I think it was 50p. From there I went to
university to study drama, where I was made aware for the first time that I
was working class. It had never really occurred to me. I had a full grant.
Imagine that! A GRANT! I left with a first class degree. I’ve now been in the
profession for thirty years and have worked in all sorts of different areas -
musicals, film and television, all female Shakespeare, stand up comedy and
cabaret.

I can’t help thinking that if I were young now, I would not have such
opportunities. I managed to carve out what, in optimistic moments, I refer to
as ‘my career’ because I was lucky enough to be a recipient of free
education and government sponsorship of the arts. These things don’t exist
in any real way any more - not for people like me. Working class access to
creating and enjoying art is a leaky pipe that needs fixing if the cultural life of
this country is not to become the sole preserve of the privileged few - an
outcome which is looking ever more likely. It is my view that this
impoverishes us - not only as individuals but also as a nation.

The class ceiling is not just a neat pun on a metaphor to establish gender
inequality in the work place - it is real. It is cultural of course - working class
children still don’t perceive theatres as places that are ‘for them’, a barrier
which many education departments in theatres strive hard to break down.
Its also cultural because over the past twenty years the function of education
has been re-framed.

The obsession with results, with academic performance in ‘core subjects’,
with turning educational institutions into businesses, has had a devastating
effect on the arts for young people. If you are at a school which is largely
populated by children from low economic groups, chances are you won’t
have much drama provision because it is not a priority. Along with music and
art, drama is not seen as a helpful or necessary subject. It doesn’t score
highly on University application forms, the income levels of its graduates are
not great - in short, the value of the arts in education has been reduced to
their low income projections and their kudos on higher education forms. Who
knows how many gifted writers, actors and directors we lose before they
even leave secondary school?

But the leaky pipe is also down to one ugly truth - money. If you want to
study drama or acting these days you are agreeing to an average graduate
debt of £50,800.

Many working class kids just can’t entertain the idea of taking on such
mammoth debt. This, coupled with the typically low income of actors post-training,

precludes most people from humble backgrounds and favours the
middle class student with parental financial back-up. These students are
cushioned by their privilege from day one - they have had tutors, gone to
private schools, had private music lessons and will never know what its like
to have nothing to eat and nowhere to turn. A survey in 2014 found that just
one in 50 actors makes over £20k per year. If you don’t have financial back
up how can you survive? By working in low paid jobs that exhaust you and
often don’t give you leave to audition, learn lines for castings, take time out
to attend classes and keep growing as an artist. More leakage is common at
this point, as working class people simply cannot afford to fight on.

If you are determined enough - after your poor arts education in Academy
business franchises and your hugely costly training - you might just make it
into the industry. And what do you find there? A different kind of class ceiling
where you will be stereotyped, sent downstairs forever and told, as I was, to
‘lose the estuary vowels’ if you want to make it. Our cultural obsession with
posh people and their history, their privilege and families is relentless. Why?
Because the people commissioning the series, the people writing the plays,
the people acting in them are by and large all the product of the same
privileged unleaky pipe.

Of course like all things the issue is intersectional. If you are black, a woman,
disabled in any way AND working class, your odds are even worse. Working
class people are being priced out, written out of the arts. Its an inevitable
consequence of a system and a fiscal policy which fails to recognise the
markers of a truly beautiful society in which we reflect on, inform about,
discuss with and educate each other. In which we give voice and meaning to
the human condition.

The answers are of course both complex and simple.

  • drama in schools is so important. Reinstate it as a matter of urgency. It
    should be like PE and RE. Similarly reward teachers training in the arts -
    stop prioritising science teachers, who not only get free PGCE training but
    also get a £20K bursary.
  • funding for working class actors going to drama school. The work of the
    charity Common is wonderful but they need more - they fund working
    class applications to drama school, provide coaching for auditions etc Why
    not supply grants, or reinstate the auditions for scholarships?
  • lobbying of government to support theatres providing outreach work to
    schools - in January I’ll be part of the Donmar theatre’s education
    department outreach programme where we will be travelling the country
    visiting schools with the films we made of the Donmar’s acclaimed all
    female Shakespeare trilogy. This is largely funded by private businesses
    (relatively easy to attract in a shiny West End venue like the Donmar) but it should be possible everywhere. London is not where everyone lives. All
    theatres should be reaching the schools and communities hard hit by
    educational cuts, and offer content where otherwise there is none. To do
    this they need money. Real money. Arts funding is the biggest misnomer - the arts are an investment, both in real terms and in terms of our nation.

If these educational leaks can be fixed then our culture will be enriched and
more diverse - and more truly reflective of who we are, who we dream we
could be and who we aim to be in the future.