Pete Fraser: WAC Funding Cuts – An Illogical Act of Social and Cultural Vandalism

Posted on April 2, 2011 by

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The other day, in the wake of government cuts to The Arts Council, WAC Performing Arts and Media College lost 100% of its relatively modest annual allowance, seriously threatening its future and making the closure of both of its junior and senior departments within the next year a very real possibility.

WAC was founded just over 30 years ago by Celia Greenwood, offering low-cost, high-quality drama classes to young people from low income families. Since then, WAC has grown into an institution that offers all kinds of arts education to students aged 5-25, many of whom follow the course from the very beginning into adulthood. Classes have been kept as cheap as possible, and still typically cost £1.50 per session (under the tutelage of arts professionals, paid at normal rates) and, for those from backgrounds where even £6 a month seems unmanageable, there are bursaries available to make sure that, if anyone is left out, it won’t be because of their background.

I first signed up as a student at senior WAC’s music class in response to frequent encouragements from my musical mentors Nikki Yeoh, Jack C Arnold and Mark and Michael Mondesir (as well as many of my musical contemporaries who were already signed up), all of whom spoke in hallowed tones of the classes they took under the late British Jazz legend Ian Carr, and how they’d shaped (or were in the process of shaping) the way they played, composed and approached music in general. Ian’s classes were unlike anything I’d experienced at that stage of my life, for reasons that there isn’t space to go into in enough detail here (just a collection of ‘Ian Quotes’ would represent a hefty blog entry of its own) but it’s worth saying that, rather than taking a professorial approach, Ian treated us as side-men (and women) in his own band, bestowing information on us not as not as a teacher at the front of a class, but as a true mentor and bandleader and, when Ian eventually retired, his successor Tim Whitehead continued to pass on knowledge in a similar way; every word vital, exciting, inspiring and, most importantly, never patronising. When I went on to teach at WAC myself, I realised that this was very much its signature style of teaching young people (not ‘kids’. Never ‘kids’) and I made every attempt to make my own approaches as convivial, friendly and open.

My own experience, however, is not why WAC’s funding being pulled is such a disaster; as an institute, it functions not just as a facilitator of brilliance (which, incidentally, it’s stellar list of alumni, who feature on nominations lists for  any number of Brits, Mercurys, Mobos, Tonys, Baftas and Oscars must attest to. More on them later), but as much, much more; 80% of students at WAC come from families who wouldn’t be in a position to send them other Arts Institutions whose fees can often run to sums that would be, to put it mildly, far from practical for parents on a low income. Far from being a training ground for fame, WAC has been a haven for young people for whom the social skills and confidence that are inextricably linked to learning to play an instrument, sing, act, dance or direct a short film haven’t necessarily been nurtured in the same way as for those who have been able to take for granted all those things. WAC is not a youth club, and does far, far more than just Take Kids Off The Streets for an afternoon each weekend, but it does provide a healthy, educational, inspirational and worthwhile experience at the same time as being taken off the hands of often overworked, underpaid parents who can be happy in the knowledge that their children are in a safe and happy environment. Seriously, just read through some of the comments on the petition linked below and see how often words to the effect of ‘safe environment’ are mentioned, and you’ll begin to realise that this unique college is about much more than learning to sing and dance.

I suppose a common counter-argument is that, though it’s sad and unfair that poorer young people might miss out, in a time of austerity, Arts Education is a luxury that we can’t afford to subsidise. Common it may be, but it’s wrong; there are often quoted studies that show that, for each pound invested in the arts, more pounds come back, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that educating people who, representing the UK, work in a truly international area of commerce, continuing to sell tickets, write soundtracks, direct, produce, act in and generally better pieces of work which pour revenue and investment into our domestic economy must be a good thing. That’s obvious.

So, an institute which nurtures the talent, confidence and social skills of young people, the majority of whom are from underpriviledged families, from the age of 5-25, keeping them from less wholesome pursuits and preparing them for a life in, or outside the arts in a genuinely caring way faces closure thanks to a cut of £109,000 per year? This despite the Arts Council saying of WAC “[its] list of alumni is impressive and the scale of delivery makes it an important contributor in delivering training opportunities to children and young people with least opportunities“? Does that seem fair, or conducive to a Bigger Society, after 30 years spent building and bettering its services?

If you think not, please, please sign THIS PETITION (you can skip the donation section if you like; registering your disagreement is the most important thing) in the hope that more young people will continue to be offered the chances that I, and many of my contemporaries have enjoyed.

Other organisations have had funding cut reprieves, so every one of your signatures counts.

Pete Fraser

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