Labour’s Acting Up inquiry says it’s time to bring the curtain down on middle class dominance in the performing arts

Labour’s Acting Up inquiry led by Gloria De Piero MP and Tracy Brabin MP have today released its final report including policy recommendations to make the performing arts more accessible and diverse.

Tom Watson, Labour’s Deputy Leader and Shadow Culture Secretary commissioned the inquiry in response to increasing concern about poor diversity and access within the performing arts.

The inquiry found that although concern about access and diversity in the performing arts was widespread there was a ‘class shaped hole’ in the debate that needs to be addressed. Looking at protected characteristics is critical but so too is looking at socio-economic background, which strongly intersects with protected characteristics like race and disability.

A recent paper by academics from LSE and the University of Edinburgh found that just 16% of actors come from a working class background whereas 51% have a privileged background. This compares to 33% of the population who have a working class background and 29% from privileged backgrounds.

Key findings of the report:

  • Arts Education in schools: You can’t climb the ladder if you don’t even know the ladder exists. The EBacc has led to the systematic marginalisation of arts subjects, particularly drama, in schools. Research for the inquiry by the House of Commons Library found that since the introduction of the EBacc in 2010 uptake of drama GCSE had fallen 15.9%, drama A Level by 26% and the number of drama teachers fallen by 1,700 since 2010. Arts education, and drama particularly, are being eradicated from our schools hitting access for working class kids hardest.
  • Recommendation: The EBacc measure should be revamped to recognise the benefits of creative subjects in tandem with the importance of core academic subjects. 
  • Drama School: Drama schools are too expensive to apply to and instances of racism and snobbishness inside them are too common. Audition fees of up to £100 are not justifiable when interviews at other universities including Oxford and Cambridge are free. The industry won’t change unless drama schools change.
  • Recommendation: A centralised UCAS based application process should be introduced for degree awarding institutions with a flat application fee.
  • Poverty Pay: The widespread culture of low and no pay in the performing arts is holding all but the most well off talent back. Poverty pay is the Government’s business and they have a responsibility to regulate the labour market. Fair pay is one of the foundations of fair access.
  • Recommendation: The Government should order a review into National Minimum Wage enforcement in the performing arts industry by HMRC. The review should look at illegal pay practices in the performing arts and ensure that the minimum wage is paid to those entitled to it.
  • Diversity behind the scenes: Off screen diversity is critical to on screen diversity. Without diverse writers, producers, directors, commissioners we won’t see diverse stories with diverse casts. To get to heart of the diversity debate we shouldn’t just be talking about the Benedicts and Edwards dominating our screens, we should look at the Hugos and Crispins dominating behind the scenes too.
  • Recommendation: Broadcasters, film companies and theatres need to do more to bring on and develop working class and diverse talent in all levels and roles behind the scenes, particularly those in receipt of public funds.
  • Diversity data collection: As the fallout following the BBC top pay release showed, nothing forces change like the facts. Diversity data is currently too patchy and often has a big hole where class data should be. Protected characteristic data collection is generally good because of the legal framework laid down by the Equalities Act 2010, a similar framework for socio-economic background would help class data collection. Without proper comprehensive data across film, theatre and TV, change will be slow.
  • Recommendation: We need to collect comprehensive diversity data across the sector with class background as an essential part of the data. Politicians should spearhead a move to recognise socio-economic disadvantage in law to ensure framework for that data collection.


Tracy Brabin MP said:

“Our performing arts are some of the best in the world and they should represent our whole nation, not just a privileged section of it.

“But the systematic eradication of arts education in schools, sky high drama school audition fees, chronic low pay and a lack of diversity behind the scenes are all contributing to a diversity crisis on our stages and screens.

“Cracking this crisis is political, we can’t just leave the industry to drive change. Things like poverty pay are the Government’s business and we need them to step into the void.”

Gloria De Piero MP, said:

“It’s not surprising that the focus has often been on who is on stage and screen, but we’ve got to look behind them to find the key to improving diversity in the industry. It’s not just about the Benedicts and Edwards on screen but the Hugos and Crispins behind the scenes too.

“Class ceilings are tough to smash but it is the responsibility of everyone in the industry to try. It’s time we brought the curtain down on white middle class dominance in the performing arts. These recommendations could help to do so.”

Rakie Ayola, Actor starring as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, said:

“It was a drama teacher at school in Wales that first spotted how much I loved the subject and encouraged me to go to drama club on a Saturday that cost me £1 a week. You’d never get that now.

“Too often schools discourage the arts, with the idea that if you stop kids doing music or drama they’ll all become bankers or doctors, it’s ridiculous. There are drama clubs on every corner where I live in Greenwich, but only if you can pay £25 a session.

“Maybe that’s why I so often look around a cast of 10 and realise I’m the only one that went to a state school. I’m not just a black woman, I’m a woman from a council estate in Cardiff. Class is important.

“This excellent report recognises that and raises the issues we need to talk about.

“If you ask everyone in the industry if they are for diversity they all put their hands up, but there comes a time when people need to say it out loud. That time is now.”