Why addressing cost improves access to the theatre for children and young people

Without free tickets, many schools would simply not attend.

For the last decade, Stratford East, in partnership with the London Borough of Newham, has been providing every Year 7 pupil in Newham with a free ticket to their pantomime. For many young people this is their first theatre visit and can act as a gateway – showing them the magic of theatre, but also showing them that their local theatre is there for them.  

As part of the scheme, Stratford East provides schools with an education pack designed to introduce young people to what pantomime is, and the traditions it is steeped in. Additional professional development is provided to teachers to underpin this.  

Cinderella at Stratford East (Photo by The Other Richard)

These visits have a transformative effect on the pupils that enjoy them. Feedback showed that, as a result of their visit, over 52% of pupils continue engaging with the creative arts. One teacher highlighted the value of informal learning outside of the classroom.  

The opportunity to visit the theatre is not available to all young people and their families. Another teacher remarked that “without the free tickets our students may never be able to experience live theatre. Many of our students are from deprived backgrounds and are barely able to leave the borough.” This shows just how important incentives and additional support are in improving access to the arts. 

These visits also have a vital role to play in engaging pupils with additional needs. One local teacher highlighted the vital role free tickets play in increasing engagement: “Our students all have EHCP’s for varying social emotional and mental health needs. They rarely get to go to school trips due to their behaviours or due to parental poverty or lack of funding in schools. The free ticket offer enabled us to give students their first taste of a theatre and its production and we wouldn’t have been able to do this without the generosity of free tickets.” 

Red Riding Hood at Stratford East (Photo by The Other Richard)

For many, these formative experiences spark a passion for theatre that continues into later life. Feedback from pupils showed that 89% students were interested in attending more productions and 45% students were interested in participating in theatre activities after their visit. 

For local schools, cost is a major barrier in providing theatre trips for young people. The cost of tickets is one factor, but other costs include transport and teacher cover. In Newham, 56% of schools only go to the theatre once a year, and often this is when free tickets are provided. Without these generous offers, many schools simply would not attend.  

There is increasing pressure on school budgets and on teaching time. Some local primary schools are no longer able to visit the theatre. However, the same trend is not being seen for private schools, highlighting the inequality that can exist within one London borough. The ability of schools to find the budget and resource needed to support a visit is key in determining whether pupils can visit the theatre. 

At Stratford East, the opportunity for young people to visit a production is important for other reasons. Newham is ethnically and culturally diverse and Stratford East productions are deliberately cast with diverse performers. Many children remark on how much they valued seeing people like them on the stage. This is crucial in breaking down perceptions that the theatre is ‘exclusive’ and ‘not for us.’ 

Red Riding Hood at Stratford East (Photo by The Other Richard)

Critical to the success of the scheme has been providing free access to the theatre via schools, rather than through parents/carers. It ensures equity of access for all young people, supports schools to diversify their teaching opportunities and is a simpler way to eliminate the cost barrier. However, Stratford East has seen that parental support for the theatre flows from the child’s visit – as a result of them coming home enthused by what they have experienced. 

While many theatres already subsidise school tickets, there is a limit to what can be done in the face of ongoing funding reductions. A partnership between government departments – including culture and education – and theatres could ‘turbo-charge’ what is already possible.  

In areas like Newham, free tickets are the only way to ensure all children and young people can access the theatre. Additional Government support would make all the difference for those pupils and make a scheme like this viable for schools and theatres. An investment such as this, would be an investment in our young people’s aspirations, in the audiences of the future and in the diverse creative workforce that the sector needs. 

by Eleanor Lang, Executive Director, Stratford East

Society of London Theatre & UK Theatre believe that every child has the right to experience and enjoy our country’s culture and world-leading theatre, so we will be asking political parties to commit to providing funding and support for our aim in their general election manifestos – that every child goes to the theatre by the time they leave school.

Find out more about our Theatre for Every Child Campaign at theatreforeverychild.org


Join our network of theatre professionals