Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Pledge Watch: More Billy Elliots

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News

Politicians love announcing new initiatives. In this series we pluck a pledge from the archives. And see what happened next...

Scene from Billy Elliot
Billy Elliot had to leave his home town to pursue his ambition

Billy Elliot is a film that has moved millions of people.

It shows the struggle of a boy, growing up in north-east England during the miners' strike of the mid-1980s, to overcome poverty and prejudice to fulfil his dream of becoming a ballet dancer.

Billy eventually succeeds, leaving his family to study in London and become a leading professional.

The Bafta-winning film has become a byword for youthful hope against the odds since its release in 2000.

Politicians, unsurprisingly, have been keen to use its message of optimism.

Among them was David Miliband, then schools minister, who promised in March 2004 that more young people in England, whatever their situation, would get the chance to emulate Billy.

'Enjoy the benefit'

He announced four centres for advanced dance training would be set up in Gateshead, Leeds and London.

Mr Miliband said: "We all remember the character of Billy Elliot leaving his hometown to train in London.

"I want to extend these opportunities to children similar to the character of Billy so they can enjoy the benefit of excellent training but still go to their local school and remain active participants in local artistic communities, without having to leave home."

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn
Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn's partnership helped popularise ballet

Means-tested grants were to provide between £600 and £3,000 a year for tuition out of school hours for children who passed the auditions.

Those on family incomes below £25,000 would get the full amount, with partial grants for those with household earnings of up to £50,000.

So, has the government's Centres for Advanced Training (CATs) scheme matched up to Mr Miliband's promise?

Caroline Miller, director of the lobby group Dance UK, said: "The whole ethos has definitely changed. Before there was just a complete lack of respect from government.

"There was never really a recognition of the role dance could play in young people's lives. That has shifted.

"The CATs have proved very popular. They offer a level of training that's extremely high, with top professionals involved.

"It's a different environment and a different type of education to what was available before. It makes high-quality dance training available to young people who might not have had it before."

'Best available'

The officially commissioned Hall Review, published in January 2007, backed a nationwide roll-out of Centres for Advanced Training providing dance.

In its response, the government said it would provide 11 by 2011. There are currently nine.

In the response document, the government said: "The CATs provide children with local access to the best available teaching and facilities alongside strong links with the dance profession and higher level training."

It added that "the CATs are now making a real impact on improving access to provision for the most talented children, creating routes for progression that respond to the different needs of today's talented young people and laying the foundations for the future excellence and vitality of the artform.

"We will continue to support this initiative."

'Physical abuse'

The government has promised to maintain funding for Centres for Advanced Training with a combined budget this year of £5.8m for music and dance teaching.

In addition, in 2008, it announced £5.5m funding for the Youth Dance England organisation to go into schools to promote dance.

Money is in place to ensure future Billy Elliots do not have to travel hundreds of miles to realise their dream of becoming professional dancers.

But his journey was cultural too - from a macho, impoverished background to a world seen as elitist and "cissy" by his own family.

Kenneth Tharp
It's a shame that we've got so much talent out there that's going to waste
Kenneth Tharp, choreographer

In a report in June last year, the Department for Children, suggested CATs were helping to change perceptions.

A case study of one young man said: "Craig is the real 'Billy Elliot'. Living and attending school in Blyth [Northumberland], Craig has had to struggle to maintain his activities in dance facing verbal and occasional physical abuse from his peers.

"His passion for dance, along with his persevering character and outstanding talent, has led to a culture change, not only in his school, but in the Blyth community.

"As a result of Craig's success within the Dance City CAT [in Newcastle], coupled with our outreach work and Foundation Programme, dance has become 'cool', with a much larger percentage of boys taking part."

Often, bravery is still required for a young man to take up ballet.

Former choreographer Kenneth Tharp is chief executive of The Place dance centre in London, which is part of the CATs scheme.

'Several talents'

He said: "It's been remarkably successful. We are seeing the first big systematic investment in dance.

"It's a shame that we've got so much talent out there that's going to waste."

He added: "Young people who have one talent often have another or several others. Someone who starts at a CAT might end up thinking that it's not the professional life for them. They could end up as a musician, a doctor, anything.

"So it's better this way, where they have opportunities to do other things, rather than getting halfway through a full-time course, possibly away from home, and realising it's not for them."

Mr Tharp said: "The two key things we want are accessibility and excellence. It's not just for the highly talented, but everybody. We are trying to create pathways for young people.

"I always say that dance reaches the parts other things can't reach."

'Talent to rise'

But the true benchmark for this young scheme remains: a generation of dancers coming from places the artform could not previously reach.

As the oldest people to have taken part are now in their early twenties, we should find out how successful they are soon.

A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "CATs are making a real difference to the training opportunities and life chances of talented young dancers in a range of genres and enabling the standards of Britain's young talent to be raised to be able to compete internationally.

"They provide greater opportunities for exceptionally talented children to access world-class training and facilities close to home."

Whether or not CATs turn opportunity into careers, they should at least make this humorous exchange between Billy Elliot and his father, shortly before the boy departs for the Royal Ballet School, less likely.

Billy: I think I'm scared, Dad.

Dad: That's OK, son. We're all scared.

Billy: Well... if I don't like it, can I still come back?

Dad: Are you kidding? We've let out your room. (Laughter)

Here is a selection of your comments:

My 14-year-old son is dancing in the Ipswich CAT. it is an incredible experience and he is receiving a level of training that would not be possible in the rural area in which we live. It will enable him to go on to complete his dance training at degree level and dance professionally. The funding has been essential to us as we are not in a financial position to be able to afford training of this level. A wonderful scheme. More people need to be made aware of it .
Liz Withington, Sheringham

I run a dancing school in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and teach a few promising boys. No way have any of them been helped or inspired by this programme...nor has anyone ever contacted me with the vision of making dance more accessible to boys...I wish!
Jane Keenan, Berwick-upon-Tweed

The real constraint is the weakness of the market for these performing arts - as we as a nation intellectually and spiritually disappear into the TV screen. We simply do not have the same tastes as more 'culturally' inclined nations, e.g. France. It just does not "float our collective boat"!
John Heaps, Reading, England

So many talented dancers have slipped through the net in the past but the CAT scheme has created more opportunities for really talented children to train whilst still living at home. It's great to see dance thriving up and down the country, especially in the North where opportunities have been limited in the past. The CAT schemes are creating not only the dancers of the future but also more audiences for dance. We all know that talent needs to be inspired and encouraged. The CAT scheme is perfect for this.
Hannah Kirkpatrick, Leeds

The CATs have been a really welcome creation of the government's Music and Dance Scheme and have opened up many genres of dance to a large number of children and young people in this country. The training and opportunities they offer are exactly right for many. As principal of one of the nine specialist music and dance residential schools I should like to comment that for other aspiring dancers and musicians the residential schools offer an alternative and equally valid pathway providing training and a home away from home environment. Not infrequently some of the most talented children, rather like Billy, come from difficult, unhappy, or deprived families and the residential schools can provide a safe "family" for those children as well as developing their talent. The most important point, however, is that the residential full-time schools and Centres for Advanced Training, under the umbrella of the Music and Dance Scheme, are working together to provide the very best opportunities in music and dance to the young people of this country.
Stefan Anderson, Tring, Hertfordshire, UK

CAT at The Place has been inspirational - now we have to sweat on the results of the degree-level auditions it's led to...
Jon Churchill, London, UK

Another example of the popularity of dance for young people is the great success in the provinces of English Youth Ballet. It provides hundreds of young dancers with a truly professional performance experience while also developing a new audience for dance.
PNL, Derbyshire, UK

Pledge watch - great idea! I suspect you might be highlighting the pledges that actually materialised whereas it would be more entertaining to hear about the plethora that don't.
Stuart Jones, Great Missenden, UK



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