Sarah Cassidy reports on Start - an initiative to link young people from deprived backgrounds with the arts - and how it is capturing young hearts and minds.
On a cold winter's day in east London a class of eight- and nine-year-olds are wrestling with some big questions. Is it right to steal from the rich to give to the poor? Should someone's choice of job be restricted because of their gender? These are just some of the issues thrown up for the children after watching a production of Robin Hood.
The previous day the children, from Nightingale Primary School in Woolwich, south-east London, could be found laughing uproariously at the show at Greenwich and Lewisham Young Person's Theatre, which they attended for free as part of a groundbreaking programme which aims to bring the arts to children from deprived backgrounds.
Research shows that the numbers of primary school-age children visiting theatres, galleries and museums have plummeted over the past five years. But the situation is worst for children from poor backgrounds and thousands of them leave school without ever having set foot in one of these establishments.
Government statistics show that the number of children going to the theatre has fallen from just under half in 2008-09 to fewer than a third last year. Only 30 per cent of primary pupils engaged in dance activities in 2013-14 (compared to 43 per cent in 2008-09), while 37.2 per cent partook in a musical activity out of school (down from 55.3 per cent five years earlier).
The Start programme aims to counter this decline by linking participating schools with local arts venues and funding a programme of activities which take pupils to visit theatres, galleries and museums and sends artists back into the schools. The programme has linked leading venues such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings with schools in deprived areas.
The scheme was set up in 2006 by The Prince's Foundation for Children & the Arts – a charity founded by Prince Charles after he visited a pupil referral unit in Birmingham and found children studying Romeo and Juliet without ever having seen the play.
At Nightingale School, in one of the UK's most deprived wards, very few pupils had ever been to a theatre before their school joined the programme. Under the scheme they will watch performances at the theatre and take part in follow-up workshops.