Proven strategies for retaining students

A guide for performing arts academies

Tried and tested approaches from academy principals 

With reduced provision for the arts in many schools, the role of performing arts academies is more important than ever for nurturing young talent. We have spoken to principals from leading performing arts academies across the UK to bring you this free resource, full of advice on how you can sustain and grow your business - so that your academy can continue to thrive. 

Keeping students engaged

Principals of leading performing arts academies share how they motivate students to continue attending their classes each week by inspiring and supporting them to achieve their goals. 

Parental engagement

Explore the approaches performing arts academies take to engaging parents, learn how they make their offer more accessible, and the importance of celebrating students' achievements.

The role of graded exams

Graded exams not only demonstrate progress to parents. Find out how they can support with university applications and help students to improve their exam technique and study skills.

Student motivation

Keeping students motivated and engaged is the key to student retention. Of course, the aim of all principals and tutors is that students enjoy their classes and have a positive experience, leaving with a smile each week and looking forward to the next. Getting this right on a day-to-day level will help to create an environment where students’ talents are nurtured and they are motivated to stay in the long-term and develop life-long skills. 

Plus, if students are enjoying their classes then their younger siblings are more likely to start showing an interest. Similarly, if parents can see the value then they will want the same for all their children - and be more likely to recommend your services to their friends and extended family. 

'Most students stay for many years developing their skills with maturity. These skills are like a baton passed to younger students. They also inspire siblings to join them. We always hope to keep our numbers buoyant especially in these stringent economic times, for our survival.' Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix 

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Why is student retention important?

If you’re providing your services largely to a static group of families who live nearby enough to travel to your classes each week, then having a retention strategy is crucial to the survival and growth of your academy. As Brenda Whitehead, Principal of Big Red Curtain Performing Arts, says, you are providing a vital service to your students which they simply can’t get elsewhere:

'We offer the students the opportunity to develop their skills in the arts which cannot be done in mainstream schools. As we receive no funding it is vitally important to be able to continue our work and to ensure new students come through our doors and we can thus engage and develop their abilities and talents.'

Nurturing young talent takes time, so the longer your students stay with you, the more likely they will be to reach their full potential:

'Consistency and sustained activity are essential to cognitive development. The longer they stay with us, the more successful the learning and teaching impact.' Anna McNamara - Principal, The Guildford Theatre School

Shelley Lowry, founder of the Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama agrees:

'Student retention is vital. We apply a bespoke mentoring strategy to each student; helping them to develop their individual performance or communication skills to their fullest potential. This takes time and the best results are achieved when a student attends our classes for three academic years or more.'

Hannah Potter, Manager of Jigsaw Plumstead and Jigsaw Deptford Bridge emphasizes the positive impact that good student retention can have on the culture at your academy:

'This is a reflection that the children are enjoying the sessions and like being at the schools, which in turn means you are running the business successfully. It also creates a very positive environment within the school, because every student really wants to be there and take part. Which makes the work even stronger.'

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Big Red Curtain Performing Arts - photo by Roger V Moody

Inspiring students 

How you inspire your students will largely depend on what really resonates with them, but one common theme which emerged from our research when talking to successful academy leaders was inputting learning into a ‘real’ context or a professional setting for students. In doing this, you give students a taste of what life is like as a professional in the performing arts as well as something to aspire to. By putting your students in a professional setting, you are holding them to a higher standard and challenging them to raise their game.

At Big Red Curtain Performing Arts, all students are given the opportunity to be involved in a professional show:

'Each year all students have the opportunity to be involved in a professional show at one of the major theatres in Leeds, culminated in a performance. It gives all our students beneficial experience of bringing a show to the stage.'  Brenda Whitehead - Principal, Big Red Curtain Performing Arts

Students at the Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama get involved in every aspect of putting on a professional performance, from devising the script to running technical rehearsals:

'We devise our own scripts to perform in local theatres. This is so important for our students as they learn how to develop character, the importance of physicality, working in a team and of adhering to schedules and timelines. They also get to see how a professional theatre works - such as Health and Safety during the tech rehearsal and performances. Plus the thrill of performing live theatre and the audience reaction can not be replicated!' Shelley Lowry -  Founder, The Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

In addition to giving students a taste of performing in a professional theatre, some academies also run their own casting agencies for those who want to take their work to the next level or are considering pursuing a career in the performing arts.

As well as being inspired by real experiences and pushed to meet increasingly higher standards, students need to feel that they are being rewarded and recognised for their work. Hannah Potter, Manager of Jigsaw Academy suggests using certificates to celebrate student’s achievements and to motivate them to continue attending:

'Certificates are a fantastic way to reward our students for their loyalty and commitment to Jigsaw. Students receive a certificate once they have completed three terms. Once they complete nine or more terms they also receive medals and trophies. This gives the students a great sense of achievement.'

Brenda Whitehead runs an annual event dedicated to celebrating students’ achievements from over the course of the year:

'In the summer term we have our annual presentation of awards where 300/350 of our students, friends and family culminate at The Queens Hotel Leeds for an afternoon of performances and awards. Last year’s theme was The Greatest Show and we built a circus tent and provided all costumes and the children performed and received awards - our students say it’s the best afternoon of the year' 

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Being supportive of each student

Students are far more likely to stay if they feel supported, and know that their individual needs will be respected and catered for. Shelley Lowry says it is this supportive approach that contributes to students attending for longer:

'Most students stay with us for many years. They stay because we care about their individual needs, providing a positive and nurturing environment where every student feels supported and welcome. Students feel safe to express themselves without fear of judgement or reprisal. Their individual performance styles and skills are celebrated and developed.'

Good communication is key, and keeping an open dialogue with students puts teachers in a better position to help them to achieve their goals. 

Shelley Lowry stresses that it is also important to acknowledge when students are struggling with external pressures such as GCSE and A Level exams - and to adopt a flexible approach where possible:

'Understandably students stop attending when they have a heavy GCSE or A Level timetable. I offer the students the opportunity to “pay as you go” if they are sitting GCSE or A Levels in the months of May and June only.' 

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Big Red Curtain Performing Arts - photo by Roger V Moody

Giving students ownership

If students genuinely feel like they can make their own mark on a production, they are more likely to be fully invested in it. Ownership goes in hand with responsibility, so it stands to reason that the more ownership students have of a performance, the more there is at stake and therefore the more effort they will put in. 

Brenda Whitehead says that giving everyone a say in what they create is crucial to student retention and that this approach has even saved the academy from losing them:

'Students have considered leaving for various reasons - money, or wanting to try a new hobby - but then have changed their minds because they have been involved in an inspiring piece of work that has triggered their imagination. Every term we sit and plan our terms work and find a theme we would all like to work on'

When they put on performances for local theatres, Shelley Lowry gets students involved in the scriptwriting process, giving them ownership from the start of the project:

'The students help to develop the script and characters through improvisation, therefore taking ownership of the finalised script...they are fully consulted on script and character development - they are involved in all decisions regarding the theme and focus of the devised script.'

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York Theatre Royal - photo by Tom Arber

Encouraging your older students to coach and mentor younger ones is a great way to engage them and develop their leadership skills. There are lots of different ways you can leverage this opportunity - here are three approaches:

'For our older students, we will often offer them assistant work, where they support the teachers in preparing the students for their performances, and even the opportunity to cover teach - when they are at the legal age to do so.' Hannah Potter - Manager, Jigsaw Academy 

'We encourage our older students to help backstage on our showcases, and to help with the younger students when they can. We also give them opportunities to direct each other’s work when appropriate.' Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix 

'We keep our older students engaged by allowing them to direct their own work or produce their own performance . We actively encourage our more advanced students to work with the younger ones to enable them to pass on their experience and knowledge and this develops a very special bond. I believe that this is perhaps one of the most important things that the younger students learn - to work together, regardless of age and ability and to feel involved in something on a much larger scale.' Brenda Whitehead - Principal, Big Red Curtain Performing Arts

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Mighty Fine School

Your learning community 

Your retention strategy needs to consider all stakeholders - students, parents and teachers. Make retaining and delighting your students - and their parents -  a focus, and recruitment will follow. Word of mouth is the best advertising you can get, and this comes down to keeping your existing customers happy. 

'There is great camaraderie developed over the years and the network between friends and families and alumni families who recommend us helps to maintain our reputation.' Rosmarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix

Engaging parents

Inviting parents to performances is the ultimate way to showcase the best of what you do - but some principals suggest considering lifting the lid on how you do it, by inviting parents to observe classes and giving them the opportunity to experience your teaching first hand for themselves.

'The parents, friends and associates seem highly impressed and entertained by the level of work. We very often adapt the exam work in progress for public performance. We also open work-in-progress classes for parents to see how the classes are constructed.' Rosmarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix

Pulling back the curtain so that parents can see how you work will reassure them and give them confidence in what you are doing, as well as helping to establish trust:

'We have two performance terms a year and one technique term. Our show term displays songs, dances and drama pieces that are linked together. Our presentations show a polished class to parents that includes warm ups. As our classes are drop off, this enables the parents to see exactly what a class at Jigsaw is like. This is good for the business, because it enables parents to see the worth of their investment.' Hannah Potter - Manager, Jigsaw Deptford Bridge and Jigsaw Plumstead

Of course, polished performances have a huge part to play in engaging parents and showing them what their children have achieved with your support:

'Performances are also important for the work we do, as it gives the parents the opportunity to see the skill sets their children have been learning displayed into a well rounded and fully rehearsed show.' Hannah Potter - Manager, Jigsaw Deptford Bridge and Jigsaw Plumstead

There is no one silver bullet to parental engagement - the way you communicate with and engage parents will depend on what resonates with them:

'My parents engage more with the website and newsletter than social media. But all of these tools help to keep my parents in touch with what is happening at the school and what we offer! It also is a way of them being able to interact with the network as a whole.' Hannah Potter -  Manager, Jigsaw Deptford Bridge and Jigsaw Plumstead

'A strong and enabled teaching team is key to this, alongside effective and efficient communication from school administration. Clear and visible leadership is the third strand I believe as key. All of these factors build both an inclusive and student centred learning and teaching experience, as well as individualised customer service' Anna McNamara - Principal, The Guildford Theatre School 

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Theatrix Performing Arts - photo by Marley Eliza Hart

Diversifying your offer

Offering enough variety and choice is key to keeping students interested and attending your classes, and parents happy that they are getting what they need. Inviting regular feedback and adapting your offer in response will help to foster students' sense of ownership and will also make parents feel they are getting a better service. Having an open dialogue with the families you serve could also help to support the sustainability of your organisation. Shelley Lowry uses students' feedback to inform the timetable:

'Over the years we have extended our timetable to ensure students are offered classes they are both interested in and will benefit from. For example - we traditionally only performed musical theatre in large groups. Students expressed an interest in developing the skills they needed on an individual basis. So we now offer acting through song classes, and are introducing dancing for Musical Theatre classes this autumn.' Shelley Lowry - Founder, The Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

'For us it is the combination of exams, performances, professional opportunities and prize giving that enables us to provide an offer across a variety of families.' Anna McNamara -  Principal, The Guildford Theatre School 

As well as keeping older students engaged by listening to their feedback, it’s important to consider how accessible your offer is for families with children of all ages. Widening your offer to younger students as well as adults is a great way to keep the whole family engaged. Big Red Curtain Performing Arts offers classes from early years to post 18 year olds:

'We have reopened our early years scheme for our 3-6 year olds who then hopefully progress into the main schools at 6 years . We also hold an adult musical theatre class and a drama class once a month...We find that our summer workshops - where we produce a short musical in a week -  enables both childcare, but also encourages young people to get involved in the arts in a hands on creative way. We encourage all our students to continue with their drama and musical theatre even if they decide not to pursue it as a career - and we offer adult classes for musical theatre and drama post 18 years.'  Brenda Whitehead -  Principal, Big Red Curtain Performing Arts

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Big Red Curtain Performing Arts - photo by Roger V Moody

Whilst offering more variety to span a range of age groups is great, the cost implication needs to be considered for parents paying for more than one child to attend. Many academies get around this by offering a discount for siblings:

'Over the years we have increased the range of our classes from straight drama to Musical Theatre classes and private classes. There is a reduction in price for students taking two classes and also sibling rates. We also added younger classes starting from 5 to 7 years which have become increasingly successful.'  Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix 

'We offer a pricing structure that reduces the cost of each class the more you book.  This can be shared across siblings' Anna McNamara, Principal of the Guildford Theatre School 

Celebrating and promoting your students

Celebrating your students’ achievements is key to keeping all stakeholders engaged, and is also the best way to promote your academy to prospective students and parents. 

Holding an annual showcase at a local theatre is a great way to boost your presence and make yourself known to the local community as well as adding cachet and a sense of occasion to the event for parents and students:

'An annual showcase in a professional venue, one for acting and one for musical theatre and dance, showcases the students’ work. It also sets us apart from other schools' Anna McNamara - Principal of the Guildford Theatre School 

“We put on an annual showcase in a 240 seat auditorium theatre for four performances when every child has a chance to show their work.”  Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix

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Theatrix Performing Arts - photo by Marley Eliza Hart

You can also use your website and social media channels to publicly celebrate and acknowledge student’s achievements. The majority of your students - and their parents - will be using these mediums in their everyday lives, so it makes sense to use them to promote what you are doing:

'We use a multi pronged approach of website (with parent portal to hold resources), emails, flyers and social media. It’s the trickle that helps rather than just relying on a single hit via one avenue to communicate.' Anna McNamara - Principal of the Guildford Theatre School.

'We also have a presence on Facebook and Instagram and a website. We like to update our followers with any success the young people have had, or what they are currently involved in.' Shelley Lowry - Founder, Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

'We do publish a great deal of the students’ work on our website and throughout the year and offer free taster days for potential new students each term.' Brenda Whitehead - Principal, Big Red Curtain Performing Arts

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Dandy Drama Teacher

Mighty Fine School

Graded exams

Whilst graded exams are certainly not (and should never be) the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to student retention, they do play an important role in giving students recognition for their hard work and when it comes to demonstrating progress to parents. 

Putting exams at the centre of your offer can also be a great way to compliment what students are doing with performances; depending on the board you choose, students can be group-assessed and get full accreditation from a recognised exam board for the work they are already doing for productions. 

There are numerous wider benefits to offering exams at your centre - they help to add value, giving parents and students something tangible to show for their investment, as well as helping students with progression to further study and equipping them with transferable life skills.

Demonstrating progress

Exams give students something to aim for, and help to create a sense of progression towards a personal goal, motivating them to continually improve. Exams also provide teachers and students with a solid framework to help them to focus on their main areas for improvement when it comes to developing technique and technical skills. 

'Examinations are an essential way of monitoring the students’ progress. All other events; concerts, productions, competitions are participated in with a view to improving the student for their annual/biannual Trinity exam.' Shelley Lowry - Founder, The Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

'The exams are an essential benchmark to pupil progress - a compass for our  attainments'  Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix

Demonstrating progress is a key factor to consider as part of your retention strategy, as this will help parents to see the value of your offer - and to keep paying the fees. For students, exam success is a great motivator and the satisfaction and sense of achievement they will get by progressing through the grades will help them to see their future at your academy. 

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Big Red Curtain Performing Arts - photo by Roger V Moody

University applications

Anything you can give students to support their university applications will be a welcome asset - and graded drama exams are the perfect way to do this, giving students some proven academic results to point to on their applications - and some guaranteed UCAS points in the bank ahead of their A Level results. 

'The UCAS points attached to Grade 6 exams and above encourage pupils to continue their studies with us. Many universities accept UCAS points when students are applying for courses.' Shelley Lowry - Founder, The Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

If you have students who are considering going on to further study in the performing arts, then encouraging them to take graded exams will help with the logical progression from your academy to further education:

'We encourage students to take Trinity College London examinations to ensure that their development and UCAS points can help them to further succeed in the arts if they choose to go on to a Conservatoire as many of our students have done in the past' Brenda Whitehead - Principal, Big Red Curtain Performing Arts

Having a good track record for high exam results will also help to keep parents and students on board who might otherwise have considered leaving to focus on exams:

'The parents are impressed by our academic profile which owes a great deal to the Trinity exam syllabus. Many students aspire to obtain the higher grades up to Grade  6 ,7 and 8 .'  Rosmarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix

As well as giving students ammunition for their university applications, graded exams can help to prepare young people for public exams in all subjects and at all levels. The process of working towards exams helps to develop students' general study skills as well as building the qualities needed to cope with exams and further study such as resilience, dedication and focus.

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Big Red Curtain Performing Arts - photo by Roger V Moody

Life skills

Entering students for graded exams will give them an edge when it comes to their grasp of performance skills. Even if they are not planning to pursue a career in performance, these are 21st century skills which will stand them in good stead regardless of the path they choose. 

'We have just started inviting professionals from related industries to connect our older students with transferable skills. We hope to keep up the older students’ interest through this channel.'  Rosemarie Partridge - Principal, Theatrix 

'Those individuals who have studied communication and performance skills have a distinct advantage over those who have not. They are inclined to be more confident in interview and presentation situations.  Several of my students apply to continue their performing arts training with third level institutions every year, however, most apply the skills they acquired through our classes in all walks of life. Past pupils have gone on to work in film/radio/television, as doctors, solicitors, teachers and many other professions.' Shelley Lowry - Founder, The Shelley Lowry School of Speech and Drama

If you would like to learn how performing arts academies have strengthened their offer through Trinity graded exams, click here to read case studies of academies using Trinity exams.

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Mighty Fine School