Theatre skills are transforming the lives of SEND and AP students – with help from RBC and Take the Lead

Youth
Community involvement

An educational programme run by The Old Vic is setting the stage for young people to enjoy fulfilling careers.

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Stepping out of the classroom into the bright lights of the working world can induce stage fright in anyone. But for young people who face additional barriers, crossing that threshold can feel impossible.

This year marks the sixth anniversary of Take the Lead, a unique educational programme run by The Old Vic , in partnership with RBC. It provides immersive skills training for young people – including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or who require alternative provision (AP). 

But the training isn’t to help them prepare for the stage. In this case, the performing arts is a powerful tool to help 16-to-18-year-old state school students take control of their lives.

Theatre skills that transfer to life skills

Through a series of workshops, teenagers are taught five core theatre skills: communication, self-management, self-belief, teamwork, and problem-solving. These are all important strengths to carry through life and are specifically relevant to employment.

“The arts allow for self-expression and celebration of each young person’s uniqueness,” says Alice Watson, education manager at The Old Vic. “They get the confidence to believe in themselves, in a setting that’s challenging yet playful and supportive.”

Participants in the programme explore concepts such as body language, self-esteem and imposter syndrome, and learn calming breathing techniques. They then collaborate on pitching a new show, which involves budgeting and marketing role-play, and other similar skills-based exercises. 

Everyone has a seat at the table

Programme participants and RBC employees – from diverse departments such as marketing, wealth planning and the chief executive’s office – meet at the firm’s European headquarters in London. Here, the students apply their new skills to networking and elevator pitching, and perform mock interviews with RBC volunteers.

“Our goal is to empower these young people to understand that, when they step into a space like The Old Vic or RBC, they belong,” says Watson. “It’s really important for them to feel that they have a seat at the table, that they’re listened to and that people are taking their future seriously. This can be very empowering and inspiring.”

Going to a high-rise office building in the centre of the city was a new experience for many of the students – it gave them a glimpse of what corporate life can be like. “It was the kind of thing that you see in movies, and not what my London life is like at all,” says one of the students, who attends an Alternative Provision. “I thought that I had to move to America to have that sort of life, but it’s right here. Everyone was so welcoming and nice and encouraged us so much.”  

Take the Lead engages schools from across London, with schools from 20 boroughs represented in 2024, including three SEND schools and an Alternative Provision unit.

Interview practice leads to confidence in the workplace

In addition to empowering students, Take the Lead promotes a more inclusive and accessible arts community.

From The Old Vic’s perspective, working with a diverse student base helps inform how organizers can make the theatre’s arts provision more adaptable and accommodating so it can reach more people. For RBC, the programme promotes more open dialogue about equity and inclusion within the bank, as volunteers work closely with students to gain a direct understanding of their experiences and untapped potential.

Watson notes that around 70 to 100 company volunteers sign up to participate in Take the Lead each year, and more than 700 students attend workshops at RBC’s offices.

Photo courtesy of The Old Vic.

Toby Marsh, chief of staff at RBC Wealth Management Europe, was among the volunteers, attending several sessions to conduct mock interviews.

“The students were very quiet when they arrived,” he says, “but when they saw I was interested in what they had to say, their body language opened up. They began feeding off each other’s energy. When they left, they looked completely transformed.”

“Many of these young people only interact with their parents and teachers,” says Aoife O’Sullivan, a Take the Lead facilitator. “Suddenly they’re getting praise and admiration from a professional adult telling them they can do whatever they put their mind to.”

Confidence is critical, particularly when it comes to job interviews, and the sense of empowerment that Take the Lead engenders is valued by the students. “It’s expanded my knowledge on what to say in interviews,” says one of the students from a participating SEND group. “The beginning of an interview can be quite an intimidating experience. But now, thanks to the skills I’ve learned, I will start to feel more comfortable with the interviewer and less worried about the pressure of getting the job.”

A transformative experience for students – and volunteers

Many of the students are now applying for jobs – at The Old Vic and elsewhere. One student reflected on how the programme made their ambitions seem achievable. “I really liked the structure of the lesson and loved learning how to promote myself through socialising. It gave me the confidence to speak to people I’d only just met.”

Another student went on to interview for a spot on her dream college course. “She used her newly learned skills, including a breathing technique, to calm her anxiety, and she got her place,” says O’Sullivan. “Moments like those are fantastic.”

The experience has been transformative for the volunteers, too.

“One student told me they wanted to be a lawyer,” Marsh says. “I realised this was the first time they’d ever spoken to someone in the profession. I could see the bridge I was building. It was actually quite emotional.”

Thanks to their new skills and confidence, these students can achieve their dreams in whichever field they choose.

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