The UK’s diversity challenge is being tackled by both film schools and high schools. Geoffrey Macnab reports on the efforts being made to ensure every child and teenager in the country considers the creative industries a viable career choice


Speak to representatives of the UK’s leading film schools and all insist they want to attract as wide a range of ethnically and socially diverse men and women to their courses as possible.

“It is an absolutely critical issue,” says Nik Powell, director of the National Film and Television School (NFTS). “It is not just a subject of the moment raised by Oscars, Baftas, etc.” Powell suggests the NFTS is “doing great” in embracing diversity. But then he adds, “in other respects, it is really challenging”.

The last three intakes at the school have been 42% female and 58% male. A higher percentage of women who apply to the school are getting in than men. On the directing courses, for example, just under 10% of female applicants are being accepted (as opposed to just under 6% of male applicants).

Powell says the selection process is rigorous and free from bias. The hitch, though, is that twice as many men apply — and the school is still male-dominated. “What we try to focus on is how to get more women to apply,” Powell says.

The school has already achieved some success. Every year, there are 1,000 or more female applicants — as opposed to just the handful that would apply during the school’s early days over 40 years ago.  

The situation is even more challenging when it comes to attracting BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) students to the school. In its last three intakes, just  20% of the NFTS’s new students have been from BAME backgrounds. And on directing courses, the figures are even lower.

“No elite gives up power willingly,” says Sandra Hebron, former head of the London Film Festival and now head of screen arts at the NFTS. “So those of us who work in the industry who are not part of the white, male middle-class majority do have a responsibility to push for greater diversity. In the end that isn’t just about basic human equality, it is also because that is the route to having a rich and relevant film culture.”

It is an observation echoed by many. The increasing push for diversity in the UK film industry isn’t just about political correctness or fairness. It makes creative and economic sense too. Without it, some of the best talent is being overlooked and so is the opportunity to reach the biggest audience possible. “We need all the major talent we can get,” says Powell. “At the NFTS, it is all about making sure we are not losing talent because of their particular background or means.”

Impossible dream

Film schools aren’t cheap to attend (it costs $17,600 (£12,300) to attend the NFTS’s two-year MA courses). And for many children in the UK, the film and TV industries seem exotic, foreign worlds — not ones in which they ever think they may one day work. Many UK film schools are starting outreach programmes to convince them otherwise. The NFTS has appointed a scout, Rebecca Mark-Lawson, based in the Midlands. Her job is not just to identify talent but to encourage those who lack confidence to apply; to let them know there is funding available and, in certain cases, to help candidates with the applications themselves.

Lisa Neeley, director of student affairs at London’s Met Film School, is well placed to observe how the UK film industry compares to that of the US in its attitude toward diversity. She studied at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, and went on to work in development on a number of US studio films. As she notes, US film schools are also expensive to attend.

“There is a premium price tag attached to film education. From the standpoint of some of the pre-eminent schools in the US, whether NYU or USC or the American Film Institute or even UCLA, the cost of an education for an undergraduate or postgraduate is unfortunately not that cheap,” Neeley says with evident understatement. (Students regularly leave film school hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.) “There is always a question of barriers to access. For an industry that needs to be more diverse, more reflective of the world that we live in and more reflective of the communities that constitute our audiences, having that in terms of a price tag forces the film schools to look at other ways they can reduce that barrier [of price].”

That is why scholarships and bursaries are as important in the US as in the UK. Neeley believes diversity is a multi-faceted issue for film schools. It is not simply about intake policy and the move to boost numbers of  women and BAME students. Other key factors are “what the school teaches and how we teach it” and the relationship with the film industry. It is in the industry’s interest, she says, to have as wide a talent pool to draw on as possible. The recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy has sharpened the focus on attitudes towards diversity across the industry as a whole.

“If debate about diversity is not part of the agenda, part of the dialogue, [change] just doesn’t happen,” says Neeley. “It is about making sure that from the producers to the agents to the commissioning editors to the broadcasters, [it is asked] ‘is there diversity?’ and that there is an agenda for them not just in terms of the programming but of the make-up of the people who are making the decisions.”

Around 40% of the Met’s students are from the UK. Some 33% are from the EU and 27% are international. More than 30% of these students are from a BAME background. The Met offers bursaries and has a ‘voices that matter’ scholarship programme aimed at UK and international students with exceptional talent whose financial circumstances would normally prevent them from attending the school.

“For us, it is about being able to recognise and encourage and nurture a variety of voices,” Neeley explains. As a private organisation, the Met Film School isn’t under as much obligation as publicly funded bodies to tailor its policies towards diversity but Neeley argues it is “a moral imperative”. The school takes its responsibilities seriously and not just as “something to chat about when it is time to fill in regulatory paperwork”.

Jane Roscoe, director of the London Film School (LFS), makes a similar point. She describes diversity as being “crucial” to what the LFS does. “I am very committed to working for diversity and I am lucky because the LFS naturally has a very diverse group of students because we take students from all over the world,” Roscoe says.

In its admissions process, the LFS is looking for students from a range of backgrounds who can tell “different” stories. “We know that the best way we can cultivate a creative environment is to make sure we have a diversity of opinions, experiences and processes in place,” says Roscoe.

Some 47.3% of students at the LFS are female. Although 58.2% of the students are from a white background, the school has a wide mix of students from other ethnic backgrounds. The intake includes Chinese (11.9%) as well as Arab (3.3%), Asian British and Black British students. The diversity extends to the staff and visiting speakers too. “When we look to recruit people and bring in visiting lecturers, we are looking for people with different perspectives and experiences — and not just to replicate the same things over and over again,” Roscoe says.

As at other film schools, there are bursaries and scholarships; some of them backed by Creative Skillset. “The really important part is encouraging employers to consider a variety of recruitment pathways,” says Dan Simmons, head of partnerships at Creative Skillset. “The diversity argument is that by recruiting a diverse range of people, you bring a plurality of perspectives into your business… you are more likely to be able to develop products that appeal to a broader range of audiences. There are all those business benefits in not just recruiting in your own like.”

Last year, Creative Skillset funded research by the LFS to investigate how best the school could target those hard-to-reach potential students. “We are a small school. We don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising  and we wanted to find out how we could best access people from those non-traditional backgrounds,” Roscoe says of the research. She won’t give specific details about what the research uncovered but says the data has influenced recruitment policies.

The NFTS raises awareness through various bursaries and scholarships that are generally targeted on a means basis. Earlier this year a Channel 4 bursary scheme was launched at the school to run over five years,  directly aimed at increasing social mobility within the creative industries. It will allow 20 students a year from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly outside London, to study at the school.

But Roscoe for one suggests the problem isn’t with the lack of diversity at film schools but with what the students encounter once they graduate. “The industry is still built around an old boys’ club,” she suggests. “It’s about who you know, not what you know. We are churning out a really diverse bunch of interesting film-makers but the problem is the industry is very slow to open the doors to a broader range of people.”

Reaching out to the next generation of film-makers

It is in the UK’s economic interest to teach schoolchildren that the creative industries offer a viable career

“The barriers to entry are perceptual and material — and the perceptual ones need to be tackled early. Schools have a role to play here,” says Sandra Hebron, head of screen arts at the NFTS.

“We need to make sure that there is the awareness and ambition, fired up at an appropriately young age,” agrees Dan Simmons, head of partnerships at Creative Skillset.

In recent years, there has been increased government emphasis both on film education and on alerting school children to potential careers in the UK’s booming creative industries. One key organisation is Into Film, formed in 2013 after the merger between two leading film education charities, FILMCLUB and First Light. Into Film aims to give young people in the UK the chance to experience film creatively and critically by introducing film clubs into schools aimed at children as young as five, among other initiatives. It also works with the industry to take behind-the-camera experts (from directors to production designers) into schools to talk about their craft and careers.

“When I was at [high] school, there was a sense that girls shouldn’t aspire to careers beyond teaching or nursing,” says director and NFTS graduate Gurinder Chadha of growing up in the UK in the 1970s. “There was never any encouragement to think about writing or films. That was never part of the equation.”

As well as promoting apprenticeships, degree courses and trainee placements, Creative Skillset helps organise a Creative Zone at careers fairs including the NEC Skills Show and Skills London 2015. An estimated 100,000 young people visited the Creative Zone at Skills London and Skills Birmingham.

Skillset also funds Skills Fusion careers seminars in animation, VFX and games across the UK.

Simmons emphasises children need to be made aware early on what GCSEs they should take if they are interested in careers in the creative sector: “Arts and science and maths are the ideal combination.”

Skillset worked with the Next Gen group to ensure creative subjects were considered important within the UK’s core school curriculum.

Film schools are likewise striving to ensure younger people are aware of the courses they offer and to also make them aware of potential career opportunities. The Met Film School, for example, runs a series of workshops (primarily held in the summer months) aimed at teenagers. As Neeley points out, it is crucial “to get teenagers excited and interested and potentially looking at the creative industries and seeing their possibilities”.

The London Film School is in discussions with the London councils of Tower Hamlets and Newham to look at ways of engaging with socially and economically disadvantaged children in east London. The plan is to run a pilot programme in the early summer.

“This is not just about promoting the school,” says London Film School’s Jane Roscoe. “It is about allowing children a different way to express some of the issues they’re facing and finding a love of film and an understanding of the language of film. It may lead to them coming to the school, but it may also lead them to being part of a new type of audience for British screen culture. It is the first step for us in a bigger programme of outreach. We want to work with local communities and to support schools where we can. We want to engage with people outside the mainstream.”

The debate about diversity at film schools and in film education generally has an added urgency given the potential skills shortage the creative industries faces, especially in digital skills and VFX. It is in everybody’s interest to broaden the skills base and to create opportunities for new talent, wherever it may come from.