Shakespeare Schools FestivalThis Autumn thousands of schoolchildren throughout the UK are immersing themselves in Shakespeare – not reading his plays in a classroom, but stepping into the limelight to perform in professional theatres.

The Shakespeare Schools Festival has become the UK’s biggest youth drama event, involving over 150,000 young people since it was founded 15 years ago. This year alone some 35,000 youngsters aged 8-18 from 1,153 schools are performing in 138 provincial theatres across the UK – record numbers in the festival’s history.

ECT is among the donors backing the festival, whose roll of patrons reads like a Who’s Who? of theatre and children’s literature – they include Kevin Spacey, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Tom Stoppard, Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen.

“Donations like this help us keep our commitment to providing the highest quality arts education experience to all children, regardless of ability or background,” said Ellie Grace, SSF’s Fundraising Manager.

The festival has its roots in Shakespeare: The Animated Tales – a  BBC Wales and S4C TV series in the early-1990s, featuring half-hour versions of the Bard’s works.

Using these scripts, teachers take part in workshop sessions with arts practitioners to learn how to direct, while pupils have cast workshops in professional theatres. Weeks of rehearsals culminate in a performance, staged before a paying audience at the school’s local theatre.

There’s much more to this than studying Shakespeare. As well as language, themes and characters, SSF aims to boost children’s articulacy and confidence, and improve key employability skills such as teamwork, peer leadership and critical thinking.

While any school can take part, the charity actively targets those in disadvantaged areas where otherwise, children might have little access to Shakespeare or the arts.

At Barnwood Park Arts College in Gloucester, a cast of 11- 16-year-olds has been rehearsing A Comedy of Errors, for a performance at The Roses Theatre in Tewkesbury in mid-November.

For the school’s Head of Drama Mel Jones, that final performance is a moment worth savouring. “You can’t believe how excited they get performing in an actual theatre,” she says.

Ms Jones is a veteran of festival performances. Previously she has staged The Tempest, Twelfth Night and Macbeth – even their own version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream complete with songs from Abba.

“Without projects like this, how on earth are children going to get this kind of experience?” she said. “It’s so important for disadvantaged kids, many of whom don’t get the chance to see beyond their day-to-day lives and what’s offered to them at home.”