Kids and teacher sitting down

Transforming young people’s experience of Shakespeare

Place, Partnerships and Pathways

By Jacqui O’Hanlon 10 September 2019 5 minute read

At NPC, we’ve been working with arts and culture charities and funders to understand what works for engaging young people. In this guest blog, Jacqui O’Hanlon, Director of Education at the Royal Shakespeare Company, explores how they use place, partnerships and youth leadership to transform children and young people’s experience of Shakespeare. 

In 2006 the Royal Shakespeare Company set out to develop a national programme that could transform experiences of Shakespeare’s work and live theatre for children and young people. Our goal was to make Shakespeare and theatre-making relevant, resonant and joyful. We wanted to connect in deep and lasting ways with schools and communities across the country, particularly those with least access to our work.

13 years on, that ambition is now called the Associate Schools programme. We’ve built it around the principle of schools forming local partnerships to develop communities of practice. Each local partnership consists of a Lead Associate School who in turn recruits multiple Associate Schools. Often these local partnerships include a regional theatre in addition to the Royal Shakespeare Company. We currently have 11 Regional Theatre Partners, 25 Lead Associate Schools and a total of 246 Associate Schools.

By making long-term commitments to place nationally, we have built ambitious partnerships that create pathways for schools, teachers, children, young people and artists to build their leadership capacity, talents and skills. Our research shows that our work unlocks so much for students, teachers and parents. Beyond appreciating and enjoying the plays themselves, Shakespeare’s work can become a symbol of inclusion and equality. We are seeing children, young people, teachers, parents, governing bodies and local communities being inspired by Shakespeare, live theatre, and each other. What’s more, we’ve found that the Royal Shakespeare Company itself has been significantly changed by the programme.

My child is learning where I didn’t and that gives me hope for the future.


Here’s a look back at how we’ve changed:

  • In 2016 we refined our national strategy to ensure our First Encounters with Shakespeare tours for young people and families were focused on the places and partnerships developed through the Associate Schools programme.
  • In 2017 we launched Next Generation, a talent development programme for young people in Associate Schools from backgrounds currently under-represented in the arts and cultural sector.
  • In 2018 we launched our Shakespeare Ambassadors programme for young people aged 9-18 who want to play an arts leadership role in their schools and communities. We now have 545 Shakespeare Ambassadors nationally who are each activating a Shakespeare inspired project in their local communities and influencing the development of the programme.

The Associate Schools programme has developed and grown in ways we could not have imagined. It’s made a real difference to our understanding of education for a whole generation of children and young people.


Here are five of our favourite stories of the impact we’re seeing:

  • Impact on attainment: Middlesbrough – Our Lead Associate School in Middlesbrough saw significant improvement in reading and writing attainment during our partnership; they are now able to say they no longer have an issue with boys’ writing. They now want to extend their influence beyond the sixteen schools they currently lead to share their learning and expertise with others.
  • Community engagement: Blackpool – A 45 strong Shakespeare Council made up of young people, parents, teachers and artists from the Blackpool Grand Theatre meet regularly to train together and plan the work that they want to deliver with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Grand and school partners. They have a bigger vision for how this work could reach more schools across Blackpool and address the significant challenges face by its predominantly white working-class community.
  • Teachers as researchers: Stoke – Teacher led research has given us detailed analysis of how rehearsal room approaches significantly improve children’s writing. This work is now being used nationally in conferences and through other dissemination opportunities to demonstrate the ways in which rigorous classroom-based research can inform practice.
  • Audience development: Kent – The Marlowe theatre have identified a significant correlation between places where Associate Schools are based and areas where residents are least likely to engage with theatre. They are therefore focusing their audience development work on those areas in collaboration with the Marlowe’s Learning and Participation team.
  • Talent development: Northampton – A thriving youth theatre has emerged from a Saturday morning workshop at one of our Lead Associate Schools, attracting 120 young people from areas that have not traditionally engaged in arts experiences in the city. They recently produced their own version of Romeo and Juliet and toured it to local primary schools as well as performing in the shopping centre in which they are based.

We know this work is boosting the life choices of young people in their communities, so we want to deepen and expand the growth of this national community by embracing research, practice and talent development. This will enable movement from the classroom into further training and life-long opportunities for students, teachers and families as they engage with Shakespeare’s art in a way which is relevant, resonant and joyful.

The Royal Shakespeare Company are proud to work in partnership with The Grand Theatre, Blackpool; The Alhambra Theatre, Bradford; Hall for Cornwall, Cornwall; Hulltruck Theatre, Hull; Intermission Theatre, London; The Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; New Vic Theatre, Stoke on Trent; Northern Stage, Newcastle; Newcastle Theatre Royal; York Theatre Royal, York.


NPC’s research on how to engage young people in arts and culture is coming out this October, funded by the Mohn Westlake Foundation. 


Photo credit: Sam Allard c RSC 


Explore more