While many schools across the country offer exceptional teaching in music and drama, an elite band raise the bar still higher, with alumni lists that read like who’s who. So how do you get into a top performing arts school?

If a Christmas trip to The Nutcracker or a show has left your child longing for a career in the spotlight, you may want to do your homework on schools for performing arts.

First thing to note, your child needs to be resilient: there is stiff competition to get in (only one in 10 will get through the audition stage at some schools). There can be some weeding out mid-school – particularly in the ballet schools, when a change in physique or anything below top-level performance can result in the child being asked to leave.

Apart from aptitude and resilience, the biggest consideration is the depth of yearning your son or daughter shows for dance, drama or music. The regime is punishing. They must fit in GCSE studies alongside several hours of tuition and practice each day, and they need to be highly disciplined and single-minded. If it’s a hobby rather than a compulsion, they may be better placed at a mainstream school with a strong performing arts department, or a good halfway house between mainstream and truly specialist – such as Bede’s, with its in-house Legat dance school. With all those caveats, if you have a star waiting to come out of the wings, they will be in their element in a place where the curriculum is designed to give them several hours to indulge their passion each day and with exceptional tuition and opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, this comes at a cost. Fees at elite performing arts schools will take your breath away, as they cover intensive coaching on top of academic tuition and, due to location, most children need to board. Children at some specialist schools qualify for the Department for Education’s Music and Dance Scheme, which provides means-tested grants to encourage homegrown talent. A similar scheme, Dance and Drama awards, provides assistance for pupils aged 16+.  Added to this, most schools offer scholarship and bursary schemes.

Arts Ed

For Arts Ed pupil Thomas Dennis, it was a short hop from sixth form to playing Christopher Boone in the National Theatre’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and then on to another lead role in War Horse. Another former pupil Ella Balinska stars in the recently released film Charlie’s Angels, and Samantha Barks will play Elsa in Frozen: The Musical this year.

So there’s a well-trodden path to the limelight with an exceptional alumni list of talent on stage and screen. Arts Ed is clear that it is not a stage school, however casting directors do regularly come-a-calling when seeking new talent. Every year there are around 250 applications for 75 places. Gaining entry is all about potential and passion – academically, it is non-selective.  Pupils in years 7 to 11 specialise in either dance or drama (although they will be taught both).

Once in, there are long days to fit in both academic and vocational work – younger pupils stay until 5.30pm a couple of days per week, while sixth formers – who are taking arts-based A levels and BTECs – have a late finish every day. Most go on to further vocational training after sixth form, although a few will go straight on to professional careers.

Entry: Fees are between £16,080-£16,990. Means-tested bursaries are offered and there are eight full-fees scholarships for sixth formers. Arts Ed offers day school only, although a few sixth formers board with host families.  


Elmhurst Ballet School

It’s really exciting when we meet young people who have only recently discovered ballet and have raw talent which can be developed when they join the school,” says Elmhurst’s principal Jessica Wheeler. While raw talent is there, usually children applying will have several years of dance experience. Around 400 children audition each year; staff are looking for ‘physical ability, musicality and passion’, and only about one in 10 will make it through.

The school offers day and boarding places to boys and girls aged from 11 to 18, and trains them in classical ballet, as well as jazz, tap, contemporary dance and choreography. Pupils up to year 11 spend one-third of their time dancing, and the remainder studying an average of eight GCSEs. It is is two-thirds dancing in sixth form, as they work towards a National Diploma in Professional Dance.

The academic side is not neglected – one-third of the school’s GCSE entries last year achieved top grades. Competition is harsh too for that future in dance; there are formal assessments in years 9 and 11, when those who are not on track to make it to the top are asked to leave. A place at Elmhurst gives children a true taste of a career in dance – as does the opportunity to perform regularly with Birmingham Royal Ballet and in the school’s many productions.

Entry: Register early in the autumn term of the year preceding entry for the two-stage audition process. Fees range from £19,503 to £26,949. 


The Hammond, Chester

A boarding school which is doable from London – two hours by train – The Hammond is most certainly worth adding to your list of schools for a talented child. It offers an all-through education, from prep joiners at age seven, to a degree course in Musical Theatre and Performance at 18+.

Success in the dance audition is the foremost requirement. Around 30 per cent of applicants make it through. Prep school children get an all-round grounding in performing arts, then from years 7 to 11 pupils opt to specialise in dance, drama or music. This leads on to a choice in sixth form  – a three-year National Diploma in Dance or Musical Theatre, a two-year BTEC Diploma Level 3 in Performing Arts and optional A Levels.

Entry: Apply a year ahead of entry. Auditions run from November to March. Fees range from £11,781 to £28,152. 


Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts

Take a casual look at the roll-call of past pupils here and it’s clear they reach the top in a multitude of disciplines – alumni include Daniel Mays, Leona Lewis, Martine McCutcheon, Russell Brand and Naomi Campbell, to name a few. This is an opportunity-rich setting, as Italia Conti also has its own agency, which puts pupils in front of casting directors and producers

The Theatre Arts School for ages 10 to 16 teaches up to 10 GCSEs. These are studied alongside training in acting and voice, ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance, plus singing and musical theatre. After GCSEs pupils can stay on to take a three-year diploma in musical theatre and work up to degree level with a BA in acting. Virtually all graduates gain employment in the industry.

Entry:  The entrance audition involves three types of dance, two drama pieces and one song. Prior training is highly recommended. Fees range from £12,975 to £15,990. 


The Purcell School

The bar is set high at The Purcell School, with a daily timetable that usually involves two hours of music lessons and three to five hours of practice, with individual instrument lessons and GCSE/A level studies on top. Children can study here from age 10, although most are older when they join – almost half of the pupils are in the sixth form. The school is non-selective academically, as long as children can cope with the curriculum.

The school offers superb opportunities, with teaching from distinguished visiting music staff who are all performers. This sits alongside exceptional music facilities and regular opportunities to perform in full symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles at major London venues. Large numbers head after school to the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Former pupils include BAFTA-nominated film composer Mica Levi, BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 Martin James Bartlett, Leader of the ENO Orchestra Janice Graham, and twice Grammy Award-winning Jazz pianist Jacob Collier.

Entry: The deadline for applications is at the end of March. There are initial auditions followed by panel interviews. Pupils need to show a commitment to a career in music, which is more important than having already achieved the highest grades in music. Fees range between £26,748 and £34,152.

The Royal Ballet School

Follow in the en pointe footsteps of Darcey Bussell and current Royal Ballet principals Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae and Edward Watson, who all trained here. The school takes boys and girls aged from 11 to 19. Years 7-11 are based in Richmond Park, and the older pupils are located in Covent Garden. Virtually all pupils are boarders.

There’s ballet for two hours of every school day, plus more classes and rehearsals during evenings and on Saturday mornings. Pupils also sit for a full range of GCSEs. Year 11 pupils must audition again for the upper school, where pupils take A levels and a three-year BA in classical ballet and dance performance.

Entry:  Children must demonstrate outstanding talent and commitment; your child’s ballet teacher should be able to advise whether they are in with a prospect of succeeding in the audition process. Apply in September for the following year. Fees range from £19,500 to £34,500.


Tring Park School for the Performing Arts

Downton Abbey, Peaky Blinders and Poldark have all showcased Tring alumni, while its ballet dancers grace the English National and Birmingham Royal ballet companies. The school takes boys and girls aged from eight to 19 (day and boarding). Those in years 4 to 6 try out acting, singing and dancing, before specialising in either dance or performing arts at secondary level.

Successful children need to be steely; there is continuous competitive casting for 100 annual performances at the school, as well as parts in the English National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, when they must weather the disappointment if they are not chosen.  

While this immersion in all the performance possibilities is a dream come true for those who would rather spend their days at the barre or treading the boards than with bar charts, that’s not to say there’s any shirking from academic study. Students are expected to achieve a full set of GCSEs. In sixth form the performers take three A levels, while dancers substitute one A level for the Trinity National Diploma in Dance.

Entry: At the entry auditions, staff are looking for evidence of great talent and potential; about one in seven applicants meets these requirements. Fees range from £14,865 to £35,760. Up to 100 per cent assistance is available.


Yehudi Menuhin School

No squeaking violins to endure at parents’ concerts here; you are guaranteed a sublime performance from some of our most gifted young musicians. The audience’s seats have been graced by the parents of Nigel Kennedy, Tasmin Little, Nicola Benedetti, Kathryn Stott, Melvyn Tan and Charles Owen, who all studied here.

The vast majority of the pupils board. The few who don’t are known as day boarders, an indication of the lengthy days (8am to 6.30pm). Each day’s schedule is split between music practice and academic study. There’s Saturday school as well, so your child needs to want to live and breathe music. 

Children train in a main and second instrument, as well as studying choral singing, improvisation and composition. Sixth formers stay for an additional year 14, in preparation for a near dead-cert move to a music conservatoire. The Royal College of Music and Guildhall School of Music regularly mop up leavers, while others go to other elite institutions around the world.

Entry: Pupils can join from the age of eight. There is no academic selection, but musical ability is tested before a three-day residential assessment to check that children are going to thrive. Fees range from £43,068 to £44,208.