17/04/2016 15:07 BST | Updated 18/04/2017 06:12 BST

Leading Actors Condemn Drama Courses Without Theatre Experience

Some of Britain's top actors have attacked new GCSE drama courses that do not require students to watch a live theatre performance.

David Harewood, Brian Cox, Zoe Wanamaker, and Sheila Hancock are among those who criticised new syllabuses from AQA and Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) for allowing pupils to analyse a digital recording instead of going to the theatre in person.

They joined Hermione Norris, Meera Syal, Robert Lindsay and Tim Pigott-Smith in signing a letter to The Sunday Times warning of a "real concern" the change, coupled with tight school budgets, could see teachers stop organising trips to the theatre.

Homeland star Harewood told the paper: "Giving kids the chance to see live theatre should not just be free, it should be compulsory."

The letter was also signed by Aine Lark, the chairwoman of National Drama, the association for drama teachers, and Chris Lawrence of London Drama, which represents drama teachers in the capital.

It read: "We fear that the designation of digital recordings as live theatre may remove the need for teachers to arrange such events, resulting in pupils missing out on invaluable social, cultural and artistic experiences. In a period of squeezed budgets and health and safety issues about school trips, this is a real concern.

"Trips organised by schools are the only contact with the theatre that some pupils get. Many of us remember those magical experiences all our lives. Countless writers, actors, artists and others working in the creative industries were inspired to take up their craft by those enriching evenings in the stalls.

"Recordings of live productions are valuable teaching tools but they should be in addition to the experience of live performance, not a substitute for it."

But the exam boards defended the change, due to be made for courses starting in September.

Karen Latto, subject specialist at OCR, said it was "an option designed to expand access to live theatre, not replace it".

She said: "Nothing beats live theatre. Live performance is a critical part of the study of drama at every level, and we have built this experience into our new specifications in order to emphasise its significance.

"However, OCR is committed to equality of provision for all our students, and the flexibility to include digital theatre productions is in place to ensure that every student can access live theatre, regardless of the constraints of affordability or geographical accessibility."

Jessica Lober Newsome, AQA's head of drama, told The Sunday Times: "This GCSE gives students a better understanding of theatre than ever before. We're just making sure we don't discriminate against the handful of students who can't get to a performance through no fault of their own."