Pre-tertiary transitions in the performing arts : a qualitative study of the tensions and hierarchies in widening access to a conservatoire's cultural systems

  • Graeme Smillie

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This study investigates the lived experiences of students on ‘Transitions
20/40’, a pre-tertiary widening access initiative at the Royal Conservatoire of
Scotland. Transitions 20/40 funded participants from statistically identified
deprived areas in Scotland to attend ‘Junior’ conservatoire and short course
programmes. This thesis aims to improve understanding of the implicit and
explicit ways conservatoire cultures may exclude individuals from these
under-represented backgrounds. The research explores the social and
cultural conditions of conservatoire participation and asks if facilitating student
participation in existing pre-tertiary structures is enough to meaningfully widen
participation to the institution. The research also investigates how the
Conservatoire can diversify its cultures, practices and priorities to include
more diverse students, and if examples of good practice are already seen
across different artistic disciplines.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted over a four-year period with a
sample of 47 student participants across the disciplines of music, drama,
dance, production and screen. The tools of Pierre Bourdieu informed the data
collection and are used to conceptualise learner trajectories from peripheral
positions as they move towards full participation in the Conservatoire.
Analysis shows that participants who continued into undergraduate study
found legitimised institutional practices that reflect their prior learning, valued
their existing social and cultural capital and allowed them to focus on their
creative practice. Those who had learned their creative practice outside of
specific conservatoire adherent cultural systems experienced a dissonance,
and laboured to gain social and cultural legitimisation there, often undertaking
a degree of expectation and identity reformulation as part of Transitions

This discussion challenges the institution to connect with more diverse
communities of practice, build further on the bespoke learning opportunities extended to students in Transitions 20/40, and further embed the widening
participation agenda as a core institutional priority, to better reflect the broader
society in which the Conservatoire is situated.
Date of Award28 Jun 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorStephen Broad (Supervisor)

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