Breaks And Ladders

This documentary addresses the UK’s flawed relationship with the arts
By Bailey Slater | Film+TV | 27 May 2022

Photography by Victoria Ruiz

With the Tory government bowing to scandal upon scandal upon scandal, one of their biggest bluffs – purposeful or not – is their mishandling of the arts. With cuts and the disparate effects of class inequality spilling out across the industry like a forgotten bubble bath that’s seconds away from toppling your kitchen ceiling, Central Saint Martins graduate Hannah Karpel thinks it’s time for some answers, and she won’t stop until she gets them. 

As someone who knows all about the unconventional ascendance to higher education – Karpel’s admittance to the universities’ Fashion Communication: Fashion Journalism course coming off the back of a BTEC instead of A-Levels – the budding documentarist looks back at her own journey into the arts and how different that would have looked if she’d attended one of the UK’s elite, fee-paying institutions. “It kind of naturally became my final major project at university,” says Karpel, who previewed the project to a teary-eyed crowd in King’s Cross last week, “but I didn’t go into it thinking I was going to make a documentary.”

Karpel has spent the last few months heavily caught up in ‘the edit’ – a far more glamorous way to term night after night of meticulous editing at the library as she splits candid interviews and heartbreaking soundbites into a captivating and insightful work. Her journey takes viewers on a tour of underfunded state schools and parliamentary meetings up and down the country, asking the important questions as to how arts education ended up with such an uncertain future. But perhaps the most pertinent of all is this: why does a career in the arts feel so unattainable if you are from a lower socio-economic background?

Bailey Slater: Where did the idea for Breaks and Ladders initially stem from?
Hannah Karpel: Seeing the 50 percent cuts to higher education courses in the UK last summer, that’s what made me start this whole thing. I needed to see where the problem was stemming from. I started the project in schools because I knew I needed to get in there to talk to students and thought it would be fun to host a fashion writing and design competition together, so I had this idea to go in with a load of Barbie dolls and get them to create a design based on where they’d like to be in twenty years. 

I went to loads of car boot sales to get all these Barbie dolls, but then when I got there I was like, hold on a minute, all of these dolls are just classic: blonde, white, really skinny – and I’m not trying to go up to a load of fifteen year-olds with that. What I ended up doing was putting a pitch together for Barbie, as they’ve got this new range of different dolls with different races, skin conditions and body sizes, and then sixty Barbie dolls turned up at my front door. It was actually hilarious. So then I started contacting schools around the country that were located in deprived areas or had a large number of students receiving free school meals, and just went in there and started speaking to them.

BS: Was there anything you knew you specifically wanted to tackle before embarking on this journey?
HK: I started knowing I wanted to look at getting into the industry and [advancing] once you’re in. After seeing a lot of friends who’ve graduated and actually entered the industry, it’s a really common problem that a lot of people from low-income backgrounds tend to be stuck in the junior roles. I have a lot of freelancer friends who’ve gone four or five years through university, spending all their money risking everything to pursue their dreams, and then, because they’re not getting paid or because there’s no security, they have to quit and end up needing to do a nine to five. This just doesn’t quite make sense. There are just questions that, before I even enter this world, I need to figure out, and if I’m already here at the arts college, what about everyone else who’s not even made it into arts university?

BS: Did you have any experience with documentary filmmaking before you delved into the project?
HK: None! I do watch them a lot, but I approached this as if I was approaching an article because that’s what I know. With the interviews, as we both know, you can go off in so many different directions, so I started researching this area really deeply and it kind of coincided with my dissertation, in which I looked at the relationship between class and school uniforms in state schools. That helped me to understand that it’s really difficult to define what ‘working class’ is in 2022, so I’ve looked at things like cultural capital and economic capital and how learning about the arts and having knowledge in cultural industries can help you to grow out of a lower class, even if you don’t necessarily have the financial support there.

I’ve been doing everything with the equipment that’s available at my university loan store, and to do the documentary I had to get a friend (she’s a friend now – I didn’t know her at the time) from the Met film school to film it for me. We did a skill swap, so I wrote about the film she was making, and she filmed mine. Then I basically transcribed everything, printed it all out and drew the takeaways on a huge piece of paper, drawing lines to how each interviewee related to each other.

it’s really difficult to define what ‘working class’ is in 2022″

Still, Breaks and Ladders, 2022

BS: You mentioned at the Q&A about having to Crowdfund in order to finish the project. Was meeting your goal super-affirming in terms of taking this forward?
HK: It was, but it was also a huge pressure. I was trying to sell my idea to people, and they were buying into it, but it’s like, you haven’t actually seen me do anything yet. When other people are putting money into your project, they want to see the results of where their money’s gone. So although I was really grateful, and it made me think they believe in this too, it was also really, really fucking scary.

BS: Did anything particularly surprise you as you made your way through production?
HK: One thing I always think about is when I spoke to an MP, she said they’re getting students through medical school who want to become surgeons and they’re having to send them home to learn how to sew. In their education, they’ve done no detailed work with their hands, it’s all very much typing on computers. It shows that learning about the arts doesn’t just affect you becoming an artist, it affects everything in your life and the way that you handle things, your precision and all of that.

The other thing that like really shocked me was when a freelancer said that she’d waited a year for her invoice to come, and that’s common! I went to a lawyer after and was like, “What are the rights of a freelancer?” And it’s like, “Well, you can take them to court.” Not everyone wants to go to small claims court over fifty quid. Even if it is fifty, whatever, it adds up. She was saying she had a buffer and that ran out in like a month, so she’s paying herself her own wage, but she doesn’t believe that the company is even going to pay her – this is why people aren’t continuing in these roles.

learning about the arts doesn’t just affect you becoming an artist, it affects everything in your life”

BS: What role do you think politics has had to play in the way arts education has been dealt with over the past two decades or so?
HK: I think that politics has had a huge, huge effect on things. Michael Gove’s English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was a more recent example. He told schools that the arts, generally, are not of value. And schools, even if they personally value it themselves, need to get students to come to their school and need to have good ratings – they’re only going to get that if they’re doing what the government wants them to do. Then Gavin Williamson came in as Education Secretary, and now they’re doing the 50 percent cut to higher education art courses. Yeah, they’re giving a huge amount of money to the top-notch universities, like University of the Arts London and the Royal College of Arts, but this is perpetuating the whole idea that you can only do this if you’re at the top, where you’ve got the money. People have to move to London to do that. Why can’t we allow people to learn about the arts in their local town?

BS: Have you felt supported in your arts education?
HK: I definitely feel supported with this. My parents have always supported me in what I want to do. They’ve always said to me, “As long as you work really hard at what you want to do, we’ll support you.” But my parents haven’t supported me financially. So I’ve always known that when you don’t have the money or anything to fall back on, you have no choice but to absolutely do your best. You know? That’s why I feel passionate about this, because you get students who aren’t thriving in maths, or maybe they’re dyslexic. But they could be really talented in arts or other subjects. That’s who it’s for as well. We need to nurture people who think in different ways.

BS: What are some of the ways these rampant inequalities in the arts can be addressed?
HK: It starts with career advice in schools. Even if it’s just me going in and telling those kids what is available, at least they know. I also want to see more rights for freelancers. I’ve been trying to look, especially for fashion writing, and employers are getting away with a lot. I want more education on what freelancer rights are. Even what the expectation should be, like, everyone should put a late fee on their invoice, things like that. And mentoring is so important. I’m not trying to say everyone has to go to an arts university, I just want everyone to have the option to pursue a career in whichever way they feel that they want to do it.

BS: I saw some people in tears at the screening last Monday. What have the other reactions been like to the project?
HK: I think a lot of people have resonated with what’s been said, and a lot of people are learning from it, too. Even through the scenes with the lawyer, advising to do all of these things on your invoices, to know your rights and to check the contract about moral rights. A lot of us can’t afford to have our own private lawyer, except we’re going into jobs and signing contracts for things we don’t understand the language of. It’s just a reminder to do this stuff so that we don’t get into positions that make us worse off.

BS: Are there any plans to develop Breaks And Ladders further?
HK: I’ve been invited to present this documentary to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Art, Craft and Design in Education, which was founded by Susan Coles and Sharon Hodgson, the MP I interviewed. They know that there’s an issue, but still, nothing’s happened. She even said that since starting the group she’s seen no changes. So, yeah [laughs], I need to get that sorted.

Breaks And Ladders will be available to stream soon.


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