Take it from me. There are degrees you apply for because they make for great small-talk at parties; and then there are degrees you study for so that one day you can find a job. Show me an Oxford graduate and I will show you a man profoundly aware of the importance of distinguishing, in life as much as in a prospectus, between the course that renders you fluent in Norman French poetry and one that enables you actually to speak to a living, breathing Frenchman.

As in the arts subjects, so, not surprisingly, in the arts world. Which is why late last month, at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre, the Oxford School of Drama (OSD), in co-ordination with other national arts-education institutions, launched The Essentials — for Excellence in Vocational Training for Performing, Production and Technical Careers.

Educators, casting directors, actors and MPs alike turned up to vouch for the urgent necessity of this document. And this was no luvvie crowd: the Parliamentarians (including Peter Luff, whose son, Oliver, is a trained theatre technician) want a copy given to every kid considering a life on or around the stage.

“If you are serious about a career in the performing arts”, declaims the opening line of The Essentials, “then you will expect that your training, just like your ambition, will take over your life.”

Albeit it’s only a leaflet, it deals, as the name would suggest, with the big questions. It is divided into two sections: the “entitlements” of the applicant and what to look for in a top-flight college or academy.

Some of the advice seems pretty level-headed (an actor will find himself “running what will be, in effect, a one-person business”); some seems to over-reach (I don’t think it’s an “entitlement” of any student that they be found a job when they graduate — but in the age of student-as-consumer some promises have to be made, I suppose); and there are unnecessary touches of “I am what I am, not what I do” grandiloquence (but then that seems to be how serious actors feel — look at Daniel Day Lewis — so who am I to argue?).

Actress and producer Thelma Holt told the assembled dignitaries that when she meets young actors or receives letters, “nobody wants to know about my glamorous career — they all want to know how to get into a drama academy”.

But this is not a how-to-get-into-drama-school document; it’s a how-to-know-what-you’re-looking-for- when-you-apply document.

“You never think about what you want from a course; just how to get on to one,” acknowledged Charity Wakefield (Sense and Sensibility, Lark Rise to Candleford, Casualty 1909), who graduated from OSD six years ago.

It was to overcome precisely these problems that George Peck, the principal of OSD, decided The Essentials was, well, essential. “We are concerned that students are not well-enough informed about the difference between going to university and studying for a technical profession.”

Though the UK has always been a world leader in theatrical training, there is now a rapidly increasing number of courses for actors, and rapidly diverging levels of quality. So, two years ago Peck got together with the principals of RADA, Royal Ballet, LAMDA, Guildhall, Bristol Old Vic, Central School of Ballet, and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance to hammer out some kind of consensus on the best way to ensure excellence in education for performance and technical careers.

Among their chief concerns were that teaching staff be practitioners themselves, trained in the technical aspects of the theatre; that courses replicate as closely as possible the rigours of the working environment (“the Oxford School of Drama employs difficult directors, for example,” Peck smiles); and that students are genuinely taught full-time, rather than merely ‘supervised’.

“Drama school makes you feel like you’re already in the career,” says Wakefield, describing OSD’s 30-plus-hours-per-week timetable of daily studying and evening rehearsals, termly assessment performances, voice-work, movement theory, animal studies, and more.

The concern is not simply that young students can’t tell a vocational course from a souped-up (or down) English degree, but that courses are often misadvertised, and not always by accident. No less a luminary than Alan Ayckbourn has endorsed The Essentials, spurred by the proliferation of what he calls “con” courses.

Caroline Langrishe, actress (Lovejoy, Sharpe, Judge John Deed) and mother of Rosalind Drury, another OSD graduate, warned of the obvious financial incentives for less scrupulous institutions: “Especially in this present climate, everyone thinks they can be an actor and everyone is conned into thinking that they have a shot.”

But the attrition rate at theatre schools is high, and The Essentials aims to ensure that only the right candidates gird themselves for this particular fight.

“One of the things that drama school teaches you,” said Wakefield, gently, “is that maybe you should be doing something else.”

Or, as actor Henry Goodman (Duet For One) put it, rather more succinctly: “Everyone has to learn to act to survive. Few people should do so for a living.”

lThe Essentials is available through schools, FE colleges and careers advisors, or direct from The Oxford School of Drama (oxforddrama.ac.uk).