IT’S a city institution which has been introducing youngsters to the stage since 1926.

Southampton Festival of Music and Drama is one of the oldest and most highly respected festivals in the UK.

But as the 2014 event gets under way today, its future is under threat.

Organisers say next year’s event at Thornden Hall in Chandler’s Ford, which is attended by more than 1,000 people, is facing major cuts – or even the axe if more money cannot be found to keep it afloat.

Chairman Shelagh Lee has appealed for businesses and individuals to step in to sponsor part of the charitable event, which is run by volunteers and is completely self-funding.

She said: “We’re making a loss and there’s only so long we can keep on going. It becomes more difficult every time I have to report our situation to the Charities Commission.

“All the costs are going up and we just can’t pass that on and charge any more for entry, even though the level of entries is still||around 1,200 each year.

“It would be such a shame to lose it. There’s such an incredible atmosphere every year and it means a lot to people. One little girl ran over to me at school this week. She’s only seven, but she said: ‘Mrs Lee, I’m just so excited about the weekend’.”

“It’s a safe place for children to start learning to perform and they love having their parents and grandparents along to see them.”

The majority of participants are junior school children, who are first encouraged to take part in the non-competitive chairman’s classes. These are now under threat.

Also facing the axe are the medals given out to each child who competes in a class and the free tabla classes run by Art Asia.

The competition element of the festival continues until Sunday, March 16 and is followed by a spectacular finale concert, including all the winners on Friday, March 21.