Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Isn't it better to seek forgiveness than permission?

Last week I hosted an ‘Artsmark Celebration Conference’ at Dance City in Newcastle – probably the first time the words celebration and conference have been conjoined in such intimacy. This brought together heads and teachers who’d just received Artsmark awards to listen to a couple of inspiring speakers, as well as get their awards. Poet Kate Fox, who you may have heard on Radio 4’s Saturday live (she talks about the experience here), rewrote the ‘levels’ primary teachers work within. And QCA adviser Robin Widdowson talked about the changes in the primary curriculum coming out of the Rose Review, which puts understanding the arts much more central to developing successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens – and hopefully some people who are all three.

Robin was particularly interesting as he rather challenged the assembled teachers to push at the boundaries, and to use the freedom they had – which was more than many assumed. He suggested that many schools had operated as if they were much more restricted in how they worked than they actually were, assuming or imagining limits to be placed upon them that had never actually been written into guidance. They were following rules that weren’t there, and unnecessarily distorting their practice.

It struck me this was a parallel to what I’d observed when talking to RFOs at a couple of recent briefings, where the sense that ‘Arts Council was now a voice of government’ forcing people to ‘do social inclusion’ at the expense of quality of experience came across strongly from some people. They clearly felt far more directed or pushed than we intended. (I'll defend our right to challenge 'normal service' at times, of course - but I've never once felt we were doing that around diversity or inclusion, say, or the use of arts in regeneration 'because government tell us we have to'.) Things were being heard that were not being said. Our intent, even our statements, are not the issue. The unheard melodies are more powerful. The result in education, or so Robin suggested, was teachers not teaching to the creative limits of either the curriculum or their natural confidence. The question is, in the arts or the classroom, how we break through that syndrome?

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