It’s an honour and a delight to be giving this talk in the name of Caroline Benn. I didn’t know Caroline personally but I was lucky enough to see and hear her speak on one occasion - at a meeting on comprehensive education, I think, and I read a few of her writings. I’m very glad that her name is attached to the idea that groups of us can meet and talk about education as we’re doing tonight. This involves a principle: that talking about education matters. That may seem obvious but let’s do a bit of a walk-around of what I’ve just said - before we get on with the subject of tonight’s talk. It’s very relevant, as you’ll see, because it’s about how things happen and get done (or not done) in education. The ‘realpolitik’ of education, if you like.
I confess, I’ve come to a rather cynical conclusion about education and ‘ideas in education’ - the very thing we’re doing today. I believe that what actually happens in schools and in classrooms has become less and less to do with what classroom teachers believe in and more and more to do with the decisions that ministers of education make.
I come from a tradition - in my family actually, (both my parents) - who believed that education for all improved through an exchange of ideas between practising teachers and former teachers who had become teacher-trainers, inspectors and advisers. This exchange took place through talks, books, papers, reports and conferences. The shelves in our house when I was growing up, bowed under the weight of this mass of words.
As many of you know, something changed in 1988 and for whichever political party or parties who have been in power, education has been something to be planned, run and ordered from the top, from government. This has been implemented through acts which have restructured schools, inspection, assessment, examinations, created league tables, made statutory demands on the curriculum, along with non-statutory requirements which become de facto demands through inspection and assessment.
As an aside, I seem to remember that the journalist, Simon Jenkins, once called this the ‘nationalisation’ of education, which poses a challenge to those of here who call ourselves socialists.
Anyway, in my lifetime, one consequence of this centralisation is that it has involved changes in at least two different ways:
1) a clampdown on initiatives that came from that school of thought and action that believed in the process that I’ve called the ‘exchange of ideas process’. (An example that I saw at close quarters, the rise and fall (at great expense) of the “Language in the National Curriculum Project” for reasons that seemed entirely to do with the fact that ideas were being shared outside of government control.
and 2) Adjustments made by people who work through NGOs, advisory bodies, charities, consultancies, not on the basis of what is argued for but on the basis of what has to be done because the government say it has to be done.
To take one example of how this works: what’s called ‘grammar’ in primary schools. This was introduced half way through a report on assessment and accountability - the Bew Report 2011. It seems as if the Secretary of State at the time decided that a good way to assess teachers would be to demand that children aged 10 and 11 should sit an exam in grammar. The justification for this was that grammar tests would give examiners fail-safe right and wrong answers. In other words, teachers would teach a form of grammar that certain terms (like ‘present perfect tense’ and certain forms of language-use (like ‘subject verb agreement’) are either right or wrong. If children failed to pass this exam, this would show that teachers were not doing their job. You may have noticed that this doesn’t have much to do with what’s good for children, and has a lot to do with what’s good for data collectors, in this case the government. It’s a system that gives them data which, they believe, proves whether teachers are any good or not.
However, there is no linguistic justification for saying that all grammar of all language-use produces right and wrong answers. I’m learning a language right now, (2 hour classes every Sunday night) and every lesson is full of expressions from the teacher like: ‘you can say this, or you can say that’ and ‘some people say this and some people say that’.
If you think I’ve been talking nonsense about language so far, I’ll ask you to have a think about a piece of language that some of us see nearly everyday: the words ‘no smoking’ written up on the walls of places we pass through. An excellent piece of writing, I think. I think all of us in the room know what it means and yet it doesn’t make sense. Think about it: at face value (not its real meaning), it seems to be some kind of statement about how there’s no smoking going on! And yet we all know, in fact, it’s a demand or command. But school grammar tells us something else. It says that commands are structured differently: as in ‘Resign!’ or ‘Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.’ But as we know ‘no smoking’ in the context we find it, means ‘don’t smoke’ this would suggest that language is indeed much more than grammar and it is not what the Bew Report said it was - namely that it’ll produce right and wrong answers.
Just to be clear, I’m talking about this, to remind ourselves that the place we’re in is that the Secretary of State can, could and did decide what would go on in every classroom he was statutorily in charge of - not because it was justified in intellectual terms but because it would be a good way to assess teachers. The knock-on effect of this was that the curriculum subject we call ‘writing’ changed - some of which is part of the arts. Good writing, was now called meeting ‘the required level’ which meant that it had to incorporate features of this ‘grammar’. I was told at one parents’ meeting that our offspring was doing good writing because he was embedding his relative clauses.
Those of us who both write and who are interested in linguistics scratched our heads: our writing and the writing of millions of our predecessors is full of good writing which does NOT incorporate features of this particular form of grammar - the first pages of ‘Bleak House’ being a wonderful example.
However, the secondary consequence is the flowering of advice, consultations, publications and conferences which implement something - in this case ‘grammar’ - whose real justification as I say, was not linguistic, (not intellectual if you like), but purely administrative: how to assess teachers.
If you don’t believe me on the absurdity of this, I will share with you a bit of gossip: the Secretary of State in question looked over the materials that his team of linguists had assembled for the first grammar test. He was disappointed to see that there was no mention of the subjunctive. He asked them to put the subjunctive in the test. They wobbled. The subjunctive in English is a contested matter. There IS something different we do with verbs in certain structures but linguists who glance across at other languages - French, say, - can see that our subjunctive isn’t as big as theirs…so perhaps we should call our ‘thingy’ something else? No, no, no, said the Secretary of State, I want the subjunctive to be in. So that’s why every year hundreds of thousands of children study the subjunctive, do a test in the subjunctive, and then 99% of them forget about it for the rest of their lives.
If you think this is trivial, then you might be interested to know that many of the other concepts, terms and processes described as right and wrong by this kind of grammar are contested too. (See me later for examples.) Indeed the very idea that language-use can be reduced to naming of parts and a pre-ordained structure of a written sentence is contested. (Again, see me later for examples.)
Why am I talking about this in a talk billed as being about the arts?
Because anything and everything we do in schools is about a choice between what to do and what not to do. But this is not a free choice. Parts of the school day have been pre-determined. A good deal of the school day is a Choice Free Zone. Any discussion of the arts in education has to take this on board.
My argument so far, then is that whatever I say today about the arts takes place in the contexts I’ve just described - call it what you will - central control, government requirements or whatever. However, it’s not a central control for all our children.
Again, in one of the weirdnesses of our education system, what is a diktat directed to one set of children, is not a diktat for another set. Someone like me who passes from school to school can hardly believe what I hear when teachers in one kind of school tell me that ‘we have to do such-and-such’ and a teacher in another kind of school says that ‘we don’t have to do’ that very same such-and such. I have to reassure myself that the reason for this is that, say, I’ve passed from England to Wales, or from a local authority school to an academy or from one kind of academy to another kind of academy or for other reasons that I haven’t understood.
This too is part of the context in which we talk about arts in schools. In other words, a complex dance is going on across education in which some schools are doing more arts education than other schools and that the reasons for this are to be found deep in real or imagined demands from central government, or from other authorities who run education at a lower level - Multi-academy trusts, inspectors and the like. Because this IS such a complex dance, I am not going to ply you with statistics on how the arts are being squeezed out of schools - or as I should say SOME schools.
When I go into schools, I perform poems. I do quite a lot of that in a way that enables the children to learn some of the poems I perform. We perform the poems together, then and there.
At that moment, we become a pop-up, instant arts community. We have something in our collective repertoire that only we have in this exact form. Yes, I’ll go away and do that with another school, but it won’t be the same. I won’t say the same words, they won’t say it in the same way. So there is a uniqueness about it. Please hang on to that idea.
I’ll also suggest something else. That school can take that poem away and do what they want with it and I can’t control what they do with it because it’s in their minds.
There’s more. Quite often I might make some suggestions. They could do some drawings to go with it. They could video themselves performing it. They could change it in any way they want - add lines, take away lines. They could take out some words and put in others - or they could just go off in whatever direction they wanted. Perhaps an idea from one word or phrase might grab them because it reminded them of something that happened in their lives or wish that that they could do.
So what’s that all about? That’s about seeing art as generating art. And I talked about several things there: like one art form interpreting another as with doing pictures to do with the poem, say; also, how one piece of art offers up possibilities to a person to create something of their own - maybe through its shape, sound, feel, tone, image and so on. A process that some like Pie Corbett, call ‘imitate and invent’.
Now I said a few things there that need dwelling on. I’ll pick some of them out. Here’s one: one art form interpreting another.
Education is very much about the status of particular kinds of knowledge or one kind of process or one kind of subject being more important than other. This affects all of us for the whole of our lives about how we see ourselves, how we see culture and how we see society. You could do a little chart right now of what education taught you about how you put ‘important stuff’ at the top, not-so-important stuff in the middle and unimportant stuff at the bottom.
For me, education taught me that the important stuff at the top would be ‘writing essays’. I wrote essays non-stop every week from the age of 10 till the age of 23, I broke off for a few years, and then wrote some more when I did an MA. In fact, this talk is an essay too. It is one of the things I do, write essays. But then, when I look around me I can see lots of people not writing essays. Am I more important than them because I wrote loads of essays and am still writing them now? Are they less important because they go deep-sea diving or design bridges?
And what is in my ‘not-so-important stuff’ category as taught to me by my education? In other words, what was pushed to the edge or left out entirely? Well, talking of designing and building things, I don’t think I ever designed anything once I got past nursery school, when I did spend some time designing houses with building blocks. But as we’re talking about the arts today, my education taught me that the arts are mostly what you do in your spare time or you study them in terms of knowledge about them: - how to say things about bits of them which examiners say showed that I understood them, and appreciated some principles and techniques about them.
Of quite low or of no status at all was a sense that education should involve reflecting on one’s own identity, or culture and how that had a history, or how that fitted in with other people’s identities, culture and history. And you might guess where I’m going with that thought - that the arts are very good at helping people do just that: the arts help us situate ourselves as individuals in groups, groups in society and history. So, if you think that these kinds of reflection should be higher up the chart, then the arts are a good way for doing that.
But let me loop back to that matter of ‘interpretation’. I described an example: making pictures to go with a poem. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think the Secretary of State for Education who I mentioned earlier ever said that this would be an important thing to do. Certainly not as important as the subjunctive.
But why not?
Let’s go on a tour: the Sistine Chapel. I’m guessing that most of you can hold in your mind at least one image from the Sistine Chapel…there’s a naked man lying on his back with his arm outstretched…and above him to one side is another man, not so naked, with a big beard, and this man is surrounded with people who look like they’re in his gang and they all seem to be flying along in what looks like a flying hut. This is regarded as one of the world’s greatest works of art.
(As you know it’s by someone we English call Michelangelo as if he’s an Italian footballer who plays in England called Angelo, first name Michael. I only mention that because a big deal is always made out of the fact that when we ‘do’ my subject in schools - literature - it has to be British but when we do other subjects, we let in foreigners but we often anglicise them to make them seem at least a bit English. So we get to be proud of Michelangelo.)
He sculpted the statue of David too. These are right up at the top in status in society though the activity involved in producing such things are not ‘done’ very much in the curriculum. As Peter Kay would say, ‘what’s that all about?’
What it’s all about is that there is some kind of disjunct between some kinds of high status activity ‘out there’ (in society) and what we do in schools. What Michelangelo was doing was interpreting something: the Bible, not by writing an essay but through the arts. You know that. In fact, every stately home, art gallery, concert hall, cinema we go in, is jam- packed with interpretations. Look through the list of operas, ballets, movies, paintings, sculptures and ask yourself how many of them involve interpretations and adaptations?
Michelangelo called one of his statues David. That’s a giveaway. Not all art is so upfront about its interpretations. When Maurice Sendak produced ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ he didn’t write on the opening page, “Thanks to the Odyssey, I have created a story about a male figure who does something wrong, sails away, meets some monsters, overcomes them and comes home.” Clearly there are levels and degrees in this interpretation game.
My point though is that when we look at a Michelangelo, we can (if we want to) think about the relation between what we see (like the statue) and what it’s called: ‘David’; we know what he is interpreting. Now come to school. You’re doing GCSE literature. You’re doing ‘Macbeth’. What kind of status would a Michelangelo-type interpretation of Macbeth have in relation to the status of an essay like - and I’m quoting here):
“The fantastical and grotesque witches are among the most memorable figures in the play. How does Shakespeare characterize the witches? What is their thematic significance?”
Alternatively, I’m guessing that quite a few of you in the room can quote at least a couple of lines that the witches say in ‘Macbeth’….Let me try you, ‘Double double,…’toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble’. How many of you at secondary school (not primary) got a chance to write your own song, inspired by the rhythms or images or themes of that song?
My point is that we demote the value of doing artistic interpretations and promote the value of doing essays.
So my question now is why?
This raises another whole set of questions for us to do with, what are the arts actually for? what can they do for us? And why should we spend time doing it in school? and, if we have time, what might be the best ways to do the arts in schools?
So, what follows is a kind of checklist of what do the arts do for us:
1. At the core of the idea of arts is creation.
We’ve already had one glimpse at creation today with me invoking Michelangelo. Creation is about making something new. That’s what God is doing in the picture. Adam is new. So as we make something - poem, film, dance - there is a sense that this is in its own way unique. It can’t and won’t be exactly the same as anything else.
Why might that be important in education? How often do people in schools get that sense that they are the authors or originators of something unique and new? Not often. And yet we know that this is a crucial part of what we call ‘self-realisation’ but also of ‘group and community realisation’ as we see and admire so much, say when we watch Gareth Malone bringing choirs coming together on TV. If we are part of something like that we get a sense that we matter. The converse of that is that great motor for depression and mental illness: that we don’t matter.
2. But I’ve also talked today about what is in effect a kind of borrowing. When we create something new with any art form, we also borrow. If we want to be pejorative about this, we call it plagiarism, if we want to celebrate it we call it things like ‘influence’. The theorists’ word for it in literature is ‘intertextuality’, we write with what Roland Barthes called ‘the already’. If we want it to be, this can be exciting and hugely informative about the human condition. In effect, we explore what others have done in order to find a voice or idea for ourselves. If you make up a limerick, you borrow the limerick form. If you make a film in which it rains when someone is miserable, you’ve borrowed the ‘pathetic fallacy’ as it’s called. If you decide that the motive for someone to be violent towards someone is money or sexual rivalry, if you’re a young person, you may or may not know that one or two writers have done that before! You can, if you want, delve into the history of motives and that takes you to the human condition. Borrowing is good.
3. Another key feature of the arts is that they are experimental. They involve trial and error. We have a go. We see if it works. If it doesn’t we try again. If it works, we carry on. In an ideal world this should be (I would say) without a fear of failure. The only sense of failure, (I would say) should come from inside, not from a fear of failing an exam or a fear of punishment. Again, thinking of education, this is a counter-weight to an enormous amount of education which is dominated by a fear of failure. Failure is built into the system, right from when we test children in phonics when they are infants through to A-levels and degrees. The other word or words for trial and error without fear of failure is ‘free play’. I think one way to view the arts is that they can be a centre for particular kinds of free play.
4. I’ve mentioned already that a lot of it involves interpretation…some kind of statement about I the maker (or we the makers) think about another piece of art. I also think, as I’ve said, that this enables us to look from one piece of art in one medium across to a piece of art in another. This involves many kinds of analysis, pulling aspects of one and transferring it across to another. I’ve just seen the new Kazuo Ishiguro film. This is how it’s described:
Living is a 2022 British drama film directed by Oliver Hermanus from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa, which in turn was inspired by the 1886 Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. Set in 1953 London, it depicts a bureaucrat (played by Bill Nighy) facing a fatal illness.
So Kurosawa interpreted Tolstoy and Ishiguro has interpreted Kurosawa’s interpretation in order to show us something of how a man can’t or doesn’t change until death forces him to look on things in a different way.
Of course Shakespeare did this all the time, grabbing stories from wherever he could in order to bring out different ways in which people try to change their circumstances. You know those plastic hair brushes that you can bend back on themselves and they reveal the gunk at the base of the spines? I often think of writers and artists doing that, bending stories back on themselves to reveal what’s going on out of sight, in people’s minds.
5. Most art-making involves reflection…some of it is thinking egotistically about what am I doing, how am I doing it, why am I doing it this way…but also reflecting on the subject that I’m creating - the person I’m painting, the object I’m looking at and so on. There is interaction then between reflection on the self and reflection on the subject.
Thinking educationally, this is very different from what a lot of education offers which is, in a sense, the subject. We spend a lot of time learning how to keep ourselves out of the subject. When you’re supposed to be learning a double page spread on the extraction of metal from rock, no one in school is interested in what you feel about metal being in rock, or whether you’re excited to see it coming out of the rock. In fact, the chances of you seeing a bit of rock, or actually getting any metal out of a bit of rock are pretty low anyway. (I speak from experience as a parent trying to help one of my children learn one such double page spreads in his text book.)
The arts have the potential of reversing this and, asking the opposite question: what do you think about this bit of rock? As the jargon we have it, it can be person-centred.
6. As part of this, a lot of art-making involves empathy. It involves taking up the point of view of the ‘other’. Do we think empathy is important? If so, where do we get it from? It’s not an off-the-shelf commodity. It has to come from some kind of mind-work, in which we move from putting ourselves at the centre of the universe towards seeing ourselves as part of a group, locality, region, country or the human race as a whole. If we create anything that involves representing someone who is different from ourselves, we will have to be empathetic.
I might say that society, civilisation and the human race depends on empathy. I don’t think that the arts are the only way in which we reach this but I think it can and should be part of it. In fact, if we create art in groups - as in schools - there is a level of empathy that goes on through the act of creating a dance, a play, a film together. Why does so-and-so move like that, how does that person’s singing express emotion?
7. Again, a lot of art-making, involves conjuring up things, exploring what we call our imagination. At a surface level these fantasies, images, scenes may not appear to be identical or similar to what we experience but we don’t have to be psychoanalysts to know that what we imagine starts out from personal experience and often curves back in some way or another to who we are and how we think and feel. We might say we turn our feelings into phantoms.
Why might the imagination be important in education? One way of answering that is by saying that we stand or fall by our ability to imagine. The clearest example in recent times was the imagination of the scientists who invented the Covid vaccines. I’m no expert - at least not in the vaccine side of Covid - but there was one part of the process in the invention which involved rethinking the shape and way in which the vaccine operates in the blood.
Every day, the human race faces problems, many - perhaps all - of which will or do involve imagination in figuring out how to solve them. You might think that might put the subject or the theme or the practice of imagination in some kind of important place in education. Is it?
Well that depends on which kind of school.
I’ve been in some schools where it is. I don’t often go into private schools. When I do, it’s as part of a deal that they have invited in the local state schools. I am usually staggered by the kind of facilities that have been created so that the students can indeed explore their imaginations through music, drama and art. Now why would that be? Why would schools which are designed to produce people at the top of society think that the arts have such an important role to play in their formation?
Or should we ask another question:
do the people who’ve created such facilities think something along these lines - I’m imaging this (!):
“well, yes, there is the curriculum which if you succeed at it, will take you to the next level in education but actually, we can’t be 100% certain what life will be like for these students in ten, twenty, or thirty years time. They may have to be flexible, creative, imaginative human beings just as much as they have to be able to absorb and understand knowledge.’
I’ve heard a schools minister say almost the opposite and talk instead of education serving the prime purpose of equipping the students who leave school with ‘marketability’. The job of education in other words in his terms is to enhance the value of the students’ potential labour power in the jobs that exist right now. But who knows what’s coming down the line?
(Mind you, even with that limited functionalist approach, it does overlook that in certain places in the country and the world there are a lot of jobs in the creative industries. )
8. Carrying on with what the arts offer: The arts also often involve archaeology - exploring stuff that has happened to us. We go digging, dredging, trawling in our minds. Or alternatively things seem to pop up out of the ‘ground’ of our minds and say to our conscious selves - explain that, describe that, talk about that! The sneer about this activity is that it’s navel-gazing. My own view is that we can’t know why we do what we do, unless we look back at what we’ve done and what was done to us.
Education itself is a big process which endures. One thing the arts in schools can do is give a space for students to reflect on where they are in this process . That is: arts in schools can help children and school students reflect along these lines: ‘how did I respond when told to do this or that, or when I encountered this or that form of knowledge?’
I’m learning Yiddish. Every time I encounter a letter or word or expression I encounter my interactions with my parents, grandparents and relatives. They had spoken it when they were children but as they only spoke it in fragments I look back at their use of Yiddish as if I’m looking through misted glass but then each piece of Yiddish the teacher says, wipes the glass and gives me a glimpse of them as children and teenagers, talking, laughing and crying in Yiddish. That’s a reflection on my learning and it helps me to learn more. (You may have noticed I reflected on my learning just then artistically - using similes ‘as if through misted glass’!)
9. In a seemingly mundane but important way, the arts for children can also involve cognitive activities. As we create something we have to figure out how it might work either in the real world or in the world we have created. Could my character get from there to here in that amount of time? Do people really catch pneumonia and die if they get wet and cold? This function of the arts is particularly important for y young children.
10. We’re interested in education in abstract thought and categories or generalisations. We often think of the arts as being almost the opposite to such interests. The arts we often think of as being specific. In fact, something often goes on in the arts - whether we’re making or witnessing (reading, watching etc), is that we keep making analogies. Analogies are the root of abstract thought. We say that one thing is like another and therefore come under an abstract heading, as it were. If I’m writing, say, about being ill, I think about other people being ill, other pieces of writing about people being ill, other things that other people have said about being ill. What I’m doing here is working to the category of ‘being ill’ and filling it up with illustrations and examples of different ways of being ill.
As I started writing in 2020 about being ill in hospital, I filled out my sense of how I was coping, with thinking about, say, my father and how he coped with being ill. The concrete examples from myself and who I was comparing myself to, informed the abstract or generalised notion of ‘illness’ and the subset notion, ‘how do we cope with illness’.
We might do the same for emotions like ‘anger’ or ‘fear’. We might create a picture or a poem that expresses ‘anger’ or ‘fear’ that starts out from a very specific moment in which fear or anger is expressed but in so doing we make the analogies or comparisons with others. This is the basis for how and why we are each in our own ways philosophers…creating categories and abstracts full of illustrations and examples that fit or don’t fit. The arts give us a space in which we can do this.
11. I’ve already covered this in some ways, but the arts also involve a lot of exploring and investigating. On the one hand we explore and investigate ourselves - sometimes consciously, sometimes not…what kind of person am I doing this? But actually, a lot of the exploring and investigating is of the material we are using. We explore and investigate what it can do…the clay, paint, film, the human body, wood, or of course language…
12. The arts involve - as I’ve said - exploring possibilities and the possibilities of change and the possibilities for change. Throughout the creation process things change, but also we often show people, or places changing. The whole world of literature and the narrative arts (film, plays, opera, ballet) involve people changing as they interact with other people or physical and scientific changes.
And in all this, there is a principle: in changing stuff (the stuff we use in the art-making) we change ourselves. In changing stuff, we change ourselves.
It’s worth dwelling on this for a moment.
I’m not against knowledge. Far from it, I’ve worshipped at the altar of knowledge all my life. I also believe that getting knowledge is fulfilling and important and helpful. However, there is another kind of knowledge that I feel that I have from art-making, creating, writing. That is: in art-making I (or on occasions ‘we’) have some power in what we are doing. And as we exercise that power, there comes a sense that I change. Perhaps that part of arts-making is what bothers people who control education.
13. Then finally, grouping some of all these categories and ideas together, there is a sense that as we engage in art-making, we become part of something that is bigger than us and bigger that what we are making. Call it tradition, or heritage or culture, if you like. It’s the slow realisation that the thing I am making is part of what humans have been doing for thousands of years. I gave the example of Where the Wild Things Are. I talked of it as a kind of borrowing. But it’s also being part of history of what human beings do to understand the world. The Odyssey, we might imagine, helped people in its time understand something of who they are, how they cope with danger, how they realise themselves through action. Thousands of years later, Maurice Sendak, we might imagine, helps people understand something to do with emotions that get out of control, or even, perhaps, looking for love. You’ll remember perhaps that Max, the hero wants to be somewhere where someone loves him best of all. Does he find that person? You decide.
So there were some 13 reasons why the arts are important and why we should have a place for them in all schools, so let’s finish with a thought about school.
Schools are unique.
They bring together people of many different backgrounds, personalities, attitudes and feelings. They may be the first and last places where the people in them can create things and share them with strangers and with people who care for them (parents and carers).
This means that: Schools can be production houses, publishing houses, theatres, concert halls, art galleries. It may be that many if not for most of the people in a school this will be the first and last time they can be the artist in those venues or publishing their work.
This involves thinking of schools, then, being at least some of the time, having these kinds of functions. This then means that yes, there are lessons, but that some of the day is involved in arts production. Yes, I know this is what schools often do after school or in breaks but this in itself is a statement: it says that teachers should run such activities in their spare time, and that it’s not as important as the stuff that goes on in lessons for the curriculum and exams. The spare time model also denies that the arts are a human right for all. It says that they are a matter of preference only.
I’m not sure that’s OK. In fact, I think looking at this matter through the prism of human rights is a good way of thinking of it. And with that in mind, I’ll finish with my 10 part guide to making arts education democratic.
In my ideal world pupils engaged in the arts should be able to:
1) have a sense of ownership and control in the process of making and doing
2) have a sense of possibility, transformation and change – that the process is not closed ended with predictable, pre-planned outcomes, but that unexpected outcomes or content are possible
3) feel safe in the process, that no matter what they do, they will not be exposed to ridicule, relentless assessment and testing, fear of being wrong or making errors
4) feel the process can be individual, co-operative or both, accompanied by supportive and co-operative commentary which is safeguarded and encouraged by teachers
5) feel there is a flow between the arts, that they are not boxed off from each other according to old and fictitious boundaries and hierarchies
6) feel they are working in an environment that welcomes their home cultures, backgrounds, heritages and languages into the process with no superimposed hierarchy
7) feel that what they are making or doing matters – that the activity has status within the school and beyond
8) be encouraged and enabled to find audiences for their work whether in the same school, other schools or in the communities beyond the school gate
9) be exposed to the best practice and the best practitioners possible or available in order to see and feel other possibilities
10) be encouraged to think of the arts as including or involving investigation, invention, discovery, play and co-operation and that these happen both within the actual making and doing but also in the talk, commentary and critical dialogue that goes on around the activity itself
Across the many years I've been involved with arts education, I have seen countless projects, schemes, partnerships and programmes, on and off site, being developed, flowering and then getting phased out. Agencies have come and gone, reports have been written and re-written. To my mind, much of this seems too arbitrary, too inconsistent and too temporary.
The way to take the arts seriously is not to defend this or that art form for its own sake. Pursuing arts activities with humane and democratic principles in mind is where the benefit lies.