a radical proposal for community arts & education

Years ago during an interview with a local newspaper I gave my title as Community Poet. Afterwards a more experienced writer explained I shouldn’t use the word community because it’s twee and suggests the work is somehow less in comparison to hi-end-art. I’m still baffled by this. Community shapes everything. No artist is born, or creates, in a vacuum.

A clear memory I have from early high school years is of a group of musicians performing in  our packed school hall. The man playing a saxophone blew me away. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever witnessed. Yes, my family played music at home, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Annie Lennox but live music was a totally new and eye-opening experience.

Sgwad Sgwennu Oriel Wrecsam
Sgwad Sgwennu Oriel Wrecsam

Kids wound me up in class for days afterwards because they thought I was in love with the guy playing the sax. I was too young or naïve to be able to articulate that it was the saxophone, the music, I fell in love with, not the guy playing it. I harboured a secret love for the sax for years but this didn’t translate through the school’s music classes and I quickly dropped out.

I wonder what might have happened if I’d had the chance to attend some workshops by those musicians? What might have evolved if they returned in three or six months to perform again and run a new series of workshops, and were interested to see how I’d developed in their absence? What if, in the meantime, another two, or three or ten musicians playing other instruments, with wildly varying styles of music, visited the school and workshopped over a series of weeks or months?
As it is I can’t play any instruments.

Returning to my true love – poetry – I couldn’t stand that in school either. The content bore no relation to my life. I’ve met a number of English teachers who don’t particularly love poetry – probably because their overriding experience of it is through a curriculum that appears intent on crushing even the most optimistic and resilient educators.

(As an aside, I believe it should be compulsory for all politicians who dream of shaping the minds of our young to either work in a variety of primary and secondary school classrooms or work as a freelance educator/workshopper for at least one full academic year before being allowed anywhere near education policy documents. That would weed out the careerists.)

A number of organisations are searching for new methods of creative engagement, National Theatre Wales have already begun consultation on their innovative and groundbreaking Rethinking Education project and are currently welcoming input into how NTW’s creative approach to theatre can translate into schools and working with young people.

Literature Wales’ Young Peoples’ Laureate and Bardd Plant Cymru roles were devised to engage children and young people in Cymru with the literary arts and continue to be hugely successful across all ages and demographics.

Imaginative and far-reaching projects like Arts Council Wales’ new Lead Creative Schools Scheme are taking Cymru a long way on the journey to engaging with creativity in schools (and consequently the community) and I believe this will make a valuable difference to the many people involved.

As discussed in a previous blog, I’ve been working as a freelance/self-employed writer for over seven years, and drawing upon everything learned, I want to map out here my utopian vision for how The Arts could be taught in schools (by The Arts I mean literature, poetry, theatre, storytelling, all visual arts, all music, dance, movement, crafts and philosophy and everything else I’ve not listed here):

Firstly – The Arts are not subjects that can be measured in the traditional sense. Full stop. So they should not be subject to exams. I would prefer to see a portfolio of creativity produced by students demonstrating a progression of ideas and creativity during their time in school. The Arts are infinitely more important that an exam grade – they are the very fabric of our humanity. Contrary to some people’s belief, creating art in any form is not at all easy – it can be excruciatingly difficult. Practitioners will constantly reach inside themselves for self-knowledge, empathy and emotional intelligence; must turn themself inside out to step into other people’s shoes and understand their subject; must learn to observe and translate the world around them before recreating it as art.

To produce an original poem, painting, play or song, to agonise over it for hours, days, weeks, then share it with people is a terrifying experience. The reward being that for one brief moment, you feel you did it, you captured that elusive smoke of existence before the winds of reality whisked it away. Our current system creates only the terror – without the reward.

Secondly – None of these subjects should be taught by one teacher alone, to do that is a Sisyphean task. Instead of Arts, Music, English Literature, Dance and Theatre Teachers, schools should employ a team of Arts Coordinators whose job it would be to source and plan a full programme of visiting Community Arts Practitioners throughout the year. This would offer students access to genuine working artists who are practicing their craft every day; who are performing, exhibiting, gigging, publishing, touring, crafting, visiting other artists, sharing good practice, learning new techniques, marketing themselves and their art/band/poetry and who have a diary bursting with contacts and projects; whose work is inspired as much by Shakespeare, TS Elliot or Beckett, as it is by The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk or The Slits. The benefits of this are:

  • From a very young age our next generations understand the importance of art.
  • They’re exposed to a variety of artists working in the industry who are not only inspired by their chosen artform but who live and breathe it.
  • The X-factor-or-bust mentality would quickly be eradicated because people can witness first-hand what it is to work as an artist, and importantly, see it is an achievable career for anybody, not just an elite few.
  • So many accomplished artists I know work in shops, cafes, bars, as learning support assistants or in banks. Instead the community should be capitalising on these talented and innovative individuals by booking them to teach their artforms in the community.
  • Artists teaching as freelance/self-employed would then be guaranteed a living wage which would in turn allow them time to work on their art instead of endlessly chasing funding and/or grants that don’t always come to fruition.
  • This method of teaching would help to build art audiences and bridge the disconnect that has been widening between community and art because the students would be an integral part of the Artistic Community.
  • There is nowhere to hide with this suggested programme. Those who might use the title of community artist as an excuse not to push their artistic practice could no longer wear that cloak. If you’re not able to practice what you teach then you’re in the wrong career.

Thirdly –  I would like to see The Arts Council Wales, Literature Wales, National Theatre Wales and other organisations build a joint database of tried-and-tested workshop facilitators. In addition they could run and facilitate workshops for potential educators to help them understand how to workshop, manage finances and sort tax issues, apply for Disclosure certificates and get the correct public liability insurance. These organisations should also be tasked with appointing the schools’ Arts Coordinators (on rolling contracts). Who better to do it?

Imagine that. An army of supported Community Artists feeding into the country’s language of creativity, becoming an integral part of our community’s dialogue and building art audiences, instead of being ignored and sidelined until possibly they ‘make it’ and are slingshotted out of reach of the average person who can then only dream of interacting with them.

I believe this approach would allow us to step away from top down plans to encouraging creativity, instead generating real grass-roots change. Creativity would be woven throughout the language of our communities with the potential to grow exponentially. Students would begin to utilise creativity to problem solve in maths or science or business organically and of their own accord. Creativity would be inherent in everything our children do. And these students will grow into calm, confident, emotionally intelligent adults with high levels of empathy, ready to interact with the world creatively.

Whatever their chosen fields, our next generations would carry an understanding and love for the arts with them into adulthood, hopefully continuing to engage with arts in a meaningful way and feeding back into the community, maybe by becoming an artist, or booking artists to visit their working environment.

Yes this is idealistic. Yes there are holes in this vision. I’m not an educational policy maker, I’m just a poet with a dream, but given the current crisis in Arts Education it’s absolutely time to add some radical proposals to the conversation – maybe this could be one of them.

Sophie McKeand

One thought on “a radical proposal for community arts & education

Comments are closed.