on community arts & education (part 2)

I’ve been blogging recently about working as a Writer, Community Arts Practitioner & Educator (in Y Gogs) and received a number of supportive and positive replies. The latest blog, a radical proposal for community arts and education also received a largely positive response but there was one element to the proposal that seemed to cause contention so I wanted to clarify my position here.

Hay Festival Dylan Thomas workshop
Hay Festival Dylan Thomas workshop

In that piece I admit my proposal isn’t perfect, and stress the theory has holes – I still hold to this! With hindsight, and through feedback from Adam at London Bubble Theatre Company on Twitter as well as Naomi Chiffi (Education Assistant with National Theatre Wales) on the NTW Rethinking Education community page, I realise I didn’t clarify my statement that “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.”

I want to start by saying I have nothing but the utmost respect for teachers. My dad is a retired high-school teacher who spent a large part of his career specialising in supporting students with additional needs who were dropping off the radar for numerous reasons. He worked himself into the ground helping these young people and their families, and ended up needing triple heart bypass surgery – partly due to the stresses of the job. My stepmum is a retired primary school teacher who also did a fantastic job. These are two of the most dedicated and talented teachers I’ve ever met, and they are my heroes, but their advice to me was not to go into teaching because it’s so physically, mentally and emotionally draining nowadays. Even today’s Guardian carries the article: Half of all teachers in England threaten to quit as morale crashes, and so I do think that new and radical approaches to what is expected of teachers need to be explored.

I’ve seen how much extra-curricular work teachers need to put in to make each lesson plan interesting and workable, so I wholly support projects in Cymru (referenced in the original blog) that are creating more opportunities for Arts Practitioners to work with schools and help educate and inspire our next generations.

It has also been stressed to me that many who teach The Arts in schools already have their own artistic practices outside of this and I agree this needs recognition, support and encouragement. I know of a number of highly talented artists, writers, theatre makers etc who do a fantastic job as teachers, and with this in mind, my questions are:

*Are they teaching because it’s horribly difficult to make a living wage as an artist?
*If so how can we make it possible for these people to make an achievable living as artists and still teach within the education system?
*Also how can we open up the education system to support talented artists who are not yet teaching but whose experience and skill could greatly inspire our students?

I’m proposing that these teachers-who-are-also-artists or artists-who-are-also-teachers are offered the opportunity to earn a decent living wage as Arts Practitioners, with the freedom and scope to plan workshops and engage with students about the elements of their artistic practice that enthuses them. How many English teachers, honestly, have said to their students ‘yes we do have to study the poetry of XXXX this term, yes I think it’s dull too, I don’t particularly like it either but it’s on the curriculum’? Why not book a freelance Arts Practitioner who is brimming with enthusiasm about that particular poet or poetic form instead?

I want to be clear, I am absolutely not suggesting we ‘sack Miss Jones the art teacher’. I’m proposing we give Miss Jones the chance to truly flourish as an artist and educator by allowing her to step outside the confines of the curriculum and by supporting her to teach her specific artform to a wider range of students as a Properly Paid Arts Practitioner. This would then allow Miss Jones the time to work on her own artistic practice, to exhibit, tour and produce new work, and all of these experiences would hopefully feed back into her education work.

I also know there are teachers whose creative strengths are not necessarily in the arts but who excel at engaging students and helping them to find the right path in life. These supportive, empathic individuals would make fantastic Arts Coordinators and would be charged with planning an annual programme of suitable visiting Arts Practitioners as well as liaising with school and students to ensure everybody benefits fully from each visiting residency. Their job would be to provide guidance and continuity for students as they create individual Art Portfolios that would replace the current exams and include work in literature, theatre, art, philosophy, textiles etc etc.

Again, I am definitely not suggesting ‘sacking Mr Evans the drama teacher’. This is about focusing on his strengths and allowing him the opportunity to do what he does best, which might be to work with, and support, students and artists as an Arts Coordinator.

I suggested that the Arts Coordinator role should be on rolling contracts because they can be interchangeable. For example there could come a time when an Arts Coordinator might want to become more involved with their own creative practice and build a portfolio as an Arts Practitioner. Equally, an Arts Practitioner might feel the need to settle into one school for three-years-or-so, for whatever personal or professional reasons, and becoming an AC would allow them the scope to do that.

In addition there would be more opportunity for APs to work hours suited to their artistic lifestyle: part-time, flexi-hours, full-time for three months then three months off to create a show, tour Europe or write the beginnings of a novel. People who are already creating art but not working in schools could benefit from earning money teaching their art – this beautiful thing that really matters to them and that they know inside-out – rather than having to work in jobs that make no use of their talent and skills.

I don’t have all the answers. Some people may still disagree with this element of the vision. That’s okay. I’m glad the blog got a debate going. I also said in the original post that this was a poet’s idealist dream. I’m not a policy maker and don’t want a career in politics, but I am looking forward to seeing how the debate on increasing creativity in arts education, and the education system as a whole, maps out in Cymru and across the UK over the next few years.

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