Making the Midlands a 'Go To' Place for Cultural Education: Forum Event Report

Our first forum event on Cultural Education took place in Birmingham in October 2018, and was put together with Jacqui O’Hanlon (RSC), Professor Pat Thomson (University of Nottingham), Nick Owen (Mighty Creatives), Rob Elkington (Arts Connect West Midlands)

This event explored what collective knowledge about the growth and development of cultural education in the region, and enquired how we then use that knowledge individually, organisationally and across the sector to improve the quality and equality of opportunities for young people. Stories about the arts in education are generally told from either a national or London centric perspective. This event was Midlands specific and was the first in a series of 2 meetings on Cultural Education.

Taking place at The Studio, Birmingham, this event brought together the collective experiences/insights of artists, academics, researchers and education practitioners to explore two central ideas:

*1. The development of a vision for how cultural education work in the Midlands can develop over the next 10 years – and the contribution that the HE and cultural sectors can make together

  1. To experiment with creating a living archive of cultural education in the Midlands over the past 40-50 years to help better understand the rich history of work we are all part of. *

During the warm up, Jacqui O' Hanlon invited the room to split in to pairs to discuss respective stories of what brought individuals to the Midlands (birth / work / study / marriage etc.) A show of hands demonstrated a pretty even split amongst people born in the Midlands, people who came to the Midlands for study, and people who came to the area for work. The event encouraged participants to question the kind of story that the Midlands can tell about itself. From tales of long since defunct days of industry (from lace/cars/manufacturing/ foundries) and the absence of this identity in recent years. Jacqui identified that it felt locally that we embodied the Stealers Wheel song, ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’.

This first event comprised a diverse group of people affiliated with higher education and/or culture (musicians, artists, museum workers, theatre practitioners, educators, research fellows, people working to affect social/political change in arts education and beyond.) Together we questioned, is there is a difference we make together to the story that we tell about the Midlands and Cultural Education?

The Midlands comprises a powerhouse of thinking, innovation and research – but we’ve never been seen as one. We have a lost centrality. This could be due to austerity, as the market pushes people apart. The past ten years have seen decline, and with no imminent change in government apparent, we’ve got to do it for ourselves.

Jacqui O'Hanlon, Royal Shakespeare Company.

The Midlands isn’t especially good at selling itself. Like Richard III being buried under the car park, there is a hidden history, but someone needs to sit down and put it all together. For example, Nottingham became the City of Literature through digging up such links as Margaret Cavendish. However, it is a real “job-to-do” in putting it all together.

Pat Thomson, University of Nottingham

We need to shape provision in community arts at a student level. We can see that the East Midlands, for example, has had a strong regional practice of cultural education for 30/40 years. We also need accreditation for artists and other practitioners working in/with Higher Education to further advance our cause.

Nick Owen, The Mighty Creatives

A Story from the Midlands

Guest speaker Ian Grosvenor, of the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, provided a pre-1950s history of cultural education practice at the Steward Street Junior School in Birmingham.

Ian recounted the story of two consecutive headteachers at the school in the 1940s and 1950s each of whom placed the arts at the heart of the school curriculum. In 1949, the Ministry of Education published 60,000 copies of a pamphlet written by headteacher, Arthur Stone which gave a detailed account of the kind of arts-based curriculum he and the staff were leading. Steward Street school was already well known. Its visitor log book noted significant visitors including Laban, the Symphony Orchestra alongside international researchers and education officers. In addition, Peter Slade, a contemporary school and drama specialist, visited the school, as did Christian Schiller, a recognised far-left progressive.

Amy Wade was an educator in the 1920s at the Floodgate Street School in Digbeth. She brought drama into the classroom and subsequently went on to become headteacher. Ian observed the influence of Amy Wade upon Arthur Stone, and other educators around them. A Conservative Councillor at the time, not a fan of “fancy ideas”, blamed this creative way or working for low literacy rates in the region. Ali Clegg, in a study by Martin Lawn, argues that not only should children be creative, but they should also be children.

Further reading:

Radical Education and the Common School: a Democratic Alternative, Michael Fielding and Peter Moss (2011)
Pub. Routledge
Books by Ian Grosvenor include, Assimilating Identities. Racism and Education in Post 1945 Britain (1997), Silences and Images. The Social History of the Classroom (1999) with Martin Lawn and Kate Rousmaniere, The School I’d Like (2003) and School (2008) both with Catherine Burke and Materialities of Schooling (2005) with Martin Lawn.

Making a Living Archive of Cultural Education in the Midlands

The penultimate activity for the assembled group saw Rob Elkington asking the group to think of themselves as a living archive. Participants were invited to contribute to a timeline which attempted to document three concurrent lines of history depicting major events in Cultural Education, personal events and world and political events. After some flitting back and forth between decades, comments overheard included:

*“3 day week”

“I’m trying to remember Maydays at the RSC last week!”

“it was 1991 when it became mandatory for everyone”

“1998 – all our futures?”

“'Education, Education, Education' speech – 1997!”

“the same day they decided to invade the Falklands”

“remember when he wrote that report for the Arts Council”

“it was banned still in the early 60s, I think”

“when did he win the Booker?”

“Arab Spring”

“it was the end of Clinton”

“so when did you meet…”

“Theatre Comrades!”

“why Dorothy was so connected with Leicester”*

In conclusion to this exercise, participants were asked 'what happens when we try to bring collective experience here with cultural education as a nexus? What are we missing? What does this give us, by telling the story in this way?'

Responses included:

  • Is this story of our region more interesting than others? Is it interesting to others?

  • Someone in the group observes that networks coalesce at different times and can fall apart just as quickly; so if the Midlands was “in control” of its own cultural education story once, it likely could be again.

  • Further, the timeline shows something of a pattern, to be teased out like a puzzle; the 80s timeline is well-populated with information, but is that just because of the age of the people in the room? Or is it because the 80s are known to have been a time of hardship?

  • One member of the group expresses a sense of going backwards, making progress only for that to unravel.

  • Is there something grassroots about this timeline? There is certainly something accidental about it. It shows that the Midlands has always been full of creative arts projects, with local arts forums in each constituency.

  • There are gaps in the various histories, needing to be filled with film, music, the visual arts.

  • More questions are raised: does not being born in the region impact one’s understanding?

  • How do we understand the context of this knowledge and make it resonate?

  • With the personal history running right through the middle of the other histories, how do we situate ourselves?

  • In the 1950s, the Welfare State comes into play; with people coming out of school to that, what kind of knock on effect would we be seeing? It would be helpful to layer events over each other to see these sorts of progressions.

  • Is there a direct connection between certain events, and those who stayed awake for the Brexit vote, or for Labour’s 2010 (or 2015, or 2017) defeat?

  • How do world events influence and inform education? Are people inspired by events, or kicking against them? And is the best way to understand the region to start from looking at Education and the Arts on a world scale, narrowing down to a national scale, and then finally down to a regional scale?

Please note the full Cultural Education timeline of The Midlands will be reproduced soon on the Midlands HECF website with an opportunity provided to add additional data.

The Midlands as an International Centre for Cultural Education

The final session of the event was lead by Nick Owen, director of The Mighty Creatives in which he recalled a conversation with Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, where it was asked “why don’t you make yourselves an international centre for Cultural Education?”

Asking for responses Nick enquired of the group: is there a sense of “international centre of [dot dot dot]” in the Midlands? Could there be? Should there be?”

Comments in response:

  • Do we need a collective manifesto for Cultural Education as the Midlands – something that defines what we offer. We would need to be working towards something?

  • Is there a perception that the Midlands has a lack of ambition, either culturally or socially, that may need to be conquered?

  • Or is this more of an ‘excess of exhaustion’ rather than a lack of ambition?

  • This leads to the question: what do children gain from this “international centre”? The timeline exercise might prompt us to wonder if we can find answers for the future by looking to the past.

  • It is up to the Midlands to make its own mythology, to “talk up” what it holds, the way that Coventry created a narrative to become a City of Culture. Eventually, the story will take and become true, self-propagating.

  • Perhaps we can achieve this through a manifesto?

  • And finally, how would we benefit from spearheading a direct call of action, led by Birmingham, Nottingham and Warwick, for Russell Group universities to be more pro-culture and to lead the charge for changes to facilitating subjects that currently exclude all arts subjects?