Author Archives: drnicko

About drnicko

Awarded an MBE for services to arts-based businesses, I am passionate about generating inspiring, socially engaging, creative practice within educational contexts both nationally and internationally.

Day 25 of the 26 Day Big Shut Up: the final countdown

Over the last few years, I’ve been supporting The Mighty Creatives’ annual ‘Be Mighty, Be Creatives’ fundraising campaigns.  Whether this be through a Rock’n’Roll extravaganza In a Nottingham Church, a 24 hour Bring-Your-Own-Vinyl-A-thon in a Nottingham pub,  an exploration of Nottinghamshire by bike, or exploring the physical exertions required to net a basketball from a stationery position in the pouring Lincolnshire rain, the campaigns have been fun and firmly directed to supporting a mighty cause: fighting for the creative voices of children and young people in the East Midlands.

This year is no exception.  Called The Mighty (Un)Mute, we’re aiming to raise £5,000 to support the artistic creation for one of ten Globe Sculptures in The World Reimagined art trail across Leicester, one of the most multicultural cities in the UK. 

Our Globe has been created by local young people and supporting artists, responding to the theme of Still We Rise. The purpose? To recognise and honour those most impacted by the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans through the centuries to the present day.

The TMC staff team are going to support the campaign by taking part in the Mighty (UN)Mute, a day-long vow of silence, on the 5th October. We’re going to put ourselves ‘on mute’ to turn up the volume of young people’s voices, especially those who identify as part of the Global Majority… those young people who so often go unheard. We won’t be communicating with anyone throughout the day verbally, electronically or in written form.

Over the last 25 days I’ve contributed 25 blog posts on the topic of shutting up, silence and being silenced. There’s been lot to consider and lots to discuss. And this is my final request to you to support our campaign.

If this isn’t possible (and heaven knows we’re all in tough financial times right now), then anything you can do to share and shout about the campaign would be equally welcome and appreciated.

So… come and encourage me to shut up, once and for all. You know you want to.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/richard-owenmum

The pressing question for the Modern City: how to deal with Urination Hot Spots?

Deeply woven into the psyche of our cities planners are many challenges of great significance: traffic lights, pedestrianisation and the night time economy to name but three. The third member of this triumvirate of city signifiers  brings many benefits but has also led to the emergence of a rather peculiar and problematic cityscape feature: the urination hot spot.

 That’s right: those places in the city which quietly and unassumingly attract hundreds upon hundreds of visitors nightly to relieve themselves before they gleefully hop back up the street to join their fellow cavorters in fuelling themselves up before visiting the next urination hot spot. No need for a tourist guide, website or city ambassador  here: urination hotspots apparently announce themselves with the minimum of fanfare but with the maximum of impact. 

Now there’s nothing odd about having a piss outside: it’s something that is as natural as eating kebab and chips in windy bus stops. No, what’s remarkable is that our collective pissing has generated places which are like magnets to urine: places which call to our bladders, ‘Piss here, please piss here! Not over there but just right here!’  Just as our architects have dreamt up fabulous new city vistas, so our collective bladders have replied to those dreams with their own unmistakeable response to city living: the urination hot spot.

Now what’s that all about? Intuitively you might imagine that the pattern of piss over a city centre in one night would be randomly spread: people pissing wherever the fancy takes them, whenever it takes them. But apparently not: the phenomenon of the urination hot spot suggests that certain spaces in cities are privileged with being pissed on more than others; and that there is something magnetic about those spaces where, like in all good capitalist morality tales, wealth attracts wealth and piss attracts piss. 

We might ask ourselves: is there something in the architecture of the city which attracts piss heads to piss where others have pissed before them? Or is there something  hormonal about piss which biologically communicates with other people’s bladders over the ectoplasmic equivalent of wifi and which urges passing strangers to “piss here! Not there but here!”  Or is it a cultural phenomenon? A kind of “I pissed there cos my dad pissed there and his dad pissed there before him?”

Whatever the reason, you’ve soon got a urination hot spot on your hands (if you’re very unlucky). And if you’re a city planner  you’ve got an even bigger problem in your face (or nose) if your job is to improve the quality of living in your city: how are you going to get rid of such urination hot spots?

Given the managerialist culture those planners work within, there’s only one thing you can do first of all: measure them and implement interventions  which are intended to reduce or remove them altogether. And this is where it gets tricky. How do you baseline a urination hot spot?

Presumably you would need to measure the volume of piss poured into the hot spot over night and compare measurements both before and after your intervention strategy.  But before that happened, you’d have to have a definition of what constituted a urination hot spot in the first place. How would 15 rugby players emptying their bladders over half an hour register on the UHS scale? (See, there’s an acronym already – a sure sign we’re working in a genuine managerialist culture). And how would them drinking Guiness compare with a gaggle of estate agents drinking litres of Pino Grigio over the same period of time?

The managerial challenges are endless but one thing is certain: the Urination Hot Spot is, along with pigeons, McDonalds and inexplicable public art, here to adorn our streets and boulevards for many years to come.  

Bullseye! Look at what we could have won…

“That’ll kill you,” I cheerfully called out to the car parking attendant at the Covid-19 Vaccination Hub as he lit up a surreptitious cigarette on the side of the road. No doubt attuned to the futility of my off the cuff remark, he ignored me and kept his stare on the argumentative pair of security guards who were at it hammer and tongs down at the security gates.

“If you don’t like the fucking job why don’t you just fuck off?” remonstrated an elderly man heatedly to his younger colleague who was no slouch when it came to returning the insults. I missed the rest of the barbed comments between them as I turned the corner and entered the inner sanctum of the Hub: a long queue of hopefuls and sorrowfuls were stretched out in front of me, all waiting our turn for what we fervently hoped would be our promise of happier days ahead.

The inner sanctum had in a previous life been the hallowed ground of the Central TV studios where the ITV gameshow, Bullseye, was produced. Mixing general knowledge questions with darts, Bullseye was fronted by its once famous compère, Jim Bowen, who used to encourage his participants with several catchphrases: “Super Smashing Great” (although he disputed he ever said that); they’d receive their “BFH: Bus Fare Home” if they gambled but lost; “Keep out of the black and in the red; nothing in this game for two in a bed” referred to how contestants would have to avoid hitting the dart board in the same place twice; and perhaps the biggest killer catch phrase of all time, particularly in these Covid-sensitised times, “Look at what you could have won!”.

There was plenty of time to think about the irony of a site of a popular TV quiz game turning into a mass Vaccination Hub where the only prizes were of the Oxford / AstroZeneca or the Pfizer variety because the queue wended its way slowly into and around and through the studios.

There was no random throwing of darts into an outsize dartboard though; just the careful and attentive work of many NHS staff and volunteers, ensuring we were all focused on one common purpose: our salvation and wishes for better days for our friends, families, communities and nations after the disasters of 2020.

Look at what we could have won. You just had to read the news on your phone or in your newspaper to catch up with the recent mortality figures. 121,000 and still counting in the UK; unimaginable numbers across the planet.

But for all the solemnity and patience of the queue, the ability of the staff to react swiftly to an ever changing situation was remarkable: one young lad with diabetes was brought through the Hub at pace. He’d been struggling but his carers were dealing with it swiftly, directly and with the minimum of drama or game show pizazz.

It was one tiny insight into the myriad of struggles that people here, across the country, across the world, have been enduring over the last year. “Look at what you could have won!” I nearly called out to the car park attendant on my way out but thought better of it. He was enjoying his cigarette in the warm early Spring afternoon air and didn’t need any more reminders of what is just around the corner.

From Toy Story to Treseder: what are we fighting for? Perspectives on Youth Voice

On Tuesday 3 November at 12.15hrs EEST, I’ll be presenting my paper, From Toy Story to Treseder at the International Research Conference “Impacts of Arts and Cultural Education: arguments and evidence. The conference is being promoted by the Latvian Academy of Culture and will be live streamed from 11.00am EEST online on the Academy’s YouTube Channel and Facebook page.

My presentation explores the phenomenon of ventriloquation, hypnotism and impersonation as channelled through Disney’s Toy Story 4 and identifies the challenges to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people. It asks when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

In case you can’t make it, here is my presentation.

And if you prefer to read it, here it is.

Introduction

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Unlike Leonard Sachs in the BBC TV series The Good Old Days, I shall try and avoid any sesquipedalianism (The practice of using long, sometimes obscure words), try hard not to asservate (assert over emphatically) but enjoy the myriad multipotency and polyphony of our session together here in Riga, or where-ever you may be based.

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth, and we can be influenced by each other.” (W.E.B. Du Bois)

In accordance with the author and historian, WEB Du Bois, I’d like to start with another piece of art, the film, Toy Story 4. In this clip, Buzz Lightyear is trying to persuade our hero, Woody, to give up his quest to find Bo Peep and go home. Woody refuses so Buzz asks his inner voice what he should do next.

Thanks a lot, inner voice. Something we all might recognise in times of trouble when it comes to listening to what we think our intuition, our gut feeling or what we might think of as our authentic voice is telling us.

Buzz’s awareness that his inner voice has its limits is important in the phenomenon of ‘youth voice’. In this presentation, I’m going to discuss the challenges these limits present, especially in these times when the voices of the people and young people in particular are called upon to inform public cultural policy. I’ll be exploring this by considering the concept of Authentic Voice and how this relates to the concept of Performative Voice; and how voices can inform civic dialogue as part of a wider call for Cultural Democracy.

Youth Voice: the impulse for this paper

You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum, the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years.

We’ve learned a lot in the UK from the Brexit referendum about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for when it comes to considering how young people’s voice – or voices – are heard and acted upon. At a macro level, this has been one provoking incident which has led to a consideration of what we mean by public voice and democracy.

 Creative Voices: an organisational perspective – what are we fighting for?

Coming closer to home, as CEO of the charity, The Mighty Creatives, we place great store by our brand strapline, ‘Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people’. It’s an aspiration woven through our organisation since it began and as such it helps mark ourselves out as deserving of special attention in the cultural marketplace: it’s at the heart of our mission statement. My colleague Emily York expresses it thus:

Children and young people are feeling more and more empowered to share their views and to have them valued. It is our duty to listen to them, respond to them and embed their views within our organisation’s practice where appropriate. We cannot authentically provide for children and young people if we do not do so. With this there is an undeniable responsibility, not only to provide children and young people with rich arts and culture opportunities, but to also organically embed youth representation and voice within our infrastructure.

There are several concepts here which I’ll explore through this presentation

Firstly, that of authenticity: the idea that an organisation has to ‘walk the talk’ if it is to be taken seriously by the beneficiaries it claims to be working for. Authenticity suggests a fundamental, state of being which represents the true self of the organisation’s intentions and motivations. Being seen to be authentic can be comforting in that it provides a sense of moral rectitude when the world is replete with fake news, illusion, ambivalence and ambiguity.

Secondly, that of civic duty: by listening to young people and actively taking steps in order to transform organisational policies, practices and structures, we can demonstrate that we are fulfilling a wider civic role, rooted in traditions of participation and democracy.

So the second impulse for this paper has been to stimulate debate with colleagues, both within TMC and externally, about what we really mean by Youth Voice; how and why it should be fought for and what’s at stake for us all: artists, educators and young people themselves.

What we understand by Youth Voice

At its simplest level, youth voice is a term for how children young people are able to express themselves in order to influence the world around them. This is not just about the spoken word but the many different ways we express ourselves: laughing, crying, gazing, pointing and grasping amongst many others.

Youth Voice is central to many engagement and participation strategies and I’m going to reference three of which inform our work at TMC: Hart’s Ladder of Participation, Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation model and Lundy’s Model of Child Participation.

Phil Treseder’s Degrees of Participation emphasises that there should be no limit to youth participation, with each degree of participation being equally valuable, dependent on the proposed project and the objectives of the participants. These degrees are:

 Assigned by informed;
Consulted and Informed;
Adult-initiated, shared decisions with children;
Child-initiated, shared decisions with adults and
Child-initiated and directed.

Lundy’s Model of Child Participation provides a sense check of whether we are ensuring that every child and young person we engage with, through any degree of participation, has their voice heard and acted on.

Her model provides a way of conceptualising a child’s right to participation, as laid down in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is intended to focus decision-makers on the distinct, albeit interrelated, elements of the provision.

The four elements of the model have a natural and rational order of Space, Voice, Audience and Influence. A safe space and open space must be available for young people to share their views, children and young people must be facilitated well enough to express them correctly, these views, ideas and opinions must be actively listened to and acted on if and where appropriate.

In 2012, Andreas Karsten identified 36 different models of youth and citizen participation in which the importance of youth voice plays various degrees of importance. I’m not going to compare and contrast all those models here but suggest that this proliferation of models is perhaps a sign that trying to define youth voice as a singular entity is a lost cause from the outset.

Rather than trying to define a complex phenomenon under one all encompassing model or metaphor, it might make more sense to see it as a polyphonal phenomenon: multi-faceted, multi-structured, multi-purposed and multi-voiced.

 The mirage of the authentic voice

When in times of ambivalence and complexity, it’s time to turn to art again and I’d like to show you this brief clip to give us another perspective on the challenge of youth voice.

Let me introduce you to Kenny Craig, hypnotist from the BBCTV series Little Britain of a few years ago:

Whilst youth voice has been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world, there’s a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as the central plank of your cultural policy making can become a tokenistic attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands – Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under – mask several other agendas – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

The sight of the young woman not remembering agreeing to go on the date with Kenny reminds me of student subject choices being strangely limited at critical times in their education development. When she’s discouraged against her will to choose the set menu over lobster and water instead of champagne, I ask myself whether this tells us something about how often young people in school can be hypnotised into expressing their school’s desires rather than their own.

When we find ourselves asking ourselves, whose voice are we actually listening to? The voice of the young woman or that of Kenny Craig? Then it’s time to resort to art again – this time in the shape of some more old English Music Hall Tradition – to gain some further insights into the ephemeral concept of youth voice.

It’s always interesting to see the ventriloquist dummy fighting against the will of it’s operator; not least because it’s the operator’s own voice is expressing the revolt, through the voice of the dummy.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child. Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long-lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges. He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy ever afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of youth voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.” And refers to the idea that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.

This is exemplified in this clip from Toy Story 4: in his search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“It’s an unchartered mission in unchartered space” doesn’t cut it.
“No time to explain!” isn’t what’s needed.
“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than we might imagine.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are constructed through acts of impersonation.

In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie, impersonates the family car’s GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.

Also worth a listen to how Buzz responds to Rex the Dinosaur when asked what he’s doing as he presses his voice box buttons.

So, bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators which construct our inner voices, we can conclude that always in transition, voice is not a fixed entity. We do not speak consistently for long. We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.

Our authentic voice can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.

Listen to your inner voice says Buzz Lightyear throughout the film. But which one, we might ask ourselves?

So, is the search for authenticity a false one, given the heteroglossic, provisional and fluid nature of voice? And if so, then what hope is there for organisations like ourselves, and at a macro level, policy makers who great place value on the need to hear the voices of young people and the wider community at large?

The hope lies in the very plurality that the word ’voices’ suggests and the recognition that voice is dynamically constructed and reconstructed, shaped by many different, counter or affirmative voices. To channel the voice of Judith Butler and her work on identity: we do not have a voice, we perform multiple voices. Voice is a performative act, not a state of authentic, inviolable being.

Policy perspectives: How plurality supports cultural democracy

Bearing this in mind, what are the implications for policy makers and practitioners who genuinely want to ensure that the influence and agency of young people can felt in their organisations and practice? How does policy contend with ambiguity, ambivalence and multiplicity of voices and views?

The Mighty Creatives and many other cultural organisations are not alone in wanting to hear from the voices of our beneficiaries. This desire stems from the recognition that arts have a critical role in the civic life of nations: and for this role to play out to its full effect, listening and acting upon the voices of citizens is critical.

The study undertaken by Kings College London for the Gulbenkian Foundation in 2016 makes the case for the civic role of the arts in the following ways:

The inherent argument: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes ‘a right to participate in the cultural life of the community’ and that it is in the duty of every arts organisation to reach out and be an active part of their communities, especially if they receive public funding or protection.

The social justice argument: We live in unequal and divided societies and arts organisations are well placed to articulate this disparity and (furthermore) enable social action by, with and for the disadvantaged to ameliorate the situation.

The intrinsic argument: Arts organisations are uniquely placed to engage in civic matters since they are seen as neutral or third spaces and that people respond to the material of the arts using different values and faculties from those they apply to explicitly political media.

The dutiful argument: In a society in which trust, engagement and investment in traditional civic organisations (such as churches, political parties, etc.) is seemingly declining, arts and cultural organisations represent a last resort (or perhaps preferred agency) through which to mobilise and animate citizens in democratic processes.

The Kings College study highlights the work of Bacon and Korza (1999) and their argument that it’s the very presence of the multiplicity of voices which leads to civic dialogue and democracy.

Their emphasis on dialogue between multiple voices can direct us to how we might better develop our intentions to listen to and act upon the voices of young people.

They argue, in their publication, Animating Democracy: the Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, that cultural organisations play a key role as catalysts, conveners, or forums for civic dialogue, beyond their basic role of producer, presenter, or exhibitor.

By offering space, organisational and interpretive capacity, cultural organisations can build local relationships to encourage various publics to engage in civic dialogue and participatory democracy:

“civic dialogue plays an essential role in the workings of democracy, giving voice to multiple perspectives on challenging issues; enabling people to develop more multifaceted, humane, and realistic views of issues and each other; and helping diverse groups find common ground.

Dialogue can help diverse groups find common ground on a particular issue. Face-to- face exchange prompts people to develop a more multifaceted, human, realistic picture of their fellow citizens and of an issue, in the absence of which there is a tendency to stereotype opponents and reduce issues to extremes.”

This leads me to three final questions. If we could recognise our own multiple voices of ourselves, might this lead to the democratisation of ourselves, and an acceptance of our differences to ourselves first of all, from which acceptance of The Other might follow?

Could recognising the hypnotists, ventriloquists in our own lives somehow lead to greater tolerance of the multiplicity of the voices of The Other and lead to societies which are more at ease with themselves?

And finally, when it comes to your time to hearing the voices of young people, how do you perform? Are you a hypnotist, ventriloquist. Impersonator or something else?

I’ve leave this with you for our Q and A session, but in the meantime would like to end with a return to art.

In 2019, The Mighty Creatives promoted a conference entitled Creating the Future: Challenging Perspectives and Broadening Horizons for Children and Young People. Designed, developed and delivered by 5 young people, the conference produced many challenging conversations about how young voices could inform their futures.

We asked the poet, writer and creative producer Charley Genever, to capture the day’s conversations and happenings, of which she crafted into ‘Notes for Change’ which I shall finish my presentation with. The last note provides a partial answer to the question I have just posed.

SLIDE NOTES FOR CHANGE by Charley Genever

1. We all know how the world is, we feel it in our fists, the evidence is there, we’re failing at least two million of our kids and not one of them deserves it.

2. A shut door is a barrier. A bus ticket is a barrier. Education is a barrier. Your 35+ staff team with the same average age is a barrier.

3. The system is an ancient ocean and provision comes in paddling pools. The figures go over our heads to the ebb of rich, white hands. Look at them wave, floating their tick boxes and funding loops to our shoreline for us to ascribe our lives to.

4. This is not how it should be. Kids do not come culture free and every turned cheek becomes a disaffected memory.

5. Imagine how fresh democracy would be if we showed every child, they’re worthy of creativity.

6. There’s so much noise when you’re young. Layers and layers of it. A slow story, a clock for a tongue, all the words come out wrong. Shame slots in-between, breeding on the lack of opportunity.

7. Jargon is only good for lingo bingo. It’s condescending. Get it off your posters.

8. Art is the business of people, the right for everyone to belong, for new minds to find their tribes, to create thriving humans.

9. If you don’t wear this sentiment across your chest, you’re not a youth engagement officer, you’re a security guard.

10. Are you being honest with yourself? Are you riding your high horse to the estates, the academies, the prisons, or are you watching the horizon shrink from your office?

11. LISTEN. The youth will speak. GIVE SPACE. The youth will fill it.

12. In the right light even dust will ignite. Sparks in school visits, in workshops with guest artists, in museum trips and paid internships. Don’t tell me you can’t evaluate a twinkle. You are asking the wrong questions.

13. Remember when you were first gifted the power to make the ground sound magical? Turn tarmac to fairy-tale. Open the curtains and let the whole street in.

14. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

15. There is no alternative to hope. It’s all we’ve got.

END

The full conference schedule is here Konferences programma_15.10_ENG-2.

Bibliography

Arts Council England (2015) Building a Creative Nation: Putting Skills to Work, Creative & Cultural Skills.

Arts Council England (2018) The Conversation, A report by Britain Thinks.

Bianchi, L.L. (1999). Finding a voice: Poetry and performance with first graders. PhD thesis. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire.

Bond, K. & Stinson, S. (2007). It‘s work, work, work, work ‘: Young people ‘s experiences of effort and engagement in dance, Research in Dance Education. 8, 2, 155-183.

Butler, J., (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Routledge.

Fishkin, James S. The Voice of the People: Public Opinion and Democracy, New Haven, Conn.:Yale University Press, 1995.

Hart, R., (1992) Children’s Participation: from Tokenism to Citizenship, UNICEF International Child Development Centre.

Ivey, B. (2009) Expressive lives and the public interest, Expressive Lives, Samuel Jones Demos.

Kerbela, L. (2012). Swimming in the shallow end: Opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. Tonic Theatre: http://www.tonictheatre.co.uk/wp-content/

Lundy, L. (2007) “Voice” is not enough: conceptualising Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”, British Educational Research Journal, 33:6, 927-942, available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01411920701657033

Mathews, Andrea. (2007). Restoring My Soul: A Workbook for Finding and Living the Authentic Self, Bloomington, IN:Universe.

Schaffer Bacon, B. and Korza, P. (1999) Animating Democracy. The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue, Washington DC: Americans for the Arts.

Stinson, S.W. (1997). A question of fun: Adolescent engagement in dance education, Dance Research Journal. 29, 2, 49-69.

Stinson, S. W. & Bond, K. E. (2001) I feel like I ‘m going to take off: ‘Young people ‘s experiences of the superordinary in dance, Dance Research Journal. 32, 2, 52-87.

Rhodes, Ni. (1990) 21 Voices:The Art of Presenting the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.: Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

Treseder, P. and Fajerman, L. (1997) Empowering Children and Young People: Promoting Involvement in Decision- Making, Swansea: Save the Children.

Wilensky, L.M. (2013) The Proof is in the Poetry: Generating student voice in a collaborative writing group approach to teaching and learning in ninth grade English, MA dissertation. San Diego: University of California, San Diego.

Sir Ken Robinson: when Herbert meets Ken, what an afterlife that will be.

Sir Ken Robinson’s recent death has prompted much reflection and sadness across the world from artists, teachers, thinkers and politicians alike.  He’s been a hugely influential figure for so many of us who have been cultivating the arts and cultural education estate over the last 50 years, and it’s impossible to overturn any stone in the garden, rearrange the shrubbery or repave the patio without noticing the impact and influence that Ken, now one of the Great Gardeners in the sky, would have had on that contribution to our educational horticulture.

Many of us owe a huge debt to him for the wisdom, generosity of spirit and sheer good humour he has showed us whilst tending the estate.

My own testimony to him goes back to when I was studying for my PhD at the University of Hull, when I met him at a teachers conference in Stockport in August 2006 to talk about his history in art education: where he started, what he continued and where it was heading.

Whilst he had a long history of advocating for arts education, it was perhaps his work as Chair of the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE) with its publication of All Our Futures Creativity, Culture and Education in 1999 and the subsequent development and implementation of the Creative Partnerships programme in 2002, when many of us felt the full magnetic force of what a Ken Robinson vision of what a creative education could look like.

Whilst you can trace a direct genealogical lineage from his book, Learning Through Drama with Maggie Tate in 1977, to  the Gulbenkian Foundation’s The Arts in Schools report in 1982, no-one could have reasonably foreseen the marked change of trajectory that Ken would go on to take between 1982 and 1999 with the publication of All Our Futures.

 His strategy was to re-configure artists in schools projects into a more ambitious programme of creativity and cultural development in which creativity was disconnected from an arts education agenda and placed within the wider context of creativity, teaching and learning. This may sound oddly familiar to those of us who are following the recent Durham Commission’s work into Creativity and Education and their visions for quietly rearranging Ken’s horticultural revolutionary idealism, but I’ll let that pass for the moment.

From initially arguing in 1982 that a repositioning of arts education in schools was essential to contributing to  a holistic, humanistic education, Ken found himself arguing in 1997 for a programme which, in reducing the significance of the arts and the artist in creativity and cultural education, was purposefully designed to appeal to government ministers who were anxious to ensure that the programme could not be interpreted as being the result of successful lobbying by an articulate arts constituency.

In an interview with me, Ken referred to a complex political context shaping the work of NACCCE and its production of All Our Futures:

I read this paper to him (David Blunkett)…  he said we would like to do this…  I was saying why don’t we get a group together to advise you   on what would be involved in a systematic  approach to creativity  in the school system given how important this is… but he didn’t want to go down in history as Gradgrind…. he wasn’t comfortable with the Chris Woodhead thing…  it was cramping his style … he said Chris (Smith) was very interested in this too …  you tell us how this might work… who would you like on the group… So that’s how it came about…. I put the proposal together to make it happen…  it just seemed to me that there was a historic opportunity here ….  my own personal line of thinking  has been…  a continuing opening of the agenda further out… my interest began in drama… but I always felt that drama was part of a bigger picture … so it became arts in schools…  but all the things I’d been writing about personally…  had always persuaded me that there were powerful synergies between the disciplines… but also if you look at what was happening in the theory of science … and especially the  cognitive sciences and theories of mental representation and  meaning making, you don’t have to look around long to  see synergies between  science technology  and the arts  – I also knew … that  the people who worked in science and maths were just as pissed off about what was happening in their disciplines…  they were feeling boxed in by these strategies and so on….  as soon as (Tony) Blair started to talk about creativity, I thought this was great…. but you can’t talk about the arts for long without saying creativity and culture, not really…  I also knew that….  if we’d gone to David Blunkett or Blair then in 97, and said this won’t do, you’re marginalising the arts again, we need a big arts initiative, I know they would have said not just now, we’re doing the economy…. we’ve got so much on, go and talk to Chris (Smith)…  I knew instinctively this just wasn’t the way to go – creativity was a  portal for all of us to go through…. so I didn’t write a paper about the arts, I wrote  a  paper on creativity… this was just the right thing to do politically because…   this was what they were concerned about:  what they didn’t know was what to do about it….  and they didn’t know what they were throwing away in the process – they were killing arts programmes all over the country at the time…. It seemed a much better strategy rather than saying…. you’ve got a problem, you’re killing the arts… more than that, it was an opportunity to get around the same table not just artists  but scientists, business leaders, economists….  that then is irresistible; if you show this is actually a  common argument  and a big argument and that the arts  are four square with the sciences and technology….  creativity seemed to be the portal  we could all go through…we could all get that… people got the economic argument…   it was a way of recasting it… so in a way….  All Our Futures is in its own way the arts in schools projected onto a much bigger canvas…

You can hear that interview here.  It’s not broadcast quality but his insights and humour shine through – and they tell us a lot about what Ken was faced with in attempting to revolutionise our educational landscape.

Ken’s allusion to creativity as a portal through which disparate educational and disciplines might step, in order to counteract the effects of an ever-prescriptive national curriculum and increasing performativity driven managerialism in is as relevant today as it was back in 1999, and even earlier.

Both All Our Futures and The Arts In Schools  trace their lineage to Half Our Future, a report of the Central Advisory Council for Education (England) published in 1963 and chaired by John Newsom, which, in its turn pays homage to the work of Herbert Read and his 1957 conference report for the Joint Council for Education through Art, Humanity, Technology and Education where H.J.  Blackham concluded:

 We believe that neither the contribution of the arts to general education, nor the place of general education in the national life has yet been properly recognised, and we want to form a body of enlightened opinion drawn from all walks of life which will bring general public opinion to share our conviction and see our vision of the role of the arts in general and the role of general education in the life of our industrial mass society.

 Remember that this was in 1957, not 2020. And if you want to dig up the lawns even more, you can find the work of Caldwell Cook  with The Play Way – perhaps the first book on drama in education  – arguing in much the same vein at the height of the first world war in 1917:

A social revolution of some kind will be necessary in England after the declaration of peace on the continent; for even supposing some fair principle is established by force of arms, it has still to be wrought into a living practice by right education and good government.  For many of us the greater war is  yet to come.

The creativity and cultural education agenda isn’t new and its call to action continues to reverberate across the decades.  We might ask ourselves why we need to keep making those calls to action and why there seems to be a permanent deafness to its rhetorical powers.

During my studies, I captured my understanding of Ken’s work in a paper entitled ‘When Herbert Met Ken: the 100 Languages of Creativity’.  It’s central conceit is that of a thought experiment written in the spirit of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in which some contemporary thinkers on creativity and culture – ie Ken Robinson and many others, in particular Sir Herbert Read – are brought together to examine the impact that Ken’s work has had.  You can read the paper here.

Whilst they never did actually meet, if there is to be an afterlife then at least Ken will be able to meet Herbert and have it out with him, fully reassess the impact that their work, and the work of those before and after them have had and plan for something better.

Their new visionary cultural landscapes may not be something we will see in our lifetimes, but landscape artists and gardeners move in mysterious ways so you can be sure that we will continue to feel the effects of Sir Ken’s work into the next century and beyond.

Game, set and match: Janice Owen reads Confessions of an Ageing Tennis Player for Mothering Sunday.

To celebrate mothers and their impact of tennis players of the future, Janice Owen reads Confessions of an Ageing Tennis Player

Janice is a mother, writer and an ageing tennis player. Living in the village of Beetham as a small child her fascination for tennis was lured by the grass court at the big house which was very much a private court. Curiosity killed the cat in the summer of 1969 when her primary school class was invited to play croquet and have homemade lemonade on the adjacent lawn. She thought it was all very proper and very nice.

Janice’s grand slams were truly focussed on her father’s garage door where she practised and played against the her tennis opponents of the day in the 1970’s. Her mother’s objections to such activities led to quicker returns and an improved back hand. A family friend, John Ladell, realising her potential, gave her his own racquet, a gift treasured to this day.

Great tennis players of her school, and village club, Arnside, took court priority but that did not deter her spirit. Seeking out lessons she sought to modify her self taught bad tennis habits at the village club and appreciate the more competent players of every age.

Her grand slam and croquet techniques were later transferred to the squash courts and hockey pitches. As a mother she continued garage door grand slamming, she was the best solo player. Teaching her three sons to play and having matches on a sloping driveway, not ideal but great fun.

Today alongside her ageing but much loved tennis racquet she is the proud owner of a croquet set. Her continuing love of hockey, and the speed of ice hockey sit alongside her ambition to grand slam in walking tennis.

Whilst Mothering Sunday is special, some mothers are isolated from their children through estrangement. 50% of all donations received by 23 March will be made to MATCH, the charity supporting Mothers Apart from Their Children.

Confessions of an Ageing Tennis Player: all episodes now available on YouTube

In light of the very difficult times we’re all facing, I shall now be putting out every single episode of ‘Confessions’  on the YouTube, so If you stick with it, you’ll hear the whole book in its entirety!

Episode 1: Warm Up: One day I will play Roger Federer at Wimbledon and probably beat him.

First Set: how to Play Tennis.

Episode 2: First Game: How to deal with the irritation of 13 year olds on the other side of the net.

Episode 3: Second Game: How to Enjoy Net Play.

Episode 4: Third Game: How to Fly Solo in a Doubles Pair

Episode 5: Fourth Game: How to Play Percentage Tennis.

See the full campaign here.