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The arts bid for centre-stage

The culture lobby is hoping for anew climate under unitary councils. Gillian Macdonald reviews the options

A catalyst for creativity or the dead hand of bureaucracy? However you see local councils, the new unitary authorities offer fresh opportunities for arts in education, Mary McGookin, head of Edinburgh's arts unit, told a European conference on arts and education held in the city last week.

The three-day event was deemed timely not just because of local government reorganisation but because of increasing pressure on Europe to compete with the United States and Pacific Rim countries.

"Education is now at the top of the political agenda for European development," Ken Robinson, professor of arts education at Warwick University and an adviser to the Government, said. Forty-four out of 46 countries contributing to a Unesco report on culture and development voted for cultural development as a high priority. Sixteen of these countries were represented at the conference.

Edinburgh has always prided itself on putting the arts at the forefront of education and has adopted the former Lothian Region's arts policy, which gives every student free access. Now the city council is looking at a new arts and education policy, not confined to schools but community arts with a broad educational setting, Ms McGookin told the conference, organised with the European Union Cultural Forum.

"Authorities must be as creative as possible, so that the arts are more than something that just fits the curriculum," Ms McGookin said. "They need to work with arts companies to fulfil curriculum requirements." Edinburgh has education officers doing this at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Filmhouse, the International Festival, Scottish Ballet and the Pilton Video Project.

But the concept of education officers liaising between schools and professional arts companies was unacceptable to Jude Kelly, chief executive of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.

The Playhouse has 750-seat and 250-seat theatres, a foyer and a piazza. From 8.45am to 11pm, it is full of different artistic and social activities. "It is impossible for me to think of us as having an education department. I think of it as vulgar - and I think of the idea of an education officer as vulgar. "

Sylvia Dow, senior education officer with the Scottish Arts Council, argued that people like herself were necessary "in the short term, not in the long term". The SAC is currently setting up six education officer posts, partly funded with the local authorities. "If all six work, we will continue with the programme," Ms Dow said. Other mechanisms for "brokering" are also being sought.

Funders like the Arts Council and the National Lottery which "spends money on a plethora of buildings with doors that don't let everyone in" were also attacked by Ms Kelly. "If anything would make you think, oh shit, I'll stop, it would be arts funders. The attitude of bureaucracies to the future is mind-boggling. They buy into the old structures they want us to impale ourselves on. The idea that you could place education in the middle of the policy - they don't like it."

Ms Kelly scorned approaches by the funding bodies based on questions such as "If you had to choose between plays on stage and work in schools, which would you choose?" She said: "Well, I don't have to choose. It is not the right question. The question is, how are we moving the arts forward, together, with enough people?" comment, page 19

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