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Change a life with lively arts

Svend Brown meets Scotland's leading arts education officer, the catalyst for many arts events

Sylvia Dow is rarely still: she exudes energy and zest for life. She has quick, bright eyes, a lively mind; her words are considered but her action animated. Her passion for the arts - and for sharing them - is unabashed and intense, childlike in its spontaneity.

"The arts are so important to me, I think it's very sad if someone lives their life without having the depth of experience that I have had through the arts - it's essential for the human race."

As senior education officer at the Scottish Arts Council - a post she has held for three years, but which was made permanent only recently - she is in a position to channel that conviction into practical results. She informs policy, advises and drives initiatives both within the SAC and more widely in Scotland. She is a point of contact and a well of information, bringing a broad vision of what could be in Scottish arts education, informed by best practice of other nations and tempered by her very practical experience.

She left teaching (drama at Bo'ness Academy) to become education officer at the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling in the mid-Eighties, then arts co-ordinator in Central Region. She became not just a highly respected animateur and educationist, but also a formidable administrator and fund-raiser.

Dow's major concern is that Scots are lured into complacency by illusory riches. On paper it seems that arts education flourishes: the arts are on the curriculum, policies have been formulated and much talk generated by both bureaucracies (education and arts) and companies. Few lack a written commitment to education, yet the truth is that many regard it as a relatively low priority - something they would like to do more of if only they had the time and the money but . . .

Few arts companies' education budgets are ring-fenced and non-statutory activities in schools - such as free instrumental tuition, drama and arts clubs and the like - are often the first to be threatened when budgets are tight.

Very few arts organisations fund more than one education officer, and rarely are these people fully integrated into the organisation and represented at the highest managerial level. They are often one-man bands, thinking up projects, administering and realising them and finding the funding for them, too.

Dow draws a sobering comparison with Denmark. There the arts are not on the curriculum, yet their value is so well understood that there are - to take just drama - 28 fully subsidised theatre companies for children. Only two of Scotland's local authorities can boast more than two drama specialists.

There are no easy answers - short of a revolution in funding and management attitudes following a major increase in the value society places on arts education. Dow is a realist, so is not waving a flag for any such pipe-dreams.

Perhaps her most striking project to date has been the Links Project, an attempt to address the fragmentation of resources and budgets which followed the restructuring of the regional authorities and devolving of budgets to individual schools. Both schools and arts organisations found themselves without the useful frameworks, contacts and cash to bring about successful arts projects in schools.

The "links" are individuals funded jointly by SAC and willing authorities to work within councils. Three are already in post (in South Lanarkshire, North Ayrshire and Aberdeen), two more are imminent - East Ayrshire and Dundee, and a further two will be appointed next year. The idea is to build up a formalised network across Scotland, with a central co-ordinator at the SAC.

Their job is to effect that crucial liaison between school and artists, they can advise and steer, and use their position on the inside of the council to be advocates for arts education. They might also be opportunists - accessing funds from different parts of the council budget, piggy- backing off other projects where possible. It is a big job, and once again there is funding only for one of these people in each authority.

"It is a lot of work for one person. The ideal would be to have a whole department, but one is better than none, and the whole network of these link people is building up and giving strength to the whole - the difference between four fingers and a fist."

So far the scheme has been a great success and more and more education authorities show interest in participating. For Dow it's a satisfying step towards offering every child that depth of experience she feels the arts can offer.

"It's part of a broader strategy to open up that massive resource to everybody, particularly young people. Too often nowadays people talk about IT and the Web, and you can download chunks of the Louvre or visit the Beethoven page, but what really counts is the real thing. Get the class to meet a real living artist, hear some live music, see a real play: that would give them something much more memorable, and maybe change a life."

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