'Hiring an artist-in-residence was a transformational experience for my school'

28th January 2017 at 18:02
arts must be protected
We should rejoice, not complain, if some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity, writes one head

Monday’s The Times featured a piece with the headline: “Artists are schools’ latest big draw”, in which it was reported that many independent schools nowadays employ artists-in-residence to work with their students.

Ashford School in Kent was cited, where the head, Mike Buchanan, is current chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC): his school currently has a photographer-in-residence.

St Paul’s Girls’ School employs a poet-in-residence, South Hampstead High School boasts a playwright/novelist-in-residence, while Putney High School has gone all out for an orchestra-in-residence.

By contrast Oundle School in Northamptonshire makes use of an engineer-in residence, while Surbiton High School claims to be the first in the world to have appointed entrepreneurs-in-residence.

So far, so good. What soured for me an otherwise light-touch story was the implication that such appointments are frivolous and extravagant. It started with a suggestion that “a decade ago fierce competition between private schools escalated into an arms race over facilities”.

I forget (fortunately, perhaps) who among my fellow independent school heads originally coined the term, but “arms race” has returned to haunt the sector year on year.

Grittier and tougher?

I don’t accept it. In my decades heading two schools (far from the affluent South-East) I’ve spent many millions on buildings: not for any other reason except to provide our students with the best facilities we could afford without unduly loading the school fees.

When Tony Blair made education, education, education the priority of his first government, he embarked on an immense programme of building new schools. The PFI (Private Finance Initiative) route he took to fund it was controversial: but few criticised him for giving children decent premises in which to learn and grow up.

Is there some kind of implication here, whether directed at the independent schools or the multi-million pound school and academy buildings still gradually (perhaps too slowly) spreading across the country? Is there an attitude that says, “I learned in a classroom with three buckets in it to catch the leaks and no heating in winter: and it never did me any harm”? Should we Brits be grittier and tougher?

Does this negative view stem from envy of the independent sector? Parents pay fees in addition to tax for the state education they’re not taking up for their child: should they not expect excellent and state-of-the-art facilities in which to learn 21st-century subjects?

The Times story continues: “Since the financial crash, battle lines have been redrawn and are about people. The must-have thing for independent schools has become hiring an artist-in-residence.”

Must-have? Are artists–in-residence just icing on the rich student’s cake, then? That’s a false picture. As the article describes, they “paint, draw, sculpt, cast or sew themselves into the fabric of school life … oozing energy and creativity as role models for budding artists”.

Transformational experience

That’s the point exactly. I employed an artist-in-residence some 20 years ago. It was precisely about helping boys and girls to get beyond the arguably limiting perception of art as an exam subject by following a creative professional into exploratory, exciting and original realms. The experience was transformational: the art department became second to none.

If resources were unlimited, would I employ in my school those other in-house “creatives”? Orchestra-in-residence, entrepreneur-in-residence, engineer-in-residence, writer-in-residence? Of course I would.

I write this on the very day that ballerina Darcey Bussell and veteran filmmaker Lord Puttnam launch a report in the House of Commons stressing how participating in the arts boosts both children’s academic achievement and their social skills.

I can understand envy, though I cannot applaud it. Free from many government straitjackets, and able to fund themselves at a level that seems appropriate to them and their parents/clients, independent schools are not hamstrung – certainly not in the way maintained schools are currently as funding levels crash.

As the government’s approach to education becomes ever more utilitarian, perhaps we should rejoice, not carp, if at least some schools are using their freedom and resources to invest in creativity.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns by Bernard, view his back catalogue.

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