Comedian dell'arte;Interview;Ken Robinson;Briefing;People

5th June 1998 at 01:00
Labour's arts guru Ken Robinson remains stubbornly optimistic. The professor at Warwick University talks to Heather Neill .

The adjectives "ebullient" and "irrepressible" are frequently attached to the name of Ken Robinson, professor of arts education at the University of Warwick. It is true that, whatever the setbacks - and anyone who battles for arts education knows they are legion - he remains stubbornly optimistic and without cynicism. "I've never thought the arts a target," he says, "It's just that successive governments have been guilty of sins of omission."

He could make a fortune as an after-dinner speaker or stand-up comedian, but prefers instead to be entertaining in the cause of the arts at conferences all over the world. "I'll talk to anyone," he says. He does, clearly enjoys doing so and, through sheer enthusiasm, has built up an impressive network of well-known and influential contacts.

His latest project, the national advisory committee on creative and cultural education, was announced by David Blunkett in January, two weeks after the scaling down of the arts in the primary curriculum. It was assumed to be a sop to the likes of Sir Simon Rattle, the conductor who had criticised the narrowing of the curriculum. Not so, says Robinson."I wrote the original briefing paper last September. Simon was on every version of the list."

There have been two monthly meetings so far out of the seven scheduled to which "they all turn up". "They" include Dawn French and Lenny Henry, Lord Stone, chief executive of Marks amp; Spencer, Sir Harry Kroto, Nobel prize-winning chemist, poet Benjamin Zephaniah and Professor Susan Greenfield, expert on the human brain. They are due to report in September, but all (including David Blunkett, who came to the second meeting) want the committee to have a life beyond that. "It's not a report just about the arts; it's desperately important and they're all very fired up. It's about the balance of education as a whole, the nature of expectation, the development of abilities and attitudes."

The Robinson passion comes from a lifetime of observation, starting with his own experience. He was born into a working-class Liverpool family in 1950, one of seven children. (Were they Catholic? "No, I think my parents just got on. We could never understand why they were so keen for us to go to Sunday school.") At the age of four, Ken contracted polio. He wears a leg-iron to this day.

Eventually he was sent to the local Margaret Bevan school for the physically handicapped. "That was my first encounter with the extent to which people are underestimated. It's endemic, structural. A good case was the 11-plus. I was the only one in my school and the only one in my family to pass the 11-plus and I know that many of them could have."

Things may have changed, but, he says, there is still a tendency to concentrate on "a particular sort of ability. Children find out the things they are not good at and lose heart". He tells of visiting a school and commenting on an outstandingly beautiful sculpture in the entrance hall. "Yes", said the head, "that was done by one of our less able pupils." Less able? "It amazes me how many successful adults will tell you that they're not very clever."

Special education in the 50s and early 60s was little more than occupational therapy. One day an inspector visited Margaret Bevan. "I was sitting at the back, playing with bricks, contemplating the structure of DNA or something. He noticed me, spoke to the head and I was given what I now realise were intelligence tests." Coaching for the 11-plus followed, and a place at grammar school.

Meanwhile, the family had suffered another set-back. When Ken was nine, his father, who worked in the steel industry, was injured in an industrial accident and paralysed from the neck down. "He remained the head of the family; people poured their troubles out to him and he was as funny and sharp as ever."

Liverpool in the 60s and one of Ken's brothers was a musician. "There was a full rock band practising in the next room when I was revising for A-levels. My father told me to get on with the Moli re - it would be worth it in the end."

By now, Ken was fascinated by education as a subject ("It stamps people for ever. Mention 'education' and eyes glaze over, but mention their education and they pin you to the wall.") and went to Bretton Hall to do a teacher training course in English and drama, followed by a BEd in Leeds. A PhD, lecturing, writing for stage and television and running the Schools Council Drama Project led to the writing of a ground-breaking report, The Arts in Schools, published by Gulbenkian in 1982 and reissued in 1989. He has been professor at Warwick since 1989 and lives with his wife and two children in a village near Stratford on Avon.

Ken Robinson is a communicator, transcending barriers between the arts, between countries (he has recently been advising educators in Hong Kong) and between disciplines. He combined with businessman Sir John Harvey-Jones to mount a TES conference on the importance of arts education to industry in 1995.

"Outside education, the arts and sciences are communicating freely. Harry Kroto, for instance, recognises the cultural impact of his work. Within education attitudes are established and they are kept apart."

As Eric Bolton, former chief inspector and a member of the advisory committee, says: "He's always putting the bigger case and he does it sharply, wittily, with humour. It's very effective, as good in the prepared sense, in lectures, as in his ready wit and repartee."

As another colleague says: "When Ken comes into the room, you know it's a better place." Or to put it his way: "I used to be a whizz kid; now I'm in danger of becoming an elder statesman."

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