From County Hall to Covent Garden

19th January 1996 at 00:00
The redoubtable Frances Morrell is behind an arts agency which is all set to galvanise the way that arts and education interact. Simon Tait met her.

Arts Inform is the unprepossessing name for a dream of the dying Inner London Education Authority, which not only survived the latter's demise against all odds, but which could emerge next week as a potent national force under the formidable leadership of Frances Morrell.

It aims to plug a gap in the national curriculumvocational qualifications structure by creating links between education and the applied arts. This could be anything from keyboard skills to designing a house. Two meetings, one involving the Royal Opera House and the other a potential Pounds 100 million lottery project, are likely to seal its future, not merely as a rather good but localised scheme of the London Arts Board, but a national catalyst.

Frances Morrell is a name which you might expect to appear in the Evening Standard's "Lost Found" column a name from the past which you cannot quite place. For six years she was the public face of the ILEA. As leader of this separately-elected body which ran London's schools, she maintained the ILEA barricades against Mrs Thatcher's concerted attempts to break them down .

ILEA had popular opinion on its side, but when the barricades finally gave way in 1988, a full two years after the GLC's, Morrell had been gone for a year, out of politics and in to citizenship.

"The abolition of the ILEA was an act of wanton vandalism" she says now. "The loss is terribly serious on all levels, still".

One might be forgiven for thinking that Morrell subsequently experienced some ideological Damascene change of heart, because this one-time adviser to Tony Benn re-emerged working for the (Tory) Speaker of the House of Commons, Bernard Weatherill, as secretary of his Commission on Citizenship.

In fact, with such one-nation Conservatives as Weatherill and the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd at her elbow, she was actually working against a popular Thatcherite mantra: there is no such thing as society, there is only the free market.

"Mrs Thatcher had won the free market argument" Morrell says. "What we did was to initiate a series of ideas for a parallel framework for civil society. It was a kind of Establishment rebellion".

It resulted in a report called Encouraging Citizenship which sparked off a volunteers scheme for young people taken on by the Prince's Trust, a survey on citizenship among schoolchildren and education projects with cross-curricular social themes. She set up the Institute for Citizenship Studies, and the European Commission is currently studying a report it commissioned from her on the subject which she presented in Brussels in December.

Which brings us to Arts Inform, a tiny unit with just a single paid member of staff but a wide circle of contacts, of which Morrell is chair. On Tuesday she will discover whether a centre for the performing arts, on which Arts Inform has been acting as an adviser, has passed its feasibility test. On Thursday the first meeting of a project which aims to introduce GNVQ students to the complexities of opera production will take place at the Royal Opera House.

"What Frances and Arts Inform did was simple," said Gavin Henderson, principal of Trinity College of Music and brains behind the plan to put a multi-faculty university of performing arts next to the Royal Festival Hall. "They told us what we are for, to put into a single clear thought all the things we want to bring together an institution for training in all the performing arts disciplines which allows them to interact with each other in a unique way. "

So Arts Inform has come full circle. It was the idea of an ILEA civil servant, Adrian Chappell, to create an agency bringing the education and arts industries together, and was barely formed when ILEA was abolished. Chappell went to the Greater London Arts Association in 1990, taking the idea with him. He found that "the whole question of arts education and vocational training needed to be looked at more comprehensively", and Arts Inform was set up in 1992 under GLAA's auspices, just weeks before GLAA itself disappeared.

Both the fledgeling Arts Inform and Chappell himself were taken on by the London Arts Board, where he is now senior education officer. But still the agency was a weakly child. "LAB decided to incubate the agency and we spent two years putting it on its feet," Chappell says. "But it was not until Frances came on board that the thing took hold, and bit more firmly. With Frances we found someone who reflected the ambition of the project, someone who was prepared to commit the time, dedication, thoroughness and toughness required"

Arts Inform's brief had been a rather airy one of "enhancing the learning of young people about the arts processes and production", and it was chiefly to connect with conventional community arts establishments like museums and galleries. Morrell wrote a 25-page report which focused this more precisely, to take in the "applied arts" which she defined in terms of the national curriculum as English, history, art, technology, physical education and music. It was to be project based, with each project run by a contracted project director, creating detailed modules for the future.

The essence was to give adults and children the opportunity to taste the heady wine of professional creative production, either for career purposes or simply to be informed in the fullest way possible. In her report, Morrell's familiar ILEA fire is undiminished: "Neither they (young people) nor the public generally can express taste and influence solely through the mechanism of consuming or choosing not to consume... The market, commercial or political, is not enough. An intellectual investment needs to be made. That is a proper task for the education system and part of Arts Inform's mission is to support that activity"

For Chappell and the LAB, it was the sudden blossoming of a seed. "The new thinking was that we could approach almost anything within the applied arts parameters. There's no reason why we shouldn't do a project in, say, the perfume industry" says Chappell, now one of the agency's board of directors.

Arts Inform's first project was to produce a newspaper involving 120 secondary school pupils and college students, who undertook every role, from writing the copy to selling the finished product. There was sponsorship and advice from the Evening Standard, and the students' 24-page tabloid, Yes!, appeared on newstands in July.

Several regional schemes are now under way which make use of the data Arts Inform built up over the course of this project. If the Covent Garden meeting proves to be successful, a production using the Royal Opera House's expertise and facilities but operated entirely by students will be one of the next Arts Inform modular packages.

Meanwhile, other projects are on the go involving publishers Paul Hamlyn, the Royal National Theatre, the International Shakespeare Globe Centre, and the contemporary dance company Adventures in Motion Pictures.

"It means an enormous amount of work for teachers and the stress for them is somewhat underestimated, but they know the value of what they're doing, " Morrell says. "Our approach is to provide a project director and then build support by creating partnerships. Teachers have got to have contact with the professional worlds, there's no other way"

It also means extra work for the hard-pressed "arts industry". Pauline Tambling is the joint director of Covent Garden's education department. "There were huge problems when the local education authorities went, following the GLC and ILEA" she says. "It meant we were left to do the linking ourselves, so there is a tremendous vacuum and I'm delighted that Arts Inform exists now. GNVQs have had a rough ride so far, and we'll see what happens, but with the right project guidance they could work very well. It is brokering we need"

Chappell has had interest from opposite numbers in other regional arts boards in the work of Arts Inform. "It doesn't have much money but it's got very big ideas" he says. "There is every reason why it could become a catalyst for getting results all over the country, and this would count as a very big success story".

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