Leaving the arts in good hands

7th January 2005 at 00:00
These are exciting, though sad, days for the Scottish Arts Council as a leading light in arts education retires from the stage, says Brian Hayward.

She may not have been kicking and screaming but Sylvia Dow, who retired as education officer for the Scottish Arts Council last week, was more than a little reluctant to go.

"Especially", as she says, "at a time when the department is really on wheels, fizzing and buzzing with a million things on."

She tries to persuade herself: "Maybe it is the best time to hand over to someone else, when the place is full of life." Still unconvinced, she reminds herself that the SAC's policy is not to cultivate lifelong bureaucrats but to return its staff into practice.

Not that she ever had left it. The word opera tends to be whispered behind cupped hands in the corridors of the SAC nowadays, except when people are talking about Sylvia's run of musical productions. She has racked up more than 85 shows in the last 20 years, sharing herself among Fife Opera, Bo'ness Amateur Operatic and Bo'ness Academy, where she was the first drama teacher and has always gone back, directing one or two productions every year. Now she is about to start on Return to the Hidden Planet.

Sylvia likes to say she has been very lucky in life "because I was the first everywhere. They had no one to compare me with!" After leaving Bo'ness Academy, she was the first education officer at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling, then the first arts co-ordinator in the old Central region education department and finally the first education officer for the SAC.

Graham Berry, the SAC director, paints a fuller picture. "When Sylvia came here she had to create everything. Fortunately she had all the qualities; she was one of those rare people knowledgeable in both arts and education, with boundless enthusiasm, full of ideas and with huge skill in the business of persuading others. So she was able to win over her colleagues in music, art and drama to her vision of the future.

"She has driven our educational strategy, which she researched so thoroughly and has been so widely welcomed. Her contacts, with organisations such as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, have won national and international recognition."

Chief among these are educationists in Chicago who, like her, believe so much in creativity that they are experimenting with artists in the classroom, not only in arts classes but also mathematics and the sciences.

Sylvia is big in Japan too, where the idea of theatre engaging with schools is new and attractive. She will return there in the summer to continue spreading the word.

It is the way culture integrates with Scottish education that will carry her fingerprints for the next generation. "The SAC to education is like a flea to an elephant," she says, "but we try to bite as hard as we can."

She has bitten lumps. For teachers and local authorities the everyday proof is the arts links officers, roles she invented after her experience in Central region. The officers work at adviser level in local authorities, raising money for the arts and linking them with education at formal and informal levels. Their introduction in 1996 was one of the great SAC success stories, when the pilot scheme in four authorities returned over 4,000 per cent on the SAC investment.

Although the idea was hers, Sylvia is full of praise for the appointees.

"They are such amazing people. They work so well at raising the quality of work in their areas that by 2007 every local authority will have one. They line-manage the cultural co-ordinators in schools (a Government programme that the SAC looks after for them). There are now over 100 working in all but one of the 32 local authorities."

The evident riches that these schemes bring to the schools, and the encouragement of quality work from Scottish arts companies, is little short of epoch making, but surprisingly Sylvia doesn't rate that as her greatest achievement. She points instead at the sea change in the Scottish Arts Council ethos.

"When I came here 10 years ago, if you scrutinised its own literature, you could probably have found the word education somewhere. This year education is accepted as being one of the three main thrusts of SAC work."

And what are her hopes for the future? "I want to spend more time with my husband - he's been very patient - and my garden.

"I want to see teachers allowed to have personalities again. I hope never to hear the words academic and non-academic, useful and not useful. And I want to see the arts embedded in education as a way of learning and not thought of as a frill, an extra.

"Above all, I want to see an education where writing about the arts is not considered more important than doing it."

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