Singing in the same key
Filling the Usher Hall is a challenge for most artistes. Filling it twice in one day would please the most accomplished household name. Yet that is what the Scottish Opera Orchestra achieved earlier this year when 4,000 primary pupils arrived for a performance of Peter and the Wolf. And, it was regarded as all in a day's work for the arts unit of Edinburgh Council's education department, which is unique in Scotland.
The unit not only organises occasional international conferences on the arts and education, but demonstrates the importance of developing the potential of the arts in education daily.
Established under the former regional council in 1992, the unit has four priorities: the needs of individuals, the transition from school to adult involvement in the arts, minority cultures, and Scotland's cultural heritage.
It supports a diversity of educational arts activities, funding companies such as Art Link and Lung Ha's Theatre Company, both aimed at adults with special needs wishing to gain access to, or participate in, the arts. It also makes possible education officer posts such as those at the Edinburgh Filmhouse, the Royal Lyceum and the Edinburgh International Festival.
Dance and history would be impossible without support from the unit: it has brought Scottish Ballet and African dancers into schools, co-ordinated the Chinese community's New Year celebrations and funded the adult learning project's exploration of Scottish music. It is a significant funder of internationally recognised community arts organisations such as the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop, the Craigmillar Festival Society, and the Triangle Arts Centre in Pilton.
Dispensing grants worth Pounds 800,000 a year is only part of the unit's development work, according to its manager Mary McGookin: "We are forming a new cross-council, arts strategy working group involving the recreation, social work and finance departments, as well as education, to establish an overarching strategy for the city.
"This will cover everything that involves the education department, from curriculum development to school bands and orchestras, as well as youth theatre and grants to national and community arts organisations.
"Our main strength lies in our partnership with arts organisations and in our emphasis on quality of experience and provision."
Projects involving Scottish Opera are examples of this "quality partnership", Ms McGookin believes. Funding has ranged from supporting pupils taking Standard grade and Higher music to a community project based at the Triangle Arts Centre; this involved local groups attending a production of Die Fledermaus at the city's Festival Theatre and producing their own version, suitably entitled Bat Out Of Pilton.
Ms McGookin says she is encouraged that so many arts organisations want to work with the unit and insists there is "no controlling process".
"It's important to see both sides, to know what's needed in terms of educational priorities as well as artists' priorities and aspirations. Our job is to bridge that divide.
"Artists in schools are not substitutes for teachers. They have a different contribution to make. Specialist teachers may be artists in their own right but they are artists absorbed in the educational process rather than artists absorbed in the creative process. That is where artists in schools can make a unique contribution. But one feeds off the other and there are benefits to both."
Ms McGookin feels that the contribution arts organisations make to education is going to become more important "because it's not certain how central support for arts staffing is going to progress". She does hope that the new Government will acknowledge the important role of the arts in education.
The latest role for the unit is to help process applications for funds from the National Lottery. "It is a co-ordinating role that will probably increase over time," says Ms McGookin. "Under the Scottish Arts Council's New Directions policy, there are a greater number of routes to increase access to the arts. Our challenge is to help co-ordinate the aspirations of arts organisations to work with schools so that we can make the best of it."