Today's lesson - let's go bananas;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Cool jazz, improvised theatre and European art in a college masquerading as an arts centre - but does it pay?

BACK IN the 1930s there was a passing fashion among designers of domestic goods to produce things that looked like something else: teapots that looked like telephones or biscuit tins in the form of a line of books. You could buy easy chairs disguised as ironing boards, or perhaps it was the other way round.

I was put in mind of some of these objects, now firmly on the upwardly mobile curve which leads from discarded junk to prized possession, when I attended a concert at the college recently. The occasion was part of what had become the college's annual festival of media and the arts. For a week every spring there are lectures, demonstrations, workshops, concerts, recitals (poetry as well as music), displays and exhibitions.

Events are organised for schools, for our own students and for the general public. They take place all over the patch, in libraries, restaurants and school halls, as well as in college facilities. They are heavily featured in local press and onthe radio.

What made me think of cigarette lighters masquerading as bananas was the reflection that, for a week at least, the college looked like an arts centre and my job was more like an impresario than a principal. Was there any tension between design and function? There is after all no point in having an umbrella, however cunningly shaped like a standard lamp it may be, if it lets the rain in. Sitting in the soft evening light, listening to the most sublime playing by an internationally reputed pianist of glorious pieces of the classical repertoire, I asked myself whether the college was still being true to its purposes. All the events in all the venues with all the people attending would still not generate a single unit of funding.

Not directly, that is. It's always possible, likely even, that people who come to the college for a spot of culture and go away with a warn glow, may think first and favourably of the college when it comes to signing-up for cake icing classes or basic welding. But the preparation and running of a festival which looks increasingly like a small-scale Edinburgh requires more of a commitment in time, energy and, yes, money than could be justified by some vague attempt at marketing.

The fact is, of course, that there is a definition of education which goes some way beyond that which is called a lesson, or that which the state is ready to pay for. I'll stake good money that those who come to any of the festival events would reckon it as an experience which enriched, informed, brightened or stimulated their lives. That's not a bad summary of what education should do. And if they added that they had been at times shocked, startled and entertained, I'd settle for that, too.

None of it will merit a line in any auditor's report, and will probably be, at best, a footnote to an inspection summary. Pity that the sector has not developed any sort of community audit which could give an account of the positive things which a college does to enhance not just the narrowly defined educational life of the area, but the social and cultural aspects as well. Not just festivals and the like but maybe even Russian cosmonauts dropping in, which is already planned for later in the year. So much easier to count money, heads and certificates.

The point is that, if we didn't do this sort of thing, nobody else could. And that's probably true of our more obvious activities like providing an amazing variety of vocational education and training. As it happens "amazing variety" is the way that one of the visitors to the festival described the programme. She pointed to an evening's cool jazz as an accompaniment to a gourmet meal; a project to combine the artwork of schools in three European countries in a picture wall using new technology; a semi-improvised performance by a theatre company drawing together the literary traditions of India, Pakistan and Britain; and a showcase by our own performing arts students letting their hair down, their stays out, and their talent do the talking.

The students not only strutted their stuff in public performance, but learned a lot about how to organise, promote and manage a complex event, because they did a lot of it. That will help them towards their NVQs. So perhaps it was after all more recognisably educational than I thought when sitting rapt in Liszt. The sponsors must have agreed that there was indeed a close fit between college purpose and festival function: a variety of local and regional companies, councils and arts organisations tipped up enough cash to make sure that the net cost to the college was nil.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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