You need the arts and the arts need you

This is the time not to ditch the arts but to put them at the centre of a recovery curriculum

The year is 1996. 

A deadly virus has just wiped out 99% of the population. 

The year is 2035.

A survivor is sent back to 1996.

He encounters music playing from a car radio.

‘Blueberry Hill’ by Fats Domino. 

His whole demeanour changes. Joy. Life. Hope.

He is reminded of what it means to be human.

In 2035, the arts, like most of the human race, are now dead.

Film buffs amongst you will know that this is a fictional storyline belonging to Terry Gilliam’s American sci-fi film, ‘12 Monkeys’*. The extent to which these fictions will become reality very much depends on the decisions made by our government over the next 6 months. Do I believe that Covid19 (even under Boris) will take out 99% of the population? No. But, do I believe that it could cause long-term devastation to the arts sector and culture of this country? If we follow this government’s lead, then yes. 

It was sad but sadly unsurprising to learn that the DfE’s long awaited proposal for schools in September included reducing the curriculum to maths/English ‘catch-up’ for the next two terms. Maybe leaking something so absurd was a deliberate move, and something more thoughtful will emerge in the coming days… Either way, it sends a damaging message, in line with many other government decisions in recent years that, at this level, the importance of the arts for the UK and in our schools is not recognised

Many Schools DO value the arts, and know that they are and will be a central lifeline for their communities during and beyond this time. But, the road ahead will continue to be unimaginably hard and collaborative, agile thinking is a must. To support our schools, leaders and arts teams to navigate this difficult space, here are some key insights and learning from my world in music lockdown.

Calendaring in concerts

Live performances as we know them have been more or less written off until at least the end of the year in the professional sector. But that does not mean concerts and shows need to be off the table in schools. They just need to be reimagined.

Looking back at videos of our 300+ strong finale performances at our winter Festival of Light concert, I’m half crying (joy and pain), half shuddering at the Coronavirus hotbed that would now manifest in our people-packed performance space. Equally, the reason those concerts exist, is because they bring our whole community together in celebration of each other, the curriculum and our school values. These are the very things we seek to restore when we return to school, and why these special moments must be protected, in whatever form they can. And arts teams up and down the country are already on the case. 

In just the first term’s draft of working in a blended world of on and off-line, our music team will have, among other things, brought together a reimagined version of our Y4 Musical, helped our Primary children re-find their singing voices in assemblies, rallied the whole community in the production of a ‘Thank you Heroes’ music video, developed online music modules, and compiled a virtual concert of lockdown music-making. You will find similar scenes from many music teams across the country, but more important than these efforts is the learning. And there is much to share to inform and support the next phase of school. The re-imagining of concerts is therefore one of many worthwhile projects for arts teachers and school leaders to jointly protect and even co-design.

Valuing instrumental lessons

As soon as lockdown struck, music teams and hubs up and down the country got straight to work setting up online instrumental lessons for their students. In our case, from mid-April we mobilised our twelve exceptional instrumental teachers to deliver 180 1 to 1 instrumental lessons per week via a centralised Zoom. Often schools, and even busy music departments, become detached from the work their visiting music teachers do, but to us, these staff are integral to our music curriculum, our vision for inclusive excellence and more visibly than ever, our children’s wellbeing. Supporting them to support our students was, and remains, a top priority. 

Our instrumental teachers will have spent one of the highest amounts of 1 to 1 teaching time with our students over the lockdown period. This is also often the case in normal circumstances. The lessons provide a space for specialised, tailored learning. For character and identity exploration. For finding flow. And it is entirely possible to protect this opportunity in schools no matter what circumstances present.  Music teachers have developed systems and solutions to navigate multiple iterations of on and off-line circumstances and timing requirements. School leaders, in dialogue with music teachers, can capitalise on this learning and reap the rewards it yields for student engagement, well-being and rich learning.

Learning in the ether

The way physical school will be required to operate from September is going to be limiting in many respects. But, we mustn’t forget the learning opportunities that have opened up within online spaces, and how these could be blended with work onsite, particularly for subjects like music, drama, dance and PE, which will particularly suffer in the static, bubble environment. Online workshops with Westend stars like Obioma Ugoala (George Washington in the UK Hamilton) and Rachael Tucker (Elphaba in Wicked) for our A Level music students, have given them insights into their education that are different to what we offer. Take a moment to think about the thousands of artists currently looking for new ways to share their talent & passion with the world. We could be celebrating and utilising this in schools, and bringing the performance and education sectors of the arts together for the long term. 

The opportunities we have seen for more varied teacher development is another excellent example of how learning does not need to be confined by four walls. For me, these include weekly Zoom meetings with the MTA (Music Teachers Association) bringing together music teachers like myself across the UK together in a never-before-seen regularity, to learn, connect and problem solve. There have been online workshops with world-leading specialists in various music pedagogies, consultations with practitioners and education specialists at different ends of the country to develop and deepen what we are doing with our curriculum and professional sharing through education programmes like ‘Listen , Imagine, Compose’. We have realised that we can all be a part of the important conversations that will make us and education better, no matter where we are. This must be something we remember when we feel those physical limitations back in our bubbles. Nothing can replace the experience of singing together or playing alongside 20 others in an ensemble, but that does not mean that learning of value and richness cannot be found in other ways.

Creating a culture of self-care - ‘me and we’

It’s easy for meetings in lockdown (and in person)  to get swallowed up by notices or to-do lists. There is so much going on. But we have become decent film makers in this time, and pre-recording this type of information to watch outside of a meeting can be a great time saver, not least because you can watch it back on triple speed! This opens up more space for reflective processes that allow our teams to think about themselves and their journey, alongside the work that lies ahead as a collective. Thinking about meetings as a blend of ‘me and we’ deliberately acknowledges the importance and value of self-care alongside teamwork that help us thrive in this profession.

This same principle goes for our students. What are the spaces and cultures we can be deliberate about cultivating in our physical schools, in order that students can thrive in their worlds? Gavin Williamson has not put student and staff well-being at the heart of his plan, but schools must. 

During this time of suffering and uncertainty, you have needed the arts. You have turned to Netflix, to Spotify, to Youtube for entertainment. You have signed up to online art classes, choirs and dance workshops for well-being and personal growth. The school children of your community have engaged in instrumental lessons, workshops with professional artists and collaborative arts projects for purpose, direction and to feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Every step of this journey so far, the arts sector and teachers have been there, working with our schools, our children and our wider communities. And now, the arts need you. Work with us to make sure the arts (in both a Covid and post Covid world) can continue doing what they’ve always done- changing lives, helping people feel well and bringing our communities (back) together. 

It’s July 2020.

You decide what happens next…

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