Contribution to Talent Development conference at Aldeburgh

By David Jubb

Ken Robinson describes an industrial model of education in which we ring bells, teach in specialised separate subjects and educate our children in batches by age group. “As if the most important thing is their date of manufacture”.

He describes the process of educating our children as about conformity. He illustrates the growth of a standardised curriculum and standardised testing throughout the 20th and 21st century. Ken Robinson believes that we have to go in the exact opposite direction.

Most of you will know this stuff. And I am assuming that we all get it. If we want to fulfil children’s creative potential, we should use creative means.

Ken Robinson’s online films:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U (RCA film)

If I describe divergent thinking for you – being able to think of hundreds of different playful and varied answers to a single question – I think you would say that it’s a good thing. I think you would celebrate the need for more creative approaches in schools, and say that we need to find ways of young people emerging from school with an appreciation of different kinds of intelligence. Not like Jack, who we met yesterday, who described his school career as “just above average”.

I think we want our children to have a richer appreciation of their education that doesn’t simply define where they fit on one continuous line of achievement: from top to average to bottom. I think we want our children to have a strong sense of the different things they are good at, the different kinds of intelligence they can develop, and a clear sense of the areas they want to continue developing.

So what are we currently doing about this?

What is everyone in this room doing to change the education model?

We probably each have an interesting schools programme.

We might work with 1 school, 5 schools, even 10.

We are probably doing good local work with good local schools.

There are just around 700 NPOs in England at the moment. There are 25,000 schools.

That means we each need to work with 36 schools regularly if we are going to have an impact.

To put this in perspective, over 60% of NPOs receive less than £200k per year from ACE.

So it’s not straightforward.

We can’t do it on our own.

We have to come together around the ideas of someone like Ken Robinson.

We have to work with Head Teachers to change the model.

If we don’t do it, who else will?

Yesterday, we heard Matthew Syed’s presentation about how he thinks champions are not born but made. We heard about Silverdale Road. The road in Reading from which, for a period of time, the cream of British Table Tennis evolved. All because opportunities were given to practice, to have feedback, to compete, to play, to collaborate, night and day, to fall in love with a game.

I think this is an incredibly important message for us.

Since Matthew’s presentation, I have heard some colleagues talk about the fact that it is different for sport. That there are definitely gifted children like Harry and Alex who we heard play sax and piano yesterday. That Matthew’s theory doesn’t explain the genius of some artists. That there are simply talented and special people. Period.

And when I have observed people saying this stuff, I have noticed a kind of mist in their eyes. There is some kind of worship in their words. Something that gently but deliberately puts artists on a pedestal.

I’d just like to zoom out of this room for a moment.

Up above Aldeburgh, above East Anglia, to a point where we can see the whole country.

Let’s look at the perception of arts and culture in this country.

I think we have a major problem don’t we?

Take a long look at how the country values arts and creativity.

The arts are described in popular press (and I would say by large sections of the public) as elitist.

Zoom in to any street in the country and ask someone what they think of the arts.

And while you’re at it, ask them what they think about public funding for the arts?

What do we think is the most likely answer we will get?

A YouGov poll earlier this summer demonstrated that it’s not a pretty picture.

Many people in this room disprove that charge of elitism.

Every day, with the work that they do.

But we can’t deny it is a perception.

We can’t deny it is a problem. Look at:

  • the arguments around public funding of the arts.
  • the political elite of this country & ask yourself what kind of intelligence we most value?
  • the way arts and creativity are represented in our schools

We have a major problem.

So what Matthew Syed said to us yesterday is massively important for us.

It relates to something Kenneth Tharp said yesterday about potential, human potential.

Maybe this meeting that we are attending has the wrong name.

It’s not about “talent development” as some abstract or innate quality.

Something that might belong to people called artists.

We should be talking about people development.

We should be talking about human potential.

This is what our organisations do.

I know that the most exciting people who work in my organisation are the people who work at their craft: whether they are creative with spreadsheets or stories.

In terms of how we choose to develop potential – the actual mechanisms that we have been talking about over the last two days – I think that no single initiative will make a seismic difference. There is no single scheme that is a panacea. It is about our organisations having a culture of development – in which every part of our organisation is tuned towards developing people – whether those people are members of staff, people who live locally, people who develop performances, or people in local primary schools.

So just for a minute, I want to suggest a priority for developing people.

For all of us to consider.

And a from this priority springs a question.

The priority is to develop people and ideas that are at the periphery.

The people at the edge.

The edge of our community.

The edge of our territory.

The edge of our art form.

The edge of our organisation.

The edge of our space.

The edge of ourselves.

Of course context plays a massive role here.

The periphery for the National Theatre is something very different to the periphery for Battersea Arts Centre is something very different to the periphery for an independent artist.

But I think we face the same challenge:

how can new ideas and new talent from the periphery take the centre stage?

Joan Littlewood created a lovely analogy for this in terms of the way arts buildings should function: a figure of eight which starts outside the building and brings in people and ideas which are then brought on to the stage which is then reflected back out again, and so forth.

Now how many arts organisations work like this?

Really work to reflect the communities that they are part of?

And we wonder why we have a problem.

The idea of connecting with the periphery also raises some questions.

Are we just interested in schooling new ideas and new people to take their place on the current location of the stage?…fitting within existing art form structures and repertories? Are we just offering people the opportunity to take their place in the existing paradigm? Are we just perpetuating an industrial model that wants to churn out more of the same?

Or are we a group of organisations that wants to develop people to their full potential, whatever and wherever they might be? Are we prepared to reshape our structures and repertories to do things differently? Are we prepared to change what we think our art form is or isn’t and what our audience wants or doesn’t want? Are we prepared to keep empowering people and ideas at the periphery to take centre stage?

I think at Battersea Arts Centre we try and fail all the time. I am increasingly thinking about how our tools – scratch to make work with, the role of the producer, our spaces, our programme initiatives –can be enabled to change where the centre is. It’s hard.

As a theatre producer, who develops artists, I know how to do this. I often start with people who don’t start out by making theatre. Artists like 1927 were animators, Kate Tempest a poet, Paper Cinema as visual artists. As artists of different disciplines take centre stage, so the contents of the stage changes. But this is about artist and art form development. That’s the easy bit.

I think our real challenge now, is to think about how our organisations develop people.

So that in fifteen years’ time, we are known as a group of organisations that develop people.

And that make a huge contribution to the life of this country.

if we are not prepared to change our own model, then what right do we have to change the model of education in this country?

Details of conference including videos of presentations: http://www.aldeburgh.co.uk/artist_development/ctc

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