Bringing down the barriers

 

Who knows what Gogol might have made of the Irish arts sector's description of Alan Gray as "The Government Inspector". Whimsy apart, last month this economist, along with colleagues from Price Waterhouse Coopers finally delivered to Government the Indecon report, which raises interesting questions about the historically thorny issue of arts education. Under the title "Succeeding Better" the report is a strategic review of The Arts Plan 1995 - 1998. The review is intended by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, who commissioned the analysis, as a means of assisting the Arts Council in its deliberations in both "emphasis and/or orientation considered desirable in the preparation of a new Arts Plan by the Arts Council".

While the publication of the new Arts Plan is some months away, early indications suggest that at least one central recommendation of the Indecon report will be taken on board, specifically in relation to the need for improved arts education policies - long recognised as a priority both in the arts sector and by the Arts Council itself. Arts education is now, thankfully, being recognised as encompassing not only young people and children, but spanning a wide canvass which includes adult education/lifelong learning, audience development and arts appreciation.

The Indecon report highlights the need for a unified approach by individual arts organisations, the Arts Council and the educational system, with partnership featuring as the buzz word for future development. It is significant that there appears to be considerable movement at policy level towards this cohesive approach, as indicated by the very recent meeting between members and staff of the Arts Council and The Minister for Education, Mr Michael Martin. While there has been some dialogue in the past between the Department of Education and the Arts Council, and successful examples of specific projects co-funded by both, this appears to the first high level meeting, including Members of the Arts Council and a Minister for Education, to take place in over a decade. It indicates a significant shift in the attitudes of both agencies, which has been typified in the past by a stand-off on both sides.

The last Arts Plan stated: "The Arts Council no longer regards provision for education, young people and children as discrete and has restructured its operation to ensure a more integral approach, making of education a central feature of all its work. Such provision will not mask the Department of Education's inactivity on arts in education, nor will it compensate for the failure of the education system to meet the entitlement of young people to a high quality arts education in Irish schools".

This thinly disguised criticism by the Council of the failure of the Department of Education in its arts education provision in the past, has shifted to a much more positive understanding on all sides of the need for the integration of arts education at all levels.

Accordingly, a liaison committee has been established between the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Island, The Arts Council and The Department of Education and Science. The members of this committee include Gaye Tanham, the Dance and Youth Affairs Officer of the Arts Council, Seamus Lynham, Assistant Principal of the Arts, Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, and the Secretary General of the Department of Education Mr John Dennehy.

Dennehy, himself a former inspector, is clearly committed to cohesive policy development in arts education, fully endorsed and led by Minister Michael Martin.

Dennehy points to the goodwill in the Department of Education to actively pursue arts education policy development in "an integrated and open fashion, without encroaching on the proper role of both the Arts Council and The Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands". As an example of this commitment, he points to the revised primary school curriculum, beginning formally in September 1999, which places the arts in a central position. As a member of the National Implementation Group established to oversee the revision of the primary school curriculum, Dennehy was happy to endorse and encourage this strategic shift, placing the arts firmly within primary education.

This is something long called for by people like Martin Drury, former education officer of The Arts Council and now the Director of The Ark, A Cultural Centre for Children in Dublin's Temple Bar.

"The culture of the Department of Education has changed over the past number of years," Drury says, "signified by a more open attitude, not only towards the arts but towards the needs identified by other groups such as parents, teachers and on the ground management. I welcome this concept of a strategic approach towards the development of shared agendas." Partnership approaches to arts education, have also been supported on a regional basis, as evidenced by the highly successful "Arts in the Classroom" project in 1998 in County Wexford. This pilot project was undertaken with the support of Wexford County Council, the Arts Council and The Department of Education and Science. Its intention was to identify how to bring about "long-term changes to the arts in selected schools, and in the process to discover the issues and needs of both teachers and artists in developing the arts within the primary school".

This was achieved though a new model of in-service teacher training, involving the collaboration of artists in an exchange of skills in the classroom with teachers and pupils. Artists involved in the project participated in a one-week curriculum development course, and subsequently delivered a one week in-service course for the teachers, focusing on collaborative planning of classroom work and developing teachers knowledge and skills in the arts form, in this case, the visual and performing arts.

Brigit Scully, one of the participating teachers, from Scoil Mhuire in Wexford, was glowing in her response to the project. "It was shocking how much working with the artists taught us about our approach to art teaching. We literally had to unlearn all the habits we had picked up over the years. As teachers we felt vulnerable without that crutch, and we realised how much the three levels of education had failed us as teachers.

"In primary, secondary and at third level, only two out of the 16 members of staff had any real contact with art, so this project opened us up completely, and we were amazed at just how creative the children were. We would love to have access on an ongoing basis to arts practitioners with whom we could exchange ideas, and to ensure that we continue to have a creative and innovate approach to the arts for all the children in the school".

The Wexford project would seem to offer a model of good practice for achieving the objectives outlined by the Arts Council in their last plan, and reiterated in the Indecon report, i.e. the development of a programme to ensure that the area of arts appreciation is given a much higher priority. The Indecon report rightly identifies the fact that the effects of such a programme will only be seen over time, but if policymakers are interested in developing the arts, it is an area which must be addressed.

The support, both financial and moral by the Department of Education has to be recognised as a key factor in the success of the "Arts in the Classroom Project", since traditionally the responsibility for arts education in schools has rested with The Arts Council through their Artists in Schools Scheme, dedicated arts activists, and a few personally committed teachers.

Without the weight of the Department of Education behind it, teachers may not have felt the legitimate space to pro-actively dedicate time to arts education, reinforcing the notion of the arts as a tangential activity. This is a point endorsed by Martin Murphy of Team Theatre in Education company.

"The validation of the Department of Education, puts the onus on arts practitioners to really meet the needs of the teachers and pupils," he says. "Without that validation, artists can really do what they like, without really taking on the culture of the schools or working that culture into the fabric of the actual arts work".

The Wexford project was supported by a member of the In Career Development Unit of the Department of Education, who regularly attended meetings with The Arts Council, Wexford County Council, and the participating teachers and artists. These meetings with their "bottom up" approach have helped all participating agencies gain a greater understanding of the barriers and needs within arts education, dialogue which is crucial for the future.

"We are delighted to see the establishment of liaison committees between all of the agencies and Departments involved in the arts" says Emelie Fitzgibbon, Graffiti Theatre in Education company, "the arts is now establishing itself as permitted curriculum activity at primary level and we have to continue striving for both artistic excellence and educational validity. This is where the roles of the Arts Council and the Department of Education are complimentary and why ongoing dialogue between both is strengthening the sector, and creating incredible demand for arts work on the ground at both primary and secondary levels".

Whatever else the new Arts Plan will deliver for the arts sector, it seems that at last a breach has been made in the arts education dam. It remains to be seen how the arts sector itself responds to these opportunities, and how it takes up the remaining challenge of expanding audiences and arts appreciation, outside the formal education system.