Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators: the messiness of ‘children’s voice’

You can’t go far these days without hearing about the importance of pupil voice in school improvement, planet climate warnings or, at the older end of the age spectrum,  the Brexit referendum, perhaps the biggest pretence at listening to the voices of the British people in recent years. The referendum tells us a lot about how voices are manipulated, distorted and selectively listened to; and there’s some learning here for us if we want to ensure that young people’s voice is at the heart of what is important to us.

Fighting for the creative voices of children and young people is something that’s dear to our hearts at TMC and has been since we were established 10 short years ago and we’ve recognised that children and young people adopt many different ways to express their views –  laughing, crying, smiling, gaze, grasping, touching, pointing and uses of materials amongst many others.

It’s been central to much child centred learning pedagogy across the world too but there’s always a risk that claiming to privilege children’s voice as  the central plank of your cultural or social policy making  becomes a tokenistic  attempt at democratic education, which can, with a hypnotistic Kenny Craig waving away of the hands –  Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes, don’t look around my eyes, look into my eyes, you’re under –  mask several other agendas  – pupil compliance, customer satisfaction, and the inexorable marketisation of education – in full flow.

Hypnotists, ventriloquists and impersonators – the old Music Hall Variety shows can tell us a lot about the risks to fighting for the creative voice of children and young people.

Ventriloquation – when a speaker speaks through the voice of another for the purpose of social or interactional positioning (Wertsch, 1991, Bakhtin, 1981) – is not just a spooky music hall act but is brilliantly demonstrated in Toy Story 4, when Woody, on his quest to return the trash toy, Forky, to his owner Bonnie, chances upon a doll called Gabby in an antique store and her slavish ventriloquist’s dummies, the Bensons.

The conflict between Woody and Gabby Gabby is at its heart, a fight for the voice of the child.  Gabby Gabby’s voice box has been broken and her desire to replace it leads to her capturing Woody and offering a deal – give me your voice box and I’ll give you back your lost toy, Bo – and by implication his long lost love.

The Bensons are instrumental in her fight to regain her voice box, and Woody, ever the Tom Hanks hero, obliges.  He donates his voice box to her through a surgical procedure; which leads to her eventually gaining the attention of a lost child at the end of the film which ensures both the toy’s and child’s happy-ever-afterness.

Scratch the surface of Toy Story 4 and there are several other delights in store when it comes to understanding the complexities of children’s voice – or better put, voices.

Heteroglossia (roughly translated as ‘multi-languagedness’) is described by Bakhtin in his work “Discourse in the Novel.”  The idea is that there are several distinct languages within any single (apparently unified) language or text: and that different languages each have a different voice which compete with one another for dominance.  So, when we refer to ‘children’s voices’ we’re better accepting that children – like all of us – do not speak in one coherent voice but that many competing voices are at work in their utterances.   Responding to what we think are authentic children’s voices is not as straightforward as our desire would like it to be.

This is exemplified brilliantly in Toy Story 4: at a crunch point in the search for Woody, Buzz Lightyear, who all through the film has been advised to listen to his inner voice, struggles to listen to the voice he wants to hear from the button-induced phrases from his own voice box:

“Stand back everyone” doesn’t cut it.

“Everyone take cover!” isn’t what’s needed.

“To infinity and beyond!” is missing the point.

But finally, the inner voice phrase “The slingshot manoeuvre!” does the trick and Buzz is off to save the day again, reminding us in the process that the ‘inner voice’ is also, far more complex, more heteroglossic, than it might first appear.

Toy Story 4 also shows how children’s voices are heard through acts of impersonation.  In one of the final chase sequences through the carnival at the end of the film, one of the toy gang, Trixie,  impersonates the family car’s  GPS system and the toys manipulate the controls, so taking control of the car.  Other moments in the film have utterances from Woody being heard by the humans in the story – breaking the convention in the films where the toys can only be seen as inanimate objects by the humans, never with agency, and certainly never with voice. Out of sight they may be, but for the first time perhaps, the toy has found their voice and agency in the land of the humans through acts of impersonation.

So, as well as bearing in mind the hypnotists, ventriloquists, impersonators and elusive butterfly of the inner voice, the other aspect of children’s voice we’d be mindful to be aware of  is its fleeting nature.  Always in transition and translation, voice is not a fixed entity.  We do not speak consistently for long.  We are always learning; and always listening to new voices which we try to ignore, assimilate, pass off as our own or wrestle into a completely different form.  Our authentic voice – true children’s voice – can never be completely pinned down or determined because our lives depend on flux and flow, confluence and influence.

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गम से फखर तक का आखिरी सफर: hearing the student voice in Jalandhar, India

Educational reform informed by creativity and cultural education is a global phenomenon. China, Singapore and Korea are some of the world’s major nations which are looking to creative and cultural methodologies to provide them with a new approach to teaching and learning and in recent months, we have developed a strong relationship with the Ivy Education Group in India who share our vision of transforming children and young people’s lives through creativity and cultural education.

This relationship has led me to being invited to visit 6 Ivy Education Schools in the Jalandhar area of the Punjab, in order to establish exchanges between our organisations, teachers, students and universities across the Midlands.

This was an exciting prospect at the turn of the year but about two weeks before I arrived in Jalandhar, tension in the area escalated rapidly after a convoy of army vehicles carrying security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway was attacked by a suicide bomber in the Pulwama district of Kashmir on 14 February: St. Valentines Day.

The attack resulted in the deaths of 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel and the attacker: the responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed.  Kashmir is fiercely contested by India and Pakistan and three wars have been fought since Britain partitioned the country in 1947. The importance of cultural and creative education became more charged than I had expected when I was planning my visit at the turn of the year.

In the short time I was there, I presented the work of The Mighty Creatives to over 1,200 students, parents and teachers and was humbled by the welcome everyone showed me and the interest they expressed in the work we do across the Midlands.

One overwhelming memory was a poem written by a young student, Simran Bhardwaj, from Cambridge International School in Phagwara. As part of the school’s welcome, she read out her tribute poem, गम  से  फखर  तक  का  आखिरी  सफर (The Last Trip from Gam to Fakhar.)

Shown below in Hindi and its English translation, she mourns how a day dedicated to love became a day of tragedy through the eyes of a dying soldier.  Her performance reminded me that whilst newspaper reports and academic papers explain something of our history, it takes the word of the poet and the voices of children to provide a deeper insight into our humanity and the struggles in which we find ourselves.

There are no solutions to the region’s conflicts in Simran’s poetry and no objective analysis of the historical factors which have led to the current situation: just the clear, direct and plaintive voice of a young child whose past and future lives have been, and will be,  informed by that regional conflict.

गम  से  फखर  तक  का  आखिरी  सफर

मज़िल थी बड़ी दूर जनाब,

पर हमें में भी कम नहीं थे देश सेवा के जज़्बात…..

बाँध कफन सिर्फ़ पर और हाथों में लिए बंदूक,

घाटी की हसीन वादियों से निकल रहे थे हम……..

कभी घाटी की ख़ूबसूरती को निहारते,

तो कभी बीते हुए वक़्त से अपने परिवार की यादों को……

पर हुआ ही ना एहसास हमें कि वक़्त बदल रहा है अपनी करवट,

दिल में मेरे मची थी एक अजीब सी हरकत…….

मंज़िल की दूरी जैसे-जैसे हो रही थी कम,

वैसे ही हमारे क़ाफ़िले से जा टकराए यहाँ हमारी मौत का वो आख़िरी बम…….

एक झटके में टूटी हमारी साँसों की डोरी,

फिर भी जारी थी हमारी ज़िंदगी और मौत से एक आख़िरी सीनाज़ोरी……

चाहकर भी चल ना सका बस हमारा,

आख़िर टूट ही गया जो देश से था वादा हमारा……..

ए ख़ुदा काश़ तु बख़श देता कुछ मोहलत इन कम्बख्त साँसों को,

तो इतना बता जाता कि……

ग़म ये नहीं की शहादत नसीब हुई,

पर ग़म और शिकायत तो उसके तरीक़े से है…….

ग़म ये नहीं की शहादत नसीब हुई,

पर ग़म इस बात का है कि आख़िरी बार माँ भारती की सेवा न कर सका……..

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरी हम सफ़र का साथ छूट गया,

पर ग़म इस बात का है कि उसका मंगलसूत्र उतर गया……..

ग़म ये नहीं कि मोहब्बत के दिन फ़ना मैं हो गया,

पर ग़म ये है कि अपनी हम सफ़र से किये वो वादे मैं अधूरे छोड़ गया……

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरे बच्चों के ऊपर से बाप का साया छिन गया,

पर ग़म ये है कि अपनी ही औलाद को पहली नज़र भी ना देख सका………

ग़म ये नहीं कि मेरे माँ-बाप के बुढ़ापे की लाठी छिन गयी,

पर ग़म ये है कि जिन बाँहों में बचपन बीता आज उन्हीं बाँहों को सुनी छोड़ आया हूँ, तड़पता छोड़ आया हूँ………

सुना है खुदा आख़िरी वक़्त पर इन्सान झूठ नहीं बोलता,

तो आज अपने इस आख़िरी वक़्त में मैं भी अपना एक आख़िरी सच बता जाता हूँ,

कि मुझे ग़म से ज़्यादा फ़ख्र है……

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मैं एक हिंदुस्तानी सपूत हूँ …..

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि माँ भारती ने मुझे चुना है अपनी सेवा के लिए……

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मोहब्बत के दिन अपने मुल्क से मोहब्बत मैं निभा सका…..

फ़ख्र है इस बात का कि मेरे प्राणों की आहुति मेरे देश के लिए थी…….

फख़्र है इस बात का कि आख़िरी वक़्त में भी मेरे तन पर सेना की वर्दी थी और मेरी आँखें फख़्र से ऊपर थी…….

फख़्र है इस बात का कि सोने चाँदी के बदले मेरा कफन तिरंगा था, मेरा कफन तिरंगा था,मेरा कफन तिरंगा था…..

The Last Trip from Gam to Fakhar

The destination was very far away,

But we also had high enthusiasm for serving our sacred motherland……

Tying shrouds on our heads and having rifles in our hands,

Passing through the valley of Kashmir the only heaven on earth……..

Sometimes beholden with the beauty of valley,

And sometimes lost in the memories of my family from the time passed by……….

But we didn’t realised that time is transforming itself,

Though I felt a strange movement from depth of my heart……….

As the destination was coming closer and closer,

The bomb of our death on the moving vehicle approached our convoy………

Just with one jerk the string of our life was broken,

Still we were continuing our struggle between our life and death for one last time…………

Trying our best to assert our will on our pre-decided destiny of ultimate death,

But we weren’t able to do so………

At last the promise to our motherland was broken……

Oh Almighty! I wish that you had lend me with some more breathes, so that I could tell everyone that:

Grief isn’t about being martyred,

But my complaint is about the way of being martyred……

Grief isn’t about my death being so early,

But my sorrow is about being not able to render my services to my nation for last time……

Grief isn’t about leaving my better half forever,

But my pain is for that her wedding necklace has been removed and her vermilion is cleared after my death…….

Grief isn’t about that I had died on the day of love,

But my sadness is about the promises which I made to my better half that will remained incomplete……..

Grief isn’t about that my children has lost the shade of their father over their heads,

But my mourning is being for the reason that I wasn’t able to see my child’s face even for first time……….

Grief isn’t about that my parents had lost their only support of old age,

But my regret is about that I had left those arms vacant and yearning in which I had grown…….

Oh God ! I had heard that at the time of death a person never lies. So, today at my final and last stage I shall tell my final and last truth of my life to this whole world that instead of being in grief I am highly proud:

I am proud of being an Indian warrior….

I am proud that Mother Bharat has chosen me for her service…….

I am proud of being able to fulfil my love for my motherland on the day of love……

I am proud that at my last movement my eyes were open high with pride…..

I am proud that at last movement also I was wearing the uniform of army on my body…….

I am proud that my life has been laid down for my country……

I am proud that instead of gold and silver my shroud was our national flag tirangaa, our national flag tirangaa.

By Simran Bhardwaj, February 2019

My time in Jalandhar was short, and my time with Ivy Education schools very sweet: albeit infused with the taste of tension in the airspace and on the land those two great nations occupy. Hopefully the voices of the poets and the country’s young people will be heard in the weeks to come and that a longer period of peaceful international relations will prevail.

 

 


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Wakey Wakey! The Four Awakenings of Public Sector Change

Wakey Wakey!

The avuncular British entertainer, Billy Cotton, used to exhort his audiences at the start of his 1960s TV programmes with the clarion catch phrase call, Wakey Wakey! before whipping through an hour of traditional English light entertainment reminiscent of the old British dance band days of the 1920s and 30s.

His orchestra was one of the few which survived that era and made it to the modern world of the television whilst generating a fond nostalgia for the olden days of social certainties, moral rectitude and people knowing their place in the world.

His call to wake up was poignant. The era he had grown up in was way in the past, and he may well have been urging himself to wake up as much as he was exhorting his audience. But he kept awake and alert and successfully made the transition from old time English band leader and entertainer to nationally recognised radio and television star.

Strange though it may seem, there’s a lot of learning to be had from a fading English big band leader when it comes to understanding public sector change. That learning can help you be on top of the changes you’re going through, rather than being squashed by them.

There are three things to wake up to and to learn about change in the public sector, the first of which is eloquently hinted at in Yeats’ poem of 1924, The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

“The centre cannot hold…” has been particularly true in the UK these days where financial pressures and huge shifts in what is expected of the public sector means that organisations are having to reinvent themselves – sometime willingly, sometimes kicking and screaming into the market place – in partnership with organisations from other sectors such as the voluntary, social enterprise and private sectors.

The Second Awakening concerns the question of organisational identity. One critical consequence of the centre falling apart is that organisational identity also comes under severe pressure, and in some cases, crisis. Organisations are no longer able to conceive of themselves in the same way and if they are to survive that pressure and fend off the crisis, and for their reinvention to be effective, they will require a fundamental change in organisational culture.

The Third Awakening results from an acknowledgement that organisational culture change comes about through changes in how we think about, and act upon, our understanding of what it is to work in partnership.

The Art of Falling Apart

Yeats isn’t alone with his observation of the centre falling apart. Goethe took the argument one stage further when he warned that political centralisation would lead to the destruction of all culture. In his conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann in 1828 he wrote:

“To be sure, the state has been compared to a living body with many parts, and a state’s capital thus might be compared to the heart, which supports the life and well being of its near and distant parts. If the parts are very far from the heart, however, the flow of life will become weaker and weaker…”

And more recently, the historian and philosopher Terry Eagleton in 2001 positively urged the benefits of the centre collapsing whilst noting some of the collateral damage that this entailed:

These days, centrality is distinctly uncool. The centre has been marginalised, and marginality, like Bohemian Manchester or Cornish fishing villages, is the place to be. With so many groups muscling in on them, from sexual and ethnic minorities to dog-on-a-rope anarchists, the margins have grown so crowded that there is now standing room only. Indeed, they have bulged to spread over most of the page. Like elitism, marginality isn’t possible if too many people want to do it. It is an uncomfortable place, yet, oddly, it is where a lot of people want to be. In this sense it is a bit like Bangkok or the Aran islands.

So, if the centre cannot hold despite our best intentions, it may be best to wake up to the fact, embrace its possibilities and wake up to the new identity our organisation is going to find itself with. The falling apart of the centre means that whilst our organisations might have been sleeping caterpillars in recent years, there every possibility that they can emerge into the sunlight as bright new butterflies ready to face the challenges ahead.

From pupae to butterfly: changing organisational culture

Organisational culture is a complex phenomenon. Nilofer Merchant in the Harvard Business Review described culture as: “all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together… norms of purpose, values, approach — the stuff that’s hard to codify, hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to measure and therefore
manage…”

She suggests there are three important questions to ask ourselves which tell us about the culture of an organisation:

Do We Trust Each Other?
Disagreements Mean What? and
Who Cares About the Baby?

She suggests that in an organisation with poor levels of trust, every team member “simply surrounds an issue much like a team of kids surrounds the ball. They then travel en masse, afraid to move away from the proverbial “ball.” In this culture, no one owns a position on the field. When they are huddling, what they are signalling is that they don’t know how to trust one another to do their unique part. They don’t know how to “let go” to and with others, thus risking their ability to scale results.

Her question about how organisations deal with disagreements indicate how dissent and diversity can be handled within the culture of an organisation: “When teams don’t know how to handle disagreement, molehill issues can become do-or-die mountains, or, conversely, passive-aggressiveness insinuates itself as a mechanism to avoid overt disagreements at all costs.”

The question of Who Cares About the Baby? might not seem appropriate for any organisation other than a large hospital but she describes a scenario which many of us may recognise:

“A team that is part of a 50,000+ organisation recently described an issue where one team does their best right up to a hand-off milestone, then relinquishes any part of the project’s ultimate success. They described their discomfort with this using a baby analogy. “Will you take care of my [baby] the same way I would, knowing our shared goal is to [get this kid to a good college]. When the “baby” or in this case, business performance isn’t co-owned by everyone, things can easily fall through the cracks.”

It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it

Merchant argues that it’s how we get things done which drives performance, not what gets done and that it’s organisational culture – the set of habits that gives people permission to cooperate by assumption rather than by negotiation – which is critical to success.

But there’s one difficult outcome of this acknowledgement of the power of culture which Merchant amongst many others recognise: culture will trump strategy, every time.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture will look at your well crafted business plan, chew it up and spit it out before you’ve had time to say “mission drift.” Merchant makes the cautionary observation:

“The best strategic idea means nothing in isolation. If the strategy conflicts with how a group of people already believe, behave or make decisions it will fail. Conversely, a culturally robust team can turn a so-so strategy into a winner. The “how” matters in how we get performance.”

Culture change through partnership

The Third Awakening that Billy Cotton might have advised were he still alive with his Big Band, is that if an organisation’s culture is to change and, critically, to stick, it’s imperative to bring in new thinking, new ideas, new blood and new cultural practices into the work place. In the UK, this has involved new partnership building between the public, private and social sectors although this is not without its difficulties as Diamond points out:

“Change agents in the way they bring together different (and sometimes competing) interest
groups (means) regeneration partnerships are, therefore, often the sites of unresolved
interest.”

So, if we accept that cultural change is inevitable, given the forging of new organisational identity following the falling apart of the centre, what framework might we need to steer us through the process of partnership building?

The Fourth Awakening – or Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse if you’re feeling particularly threatened by organisational change – is that the following principles are essential to partnership building: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Knowledge.

Liberté: partnerships works best when both partners enter that partnership voluntarily and are not coerced into an arrangement that suits one partner better than the other. Liberté involves both commitment and compromise: accepting the need to be both focused on and committed to strategy whilst being flexible about tactics and delivery.

Egalité: partners need to respect language differences and appreciate that their way of knowing the world and acting upon it is not the only way of living the good life. Other partners will speak differently, use different metaphors and will not have the same language constraints: the value of the partnership is in appreciating those differences in language and not railroading over them.  A GSOH – a Good Sense of Humour – is essential here. It takes time to understand each other and there will be misunderstandings along the way. The task is to accept these moments in good grace and not storm out of the room in high dudgeon as if your mother has just been insulted.

Fraternité: partners need to accept that your organisational weight is not the be all and end-all. It’s not just your history that makes you a partner: you have to bring on-going skills, knowledge and wisdom to this process not just a superior histori-cultural capital. A decent partnership isn’t a forced marriage where you bring your ugly self and explain it away with the large financial contribution you’re bringing to justify your place at the table. Fraternité embraces the principles of dialogue as opposed to monologue. Partners need to talk with each other, not at each other.

Knowledge Partnership building can be like a completing a jigsaw puzzle without having the benefit of having the box top with the completed picture in front of you. But you can lessen your organisational anxiety if you know where you are in the building process which roughly follows the following pattern:

1. Scoping: involves identifying personnel, ideas, facts, figures, whims, daydreams, ‘what-ifs’, impossible scenarios, dull ideas, bright ideas, snatches of speech, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday and not so every day life.

2. Planning: identifying where are the connections between your collections, what they lead to, what links suggest themselves and summoning up the new world your partnership will generate.

3. Building: involves combining the components into infrastructure and not being afraid to jettison structures that don’t fit (they may belong to another project which you are unaware of at this point in time) or changing the infrastructure itself. “Killing your darlings” is a phrase you might hear here a lot. It involves focusing on the form and content of your partnership; being sure that everything in it has a purpose, a role and a function.

4. Delivering: the eventual rolling out the work of the partnership in order to achieve the aims and objectives you have set yourselves.

5. Evaluating: asking yourself has the partnership delivered? And if so, how? and if not, why not? And then back to the drawing board to revisit and revise.

A final caveat

Partnership building can be a highly satisfying process which enables organisations to deliver far more together than they could ever achieve alone. It’s essential to driving effective public sector change. This can be attractive to a range of potential partners, some of whom aren’t necessarily driven by the same values as yourselves: so ensure that your partners have something at stake when they come to your table, or they may just end up taking the table away.


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No Room at the Inns (x8)

We’re waiting for the 43 bus to take us into Nottingham, on the look out for some timely retail opportunities when we become aware of a dishevelled elderly man muttering into a mobile firmly attached to his jaw courtesy of a scarf he has secured around his head.  His muttering continues with a range of expletive deleted’s and it becomes clear that he’s very confused and very distressed.  His challenging, cajoling, arguing of his phone companion means that he keeps repeating the same phrases again and again, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly to himself but all the while into the mobile and the invisible caller at the other end.

Thankfully, the bus arrives to carry us away to the land of retail interventions and away from the old man who has no idea where he is, where he’s going, or what day of the week it is.

When he tries getting on the bus, he can’t say where he wants to go, doesn’t know where he needs to be, and to cap it all, someone’s taken all his belongings and he has no idea what’s become of any of them.

He’s unsteady on his feet and the bus driver sympathetically asks him to sit down, otherwise he can’t let him on the bus.  The instruction eludes him and he continues to sway unsteadily, whilst a few passengers try to help him take some steps towards the seats so that the bus can continue its travels to the shopping nirvana to which we are all headed.

Physically unsteady he might be, but our neighbour has other ideas and is rock steady when deciding where he wants to stand on the bus:  not with the other passengers, some of whom are getting tetchy and cat calling him, but next to the driver, lurching to and fro as the bus tentatively negotiates the busy Nottingham city streets.

Our fellow passenger soon becomes so distressed, that we have to get off the bus with him in Hockley and try to find out where he’s going and what help he needs.

It turns out that his name is Robbie. But he can’t speak coherently about much else.  I suggest phoning the friend he has just been talking to so ferociously so he agrees and lends me his phone.  There are just five numbers on his phone contact list: two of which look like agencies who might be able to help. I phone the first, but there’s no answer.  They might be out at the sales too I reason, so I try the second number, Bentinck Road, and with some relief speak to someone who helpfully advises me to take him along to Sneinton Hermitage where he will be welcomed and given a cup of tea.  He’ll then be picked up by the local outreach team who would be heading down there later that afternoon.

So far so good.  It also turns out the 43 dropped us off near Emmanuel House, an agency which specialises in working with homeless and vulnerable people so my friend pops over to establish whether they are open and to fix him up with a meal.

So far so unfortunate.  We take Robbie into Emmanuel House only to be met with a firm rebuttal.  He can’t come here. He’s been banned before and there’s no room for him.  He has to go somewhere else.  This is a bit of a setback as we thought that the prime purpose of Emmanuel House was precisely to look after people like Robbie.  But ours is not to reason why, so a member of staff helpfully calls for a cab and we head down to Sneinton Hermitage where we expect to be met with open doors and a warm welcome.

So far so a bit worse.  We arrive at the Hermitage only to find it shut for Christmas and the opportunity to go shopping, and an apologetic caretaker who explains no-one will be there for several days.

This is a touch exasperating given Bentinck Road’s advice to take him there and meet the Outreach Team.  I phone Bentinck again who advise me this time that there was another house some doors away which would welcome Robbie.  This turns out to be a complete red herring.  The house a few doors away has one man who looks at us in complete incomprehension and then proceeds to slam the door shut and not open it again despite regular knockings and ringing of bells.

After some random searching of the local streets, we find another agency, Michael Varnam House, who were open – but not to Robbie, and not to people who were not referrals and certainly not to people who have issues.  And they don’t mean unreturned library books.

Another series of calls with Bentinck provides lots of other fruitless opportunities.  There was another agency – London Road Hostel – who might be able to take him.  No, they won’t take him either it turns out. He isn’t a referral, and in any case, he has a track record with them too so there’s no way he’s turning up on their doorstep for the night.

It also transpires that the Outreach Team can’t come and pick him up after all as they don’t work that way.  Robbie has to be out on the streets before they can do anything – and that was only if they bumped into him en passant, so to speak. There’s no way they could organise a later pick up. Clearly Uber technology has yet to inform Bentinck’s Outreach team’s modus operandi.  Given they were driving around the city later that night, and Robbie’s state of distress was increasing by the minute, the idea that he might be picked up at some point in a hypothetical future strikes me as ridiculous. He could well have died of hypothermia by then.

Bentinck then reveal that they expelled Robbie some 24 hours earlier and that there was no way that he would be allowed back on the premises given his track record. If he did turn up, then they would call the police.  My phone manner was becoming increasingly vocal at this point and when I echoed the word ‘police’, Robbie pricked up his ears and his distress rose visibly with them.  There was no way he was going to a police station.  They’d already beaten him up, already badly manhandled him, he said, showing us some bruising on his wrist.

So we have one more choice.  We debate about taking him home and soon knock that idea on its unsteady head.  We’re trying to help but we too have our limits and that there’s no room at our inn either. We realise too that we cannot spend the rest of the day driving Robbie around Nottingham in various Ubers or take him to the sales expecting him to help us spot a bargain in the haberdashery.

So there’s one final call to Bentinck.  We’re bringing him up to yours: you apparently still have all his belongings and if that means that you’re going to call the police then so be it.

We call the next Uber and before long, an incongruously large blue Uber Mercedes turns up, complete with DVD screens in the back seats, and we get in, and drive over to Bentinck Road.  On the way, we manage to speak to a friend of his, George, who’s one of the five numbers on Robbie’s phone.  He thankfully picks up the Robbie baton and says he’s making his way to Bentinck so that he can pick him up and find somewhere else where he can stay for the night.

We arrive at Bentinck to be met by a staff welcoming committee of three who are resolute in not letting him into the building.  Thankfully though they accept our off load and we scarper off back into town in the luxurious blue Merc, thankful at least that George will be turning up at some point.

On the way to the Victoria Centre I spot the poster from Nottingham City Council which states that ‘No-one need sleep rough in Nottingham this winter.  if you or someone you know needs help, contact local charity Framework…’

At this point, an abyss opens up for me when I realise that despite the Council’s claims, the reality is for some people like Robbie, the state has no capacity to help, the voluntary sector has had its patience exhausted and is up to its eyes in referrals and there is nothing left to do than rely on your own supply of dazed and confused resources.

For all our Christian shopping values and retail therapy opportunities, there will never be room at any inn – or in Robbie’s case, the eight combined inns of housing agencies, domestic homes or bus rides.  The image of just five contact numbers in his phone magnified the loneliness and loss he carried with him deep inside his threadbare duffle coat. It struck me afterwards that for all that earlier muttering into the phone which was locked to his jaw, it was more than likely that he wasn’t talking to anybody at all, but just maintaining a pretence of a connection with another human being.

Fortunately, later that day we hear that George has found room for Robbie in a Bed and Breakfast in Alfreton Road in Nottingham and that they’ll be going down to Housing Aid first thing in the morning which is a relief.  We just hope that he isn’t expelled from Alfreton Road in the meantime and that Housing Aid are able to open their doors to him and help settle his nerves, calm his distress and point him in the right direction.  God knows he needs it.

(First published in the Nottingham Post, 3 January 2018)

 


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Cultural Exchange Chile: 275 million stars born every day, “in the whole observable Universe”.

On my way…

 IMG_9930I was invited to attend the Artivistas symposium by Balmaceda Arte Joven (BAJ) in Santiago together with my Artswork colleague, Jane Bryant in August 2017. Thanks to support from Arts Council England (ACE), the Anglo-Chilean Society, BAJ and Creative Europe, I presented both on the work of The Mighty Creatives and the project, Risk Change: a programme designed to address the social and cultural challenges faced by migrants and the receiving communities they are settling in across Europe.

Risk Change is a 4 year programme involving 10 European partners that connects new migrants and host communities in order to improve cross community understanding. The presentation focused on the challenges and successes of the programme and offered early, tentative policy improvements for regional and national policy makers and is available upon request.

 onmywayOn my @MightyCreatives way @balm_artejoven @JaneVBryant @ace_national @anglochilean

I’m reminded from the off that travel can be the height of foolishness when I think I’m about to collapse on the second leg of the flight from the UK to Chile; probably due to forgetting to eat before an over enthusiastic beer consumption in one of those timeless bars in Heathrow. Happily, there was a GP on the flight who instructed me to put my legs up in the air and wave my arms about like a flailing air traffic controller and before too long the colour had returned to my cheeks, I could sit up straight and look my neighbour in the eye and ask what all the fuss was about.

I was struck later as we disembarked in Santiago about how friendly and concerned some of the homeward bound travellers had been. Lots of anxious phrases rattled off in the fastest Spanish I’d ever heard and a few thumbs up when I thanked them and said I was absolutely muy bueno, gracias. I may have forgotten my Spanish dictionary dammit but apps these days mean it’s possible to wrap your tongue around any kind of phrase at a moment’s notice.

As we drive from the airport into Santiago I’m reminded of all sorts: and it occurs to me that this kind of travelling – visiting artists and educators in faraway places on a mission to understand what we have in common and what differentiates us – is not only about encountering new sights and sounds but also remembering old sights and sounds too: not necessarily in the place you’re visiting, but in the places you’ve been and would rather not have been. It’s not just about meeting new people, but about reacquainting yourself with people you thought you had left behind.

social activism

#NickonTour #artivistas @MightyCreatives @balm_artejoven @ArtsworkLtd cultural education for social activism

There’s a lot of familiarity in some new places – much too much for one’s liking sometimes. You’re reminded at the Museum of Memories in Santiago for example, that the civil war the museum depicts has elements of it which aren’t so far apart from our own recent experience of democracy in the UK. The Brexit vote for example, with its story of 52:48 was suspiciously like the 52:43 vote in the Chilean democracy election. You can’t help but wonder if the Chilean vote was such a comprehensive indictment of Pinochet as everyone is claiming it was: until you hear how the NO vote was blocked from advertising itself in the first place; and how it was censored and moved around the TV schedules in an attempt to disrupt the opposition.

Given that the word ‘NO’ hardly presents itself as a positive force for change, you realise again that numbers never tell the full story but are merely a snapshot and certainly don’t tell you about the process that led to that output or the bigger story behind it. We might take our own desire to measure education – and measure it again and again and again – with a higher degree of scepticism if we remembered what 43:52 actually meant during the end of the Pinochet regime.

Tomás Peters moderates discussion board Leire San Martin de @tabakalera, @DrNickOMBE and @Stgoesmio #Artivistastomaspeters

 Going abroad is not so much taking yourself away – but as Alain de Boton reminds us in The Art of Travel – is more about taking yourself with you wherever you go. So, if you find local people cheerful and accommodating, perhaps that’s because you’ve been accommodating and cheerful in the first place. Perhaps if you find the locals irascible and not to be trusted, it’s because the first things you’ve unpacked from your suitcase are your own bad temper and possessive inquisitiveness which can’t keep its hands off other people’s goods.

‘Gringo go home’ was never too far away in the foothills of the Andes, and on the first day at the Balmaceda Arte Joven programme, we forcefully encounter the work of the Argentinian collective, FACC (Fuerza artistica de choque comunicativo) – and yes, it sounds just like that old Anglo Saxon expletive – an anonymous collective which ‘uses any means necessary against political violence‘. The images of their work are powerful, disturbing and also aesthetically thrilling, reminding you that our agit prop tradition sometimes got lost in its earnestness and its forgetfulness of the power of live theatre.

And that’s another thing we’re reminded of in those early seminars with Balmaceda. Artists, managers and educators still talk convincingly about the power of the arts: of arts for arts sake, not for some instrumental purpose, not as some device which gets you sat in the seats of power as Ken Robinson did so successfully in the late 1990s with his positioning of arts education within the larger rhetorical cloak of creativity. “Arts for Arts Sake” still resonates powerfully here: particularly when you realise that it’s one thing we hardly ever do as an Arts Council Bridge organisation – talk about the arts.

#NickonTour #artivistas @MightyCreatives @balm_artejoven @ArtsworkLtd “our learning starts out of school” say the 87%87%

 We talk about creativity, about infrastructure, about KPIs, about outcomes, about outputs, about milestones and about gross value added. We talk constantly about investment and progression routes and return on investment. We talk incessantly about partnerships and collaborations and going forward: but looking back, we never ever seem to talk about the arts – and what it is about the arts which makes the difference in the classroom when an artist is faced with a whole classroom gaze of dis-spirited Year 9s on a wet Wednesday afternoon who can’t wait to get out of school and get on with the things that really matter – their own culture.

Sometimes it might be useful if we might remind ourselves of how we got where we got to, what it was about the arts that brought us here and what it is about the arts that keeps us here, against all the financial, educational and cultural odds.

#NickonTour fab meeting with @clBritish under the gorgeous gaze of the #Andes #Chile @ArtsworkLtd @balm_artejoven @JaneVBryantwatchfuleye

 The Andes are never far away in Santiago and the view from the British Council offices are perhaps some of the best in the world if you need something to inspire you to think about cross border cultural exchange, something we started work on with Balmaceda during our brief time with them in Chile and which will continue into the Autumn of the East Midlands and South East UK.

At night, the stars in Santiago become a completely different proposition to the ones you might be able to pick out on the top of a hill on a foggy November night in Colwick Woods in Nottingham. The stars in Santiago remind you that the Milky Way allegedly produces about 3 new stars per year. If we work on the basis that there are about 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe, this means that there are about 275 million stars being born every day.

That’s a lot of outcomes and is another reminder of the outcomes of artists with teachers and young people: they are always countless – predictable, unpredictable, surprising and challenging – which might be spotted briefly on the horizon but will never be completely captured given the nature of the work we are doing. We sometimes seem to confuse the tip of the iceberg with the iceberg itself and this has its own set of unintended and unexpected consequences.

#NickonTour #artivistas @MightyCreatives @JaneVBryant @balm_artejoven @ArtsworkLtd #riskchange #Antofagasta! Es bueno verlos: verlos, bueno!verlosbueno

Up in Antofagasta in the north of the country I present on the work of Risk Change, the TMC Creative Europe programme which is focused on how the arts contribute to community cohesion.

One way I’ve found of engaging new overseas audiences is to introduce them to some British light entertainers. A few years ago, in Oman, I was able to use the Billy Cotton call – Wakey, Wakey! to kick start a discussion about the need for the public sector change – but in the Chilean case, I drew on the work of Bruce Forsyth who had passed away earlier in the month.

Thanks to the omnipresent YouTube, I showed my audience some of the opening credits of the Generation Game of the early 1070s when I’m reminded of me and my dad’s attempt to get on to the show – albeit without success. But no matter: the clip worked well, with the Latin audience also offering an attempt to join in with the Spanish Brucie equivalent, Es bueno verlos: verlos, bueno!

I’m also reminded that I hate enforced participation games – something which stemmed from my trousers splitting in Gorleston Holiday Camp in Norfolk back in 1971 when my dad ran the camp there and we were encouraged to join in with the Hokey Cokey one wet Wednesday afternoon. On putting my left foot out, my trouser bottoms decided to cave in and before you know it, there’s a huge wave of embarrassment spreading out from my general direction and I try and beat a backward walking retreat, not knowing where to look or what to do or where to go.

I vowed never to do anything like that ever again – and then 20 years later headed into the field of Community Arts where putting your left foot in and shaking it all about were the essential prerequisites for a meaningful engagement experience. So much for the teenager oath.

@ArtsworkLtd #riskchange #Antofagasta #ExposicionSala exposicion

My presentation takes place in BAJ’s centre in the suitably titled Fundación Minera Escondida, where there’s also a photographic exhibition about southern Chile and the effects of global warming. The exhibition consists of photographs of an iceberg painting being dragged around on a small boat. The photo of the ‘berg reflecting on the floor reminds you there is always something hidden under the surface – which is as true in the wasteland to the north of the city which leads into the desert, as it is of the oceans south of Tierra del Fuego.

Early the next day we drive through the wasteland to see apparently nothing but the detritus of dead trains and miles upon miles of rubber tyres and soil tips which tell you there are riches under the surface which we can only imagine: unless you happen to be a mining engineer when you’ll know all about what’s under the surface and how to get things out of it.

#NickonTour #artivistas @MightyCreatives @balm_artejoven @ArtsworkLtd Peruvian Pisco Sour Impact

piscosourThere’s a night and day (not sure which way around at this point, but that could just be the magical realism tradition of Latin America finally kicking in) of Suspiro limeño and its other intoxicants: Peruvian Girl Sigh; Inspira; Zombie Pride and Prejudice; and Cueca out in the suburbs and out in the desert, the deserted nitrate mining town of Chacabuca over which the haunted tunes of Lucha Reyes float across her desolate landscape.

I’m reminded of my first father-in-law, a German mining engineer who travelled to Colombia after the second world war, my first marriage and what was under the surface then: and this reminds me of past and future love gained, lost, forgotten, surrendered and remembered.

International travel might well be the height of foolishness but my trip to Balmaceda Arte Joven in Chile served to remind me that learning is not just about acquiring new knowledge, skills and experiences but also remembering the ones you’ve had – and which may take over 40 years to learn about the consequences of the teaching moments that evaporated in the heat of your youth.

#NickonTour 2 @MightyCreatives Chile @JaneVBryant @ArtsworkLtd @balm_artejoven HUGE thnx 2 @ace_national AIDF and @anglochilean #RISKCHANGE

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What is the point of school?

All too often these days, I hear the cry, “What is the point of school?”

What with accelerating technological and social changes, children have become socialites at 7, adults by 12 and are doubting everything the teacher and the school stands for, within a few months of joining secondary school.

Behaviour has become questionable in some cases and alarming in others, deference has become a quaint notion from a rose tinted past when teachers were the head of the classroom and everyone knew and welcomed their places.

If you believe the crystal ball gazers of the media, the curriculum has become irrelevant and has been superseded by the Internet where children work out their own curriculum, perhaps blindly, perhaps intuitively, perhaps guided by who knows what – certainly things we parents and teachers know nothing or little about.

These are apparently desperate times when all our educational purposes,  rationales and strategies have been thrown up into the air and scrutinised like never before. What place the curriculum? The school? The teacher even?

These existential questions are common to teachers across the world; from urban comprehensives in inner city Nottingham, to rural schools across India, to schools in the outback in furthest Australia.

No matter where you look, the central questions are the same: how should schools respond to the rapidly changing nature of the world we live in? How can they prepare children for an uncertain today and a completely unknown tomorrow?

We at the Mighty Creatives firmly believe that this preparation for the future – the ability to future proof our children so to speak -lays fairly and squarely at the doorstep of arts and culture.

It’s the power of arts and culture in the lives of children and young people which will affect their educational, their social and their economic futures.

I don’t just mean the ability to sit back and consume the latest musical X factor fad, but the ability for children to engage actively in the processes of understanding, creation and production of all forms of artistic activity.

We – teachers, artists, policy makers – have  known for decades the power the arts have in the education of young people. Many of us will have stories which bear testament to that fact of life and may also be able to point to the many research studies over the years which support what we know from our own hard won experiences.

I’m not going to list them all here now, you’ll be relieved to hear,  but it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the recent research findings carried out by the Cultural Learning Alliance earlier this year. They found that learning through arts and culture can

  • Increase cognitive abilities by 17%;
  • Improve attainment in Maths and English;
  • Develop skills and behaviours that lead children to do better in school.

Furthermore, they found that students from low-income families who take part in arts activities at school are:

  • three times more likely to get a degree
  • twice as likely to volunteer
  • 20% more likely to vote as young adults.

And last but certainly not least,

  • The employability of students who study arts subjects is higher and they are more likely to stay in employment;
  • Young offenders who take part in arts activities are 18% less likely to re-offend;
  • Children who take part in arts activities in the home during their early years are ahead in reading and Maths at age nine;
  • People who take part in the arts are 38% more likely to report good health.

The power of arts and culture on young people’s lives really is incontestable. And if we needed any more proof that the arts contribute to future-proofing our children, and reminding us what the point of school is, these findings are irresistable.

This makes it essential that schools are at the heart of championing the arts and are given permission to create opportunities for the transformation that the arts can bring about.

This is why participating in the Arts Mark progamme is so powerful for schools and the young people they serve – and why it’s such a thrill to be here this afternoon to see the effects that the Arts Mark programme is having on children across our region.

Since the relaunch of Artsmark in 2015 we have had over 250 schools register and join the Artsmark Community in the East Midlands.  They’ve joined the growing national community of over 2,800 schools across England as a whole.

This commitment to arts and culture in our schools means that over 103,000 pupils in the region can be reached – and can have their lives transformed by the power of arts and culture. This level of transformation means that our children and young people are not only just finding the point of school, but are being prepared for a future which they can benefit from, rather than being frightened of and controlled by.

Our job at The Mighty Creatives is to catalyse this transformation.  We do this by:

  • encouraging, sharing and celebrating outstanding practice in schools with their Arts Mark and Arts Award programmes;
  • Understanding that we can reach young people outside of schools too with our social action and our festival projects;
  • Forming communities of collaborators through local cultural education partnerships,
  • Providing learning and training opportunities for practitioners
  • Helping you measure and value the collective impact of your work.

We are now, following our recent successful bid to the Arts Council England,  delighted to be able to continue that support for schools like yours for the next five years.

Thank you all for the tremendous, life changing work you have been bringing to bear on our children’s lives.  They will look back, in the future, to the work you have done and will bless you for it.  Thank you – I hope you have a great afternoon.

(Speech presented at the Artsmark Celebration event, Nottingham Contemporary, July 2017


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Act4Change: what binds us?

I want to welcome you all tonight: the young people from Leicester, Nottingham, Northampton and beyond, the young people who have participated in The Mighty Creatives’ Act4Change projects which are designed to challenge you to change your communities through the power of art and culture.

People say to me that there’s no such thing as the East Midlands. That the region is a figment of some politicians’ imaginations, cooked up in the back streets of Westminster back in the day when politicians carved up several regional and national boundaries, along with their breakfast bacon and eggs, not only here but across the world.

Many of you will know that Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent have all been on the receiving end of British politicians who have tended to cause disruption, distress and dismay with their arbitrary carving up of regions and communities so that people are left confused and bewildered about where they live, who their neighbours are and who they belong to.

A few years ago I was riding a train one day back from the Taj Mahal to Delhi in India and found myself completely baffled about what was it that bound the people of India: a country with over 1.3 billion people, more than 2000 ethnic groups and with representatives from every major religion, who between them, utter all four major families of the world’s languages across its vast land mass.

What binds you? I asked of a fellow traveller who was sat next to me on that rickety rackety train which stumbled along at an average speed of no more than 10mph. What connects the man or woman in the south of this huge country to the man or woman in its north? His answer was swift, decisive and simple: cricket.

For him, cricket provided the solution to the challenges posed by geography, language and faith. Cricket bound his people to a common cause and in doing so, allowed the country to celebrate the achievements of its communities throughout the ages.

And that’s what we’re doing here tonight, albeit in a more modest way. With all of you who’ve travelled the journeys you have – and I don’t just mean the physical travel up or down the regional motorways or train lines – but the emotional and psychological challenges you will have faced during the time you worked with on your Act4Change project – all of you are here because you’ve been bound by the power of art and culture.

In your work on your Act4Change projects, you’ve demonstrated the power of story telling, of radio, of photography, drama, music, art, fashion and literature. It’s these things which have brought you together tonight and bind you to a greater cause.

The power in your art means that not only have you achieved great things for you and your communities, but you are now empowered to make even greater social and cultural changes in your lives to come across the region which you are creating as a result of your inspiration and commitment.

We’re delighted to be celebrating those journeys with you and to celebrate the power of your achievements and your artistic ambition, endeavour and insights.

Tonight is about recognising that the power of the East Midlands – its identity and place in the world – is being made by you, its children and young people.

Congratulations and on behalf of the Board and staff of The Mighty Creatives, we hope you have a fantastic evening and look forward to hearing all about your recent work, your journeys  and your plans for the future.