Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education

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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.

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A Day in a Year in a Day at The Mighty Creatives

I’ve worked in a fair few offices in my time, everything from the back seat of my car, to a stationery cupboard (with intermittent dial up internet access), through to an 11th floor palatial office suite in which full timers would glare from behind their desk dividers at us part timers. They’re funny spaces, offices; never to be viewed in the same light after the eponymous Ricky Gervais series, and for all the bland uniformity they present on the surface, underneath there’s a myriad of tensions, joys and exclamation marks.

Offices in the creative sector are particularly conflicted spaces; it’s expected that they should reflect the artistic, freewheeling creative spirit of the organisation, but on the other hand also have to accommodate people wrestling with spreadsheets, sensitive private conversations and long-term, life-changing budget decisions.

Open plan offices can be particularly fraught, holding multiple needs and conversations. It’s a bit like trying to play in a band: the lead guitarist is constantly inclined to rip into an extended guitar solo; the drummer’s constantly practicing his paradiddles, and the brass section – assuming they’ve got back from the pub in time – are always on the verge of walking out back to the pub. And then you’ve got your younger generation who take huge delight in sampling every possible sound, distorting it beyond recognition and playing it back in the least useful context imaginable. It’s potentially cacophonous, with very little musical enlightenment generated.

Stepping into the cacophony of silence of the TMC open plan office for the first time however, was a very pleasant surprise. We have a large open space, not particularly conducive to holding a jazz improvisation workshop, but it is very helpful if you need to concentrate and get some hard numbers sorted.

And sorting hard numbers and targets is something we’re pretty adept at.

In the last year alone, we’ve delivered:

  • 16 social action projects for 261 young people participating in 109 events through our Act4Change programme;
  • 8 Cultural Education Partnerships being established which has generated 7 partnership Investments (worth £564,580) and a return on investment of £1,259,818;
  • 7,312 moderations and 194,250 hours of quality provision through Arts Award;
  • 120 schools registered and 31,289 pupils reached through Artsmark;
  • 8 school Continual Professional Development networks established, with 58 new schools through our Children and Young People workforce programme;
  • activity in 4 locations, with 6 commissioned young artist artists, in 16 community labs with over 130 local young people who are working together to produce four Shakespeare inspired festivals on 23 April for the Emerge Youth Arts festival programme
  • and and and.. the outputs, outcomes and achievements are formidable.

What is key to the organisation’s effectiveness? Our ability to collaborate, to share and to come together as team as well as with our wider partnerships across the region.

As a team we meet regularly at our ‘huddles’ where we give colleagues five minutes to pitch, share and offer ideas in whatever medium they like and then watch how the ideas flow. It’s a place to playfully engage with the hot topics of the day and ask the questions which need answering. Everyone’s invited to pitch in, share or ask questions. It’s possibly the most generative space in the office environment, in as much it generates conversation, ideas, suggestions: not just within the work place agenda but it allows us to bounce into other ideas, suggestions and inspirations.

In addition to the forward-looking huddles, we also reflect on our work through our quarterly management review meetings, which enables us to track progress against the many programme lines of activity. Probably as complex as tracking train movements out of Crewe Junction, the quarterly reviews have enabled us to coordinate our programme progress. Progress that includes building a strong case to secure a new Arts Council Bridge contract, which could support us until the dizzy heights of 2022 if successful, also managing the intricacies of our Emerge youth arts festivals, happening again in April 2017 (spanning the East and West Midlands), responding to the complexities of the Act4Change programme, which is resulting in hundreds of young people across the East Midlands making real, sustainable differences to their local communities; and meeting the challenges of delivering a 10 partner European programme on migration and culture. Our programmes’ activity is intricate and varied, demonstrating great impact across the region. Then, of course, there’s all the associated communications, finance and office support that’s needed to keep those programmes moving and delivering on time and to budget.

It’s a year to the day that I went for my interview for the post of CEO at TMC and got my first sight and sound of the office in full attentive flow. It’s been an amazing experience from the onset and I’m thrilled to see how the next five years map out for us, our colleagues and our partners regionally, nationally and internationally.

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The good lies of stories: writers working with refugees

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent” Neil Gaiman[1]

Working with refugees means that writers are faced with some provocative challenges about their practice. Are they there to interpret the history of the young refugee who who’s standing in front of them, bewildered and angry? Tell their truth for them? Help them write English? Help them find some accommodation? Or just get out of the way?

Or, given that we live in post-truth times of fake news, is the best that writers can do, to paraphrase Gaiman, is to entertain us with stories that are good lies which pay the rent?

At this year’s Writers Conference, produced by Writing East Midlands at The University of Nottingham, we were delighted to introduce the The Mighty Creatives’ Risk:Change programme to conference delegates; over 150 writers and storytellers from a diverse set of backgrounds and interests. Risk:Change is a four year programme, funded by Creative Europe, which aims to improve understanding of how cultural practice affects social change across 10 European partners; from the Balkans and South East Europe up to France, Holland and into the East Midlands of the UK.

Now an annual landmark in the region’s literary landscape, The Writers Conference provides workshops, panel discussions and debates designed to assist writers’ professional practices. This year’s conference interrogated the idea of ‘migration’, not by debating ‘rights and wrongs’ but by taking an inquisitive look at how ideas might move, as people do, and what this might mean for writers of all backgrounds.

Never mind the Alice in Wonderland world of Brexit promises, delusions and fear. The work that is being undertaken by partners, artists and migrants in the Risk:Change programme is all about engaging in the real world of the complex relationships between culture and migration in ways which aim to understand and give voice to the migrant and the new communities they find themselves within. Being able to introduce this work to writers, who are increasingly finding themselves invited to work with refugees, is a vital element of the Risk:Change programme.

By investigating the opportunities for sharing literary cultures, sparking creative processes, and embracing new ideas, stories and truths, we asked, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” why certain stories continued to appeal, what the commonalities were and whether the use of archetypes – hero, mentor, villain – were useful in creating narratives which helped the refugee voice to be created, platformed and heard.

Helping to challenge the theory and practice was Jacob Ross, Associate Editor for Fiction at Peepal Tree Press and author of The Bone Readers: Shonaleigh, a Drut’syla (storyteller) from the Yiddish oral tradition and the UK Deputy National Storytelling Laureate and Andrew Walsh, an award-winning writer/director with credits for more than 70 video games including Prince of Persia and Harry Potter.

The question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the refugee narratives – whether it’s the writer, the refugee and or a combination of the two – was also challenged many times. There were no simple answers to this question – but the fact that they are being asked and discussed by writers and refugees is a promising way forward.

[1] http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2004/11/politics-portugal-and-no-gumbo-limbo.asp

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A Grand Tour with a Grand Ambition

One of my first jobs as CEO of The Mighty Creatives has been to tour the East Midlands’ arts and cultural organisations to find the inspiration to rise to The Mighty Creatives’ core challenge: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people? This post is about the first month of the ‘Grand Tour’ and will be followed up with future posts in the months to come. You can follow my progress and challenges on Twitter using #NickOnTour.

What happens on tour, stays on tour” is what those wizened rock and rollers might have said back in the day when they were travelling around the music halls of Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln and Leicester. But for me, this blog is quite the opposite: “what happens on tour, leaves the tour” because there’s a lot going on out there that needs sharing.

To say that my ‘grand tour’ of the East Midlands’ arts and cultural organisations (#NickOnTour) has been inspirational would be an understatement. From the moments which bring you up short and sharp and disrupt your week (“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” thanks Nick at Corby Cube) to witnessing the work of those who proudly proclaim themselves as Community Arts organisations with no caveats, inverted commas or discomfort, and are able to show 40 years of achievement of building communities in Bolsover and beyond (thanks, Junction Arts): it’s been a two month tour of reminiscences, surprises and inspiring hopes for the future, the likes of which I never imagined when I started work on 4 July earlier this summer.

But this isn’t just a trip around the region for old time’s sake, fondly remembering rural touring shows, spotting old faces in new suits or dealing with the vagaries of the region’s transport infrastructure. There’s an urgent question driving these visits which we at The Mighty Creatives have a vital responsibility to address: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people?

Because whatever the sector has collectively achieved in recent years, there is still a long way to go before we can claim to be improving the lot of children and young people in our region’s schools in any systematic manner. The unpleasant fact is that, according to OfSTED, the East Midlands is the worst performing region in the country on a range of key educational indicators. Couple this to the well documented fact that children’s and young people’s engagement in arts and culture is in crisis nationally; and you’re left with the cold hard reality that there’s still a long way to travel to a glorious land where arts and culture are everyone’s entitlement rather than a few people’s enrichment.

Because what we do isn’t just a matter of providing nice stuff for nice kids to do on wet Wednesday afternoons after school: it’s about improving every young person’s life chances – especially for those who already have had a tough enough start, whether this be due to poverty, discrimination or any of the other myriad of social ills which inflict themselves on young peoples’ lives every day.

It’s about knowing – and acting up on the knowledge – that too many children and young people live their lives without access to play, creativity and culture and that these inequalities affect other significant challenges in their lives: low educational achievement, poor health, engrained poverty, social exclusion or limited financial opportunities.

It’s about knowing – and acting upon the knowledge – that if we can radically improve, increase and invest in the engagement of children and young people to arts and cultural practice, we will dramatically contribute to school and educational improvement across the region and ultimately address the inequalities that poison too many people’s young lives.

So the place of arts and culture in education is not just timely, it’s urgent. It’s not just a desire, it’s an imperative. There’s no room to mess about in or time to mess about with.

The good news is there’s no messing about going on in the arts and cultural organisations of the East Midlands – from Skegenss to Corby, Northampton to Mansfeld . There’s work with national and international intent going on (thanks, Nottingham Contemporary,  Soft Touch Arts in Leicester,Royal and Derngate in Northampton and Derby’s Silk Mill Museum); and ground breaking work which is integrating professional and community practice (thanks to Derby Theatre;  Baby People in Derby, Viva SinfoniaRed Earth Theatre and Attenborough Arts Centre) – whose teams all reminded me that music, dance, theatre and design are all naturally Integrated by young people – and that it makes little sense to disaggregate them.

There’s some terrific developmental work going on in the heart of both our formal and informal classrooms (thanks to the teams at Ignite FuturesSpark ArtsLincolnshire Music Education HubNottingham Music Education Hub and Writing East Midlands) and a tremendous legacy around the region which continues to provide influential and transformative practice which participants have remembered many years after they were involved (thanks to NMPAT, the Music and Performing Arts Service in Northampton; SoundLincsartsNKLincolnshire One Venues and New Perspectives).

There’s some innovative and provocative work coming out of the digital domain (thanks to Threshold; artistry with ambition and aspiration, thanks to New Art Exchange and Leicester’s Curve) and a hugely healthy spirit of innovation and independence which permeates across age, art form and geographical area: (thanks toPhoenix CinemaMagna VitaePeople Dancing and East Midlands Jazz.)

It’s been a tour thinking about progression routes: not just how do I get from here to there with the minimum of train changes, but more importantly how do young people access an art form and then take it further with vocational or professional training? And then develop careers from something which was just a faint glimmer in their eye when they were 8 years old? And how does work start off in independent or community settings and then go on to the bigger stages, wider audiences and communicates with the wider world?

But the most important progression question of all remains: how can how can we improve our cultural education provision for children and young people, in both statutory and community based settings, in a way that opens up opportunities to them which lead to purposeful and productive lives?

Questions which no doubt will continue to inform #NickOnTour over the next 3 months as I begin my tour around schools, youth and other education agencies: watch this space for some answers but probably a lot more questions.

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Risk Change: culture, migration and 3 days in Maribor.

Day 1

I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant. Sure, I’ve travelled from city to city in the UK sometimes to find work, sometimes to relocate in order to work – but never with a gun to my head, my entire family trudging through mud beside me or as a result of persecution in a place I once considered my home.

But I’m here at Kibla in Maribor, Slovenia this week representing The Mighty Creatives along with partners from 9 other EU countries to examine the refugee experience, research how cultural activity can inform that experience and who knows in the long run, perhaps inform future international policy on how cultural practice can enhance meaningful relationships between the migrant and their host community.

We’re doing this through a programme called Risk Change: a 4 year programme supported by Creative Europe Co-operation funding.   Organisations from 10 partner countries in the EU aim to  interact with different audiences, using a range of cultural methodologies to build connectivity  between new coming migrants and settled inhabitants of multicultural communities across Europe.

It’s a tall order at the moment given what’s happening across the continent and the U.K. especially given our recent Brexit ‘decision’.

We’ve no idea what to expect this week. Of course, we have the paperwork and the schedules and all the requisites to ensure a constructive collaboration. But until we look at each other in the eyes and hear how we breathe and talk together, the documentation is just text.  It’s the subtext that’s going to count this week: the verbal, nonverbal and physical communications which are going to tell us whether or not we’re on a long productive road with our colleagues at our sides or on our backs.

Day 2

We kicked off our kick off meeting yesterday with an introduction to the research that all 10 partners need to do as the first stage of the project. There’s quite a bit of it too: a shed load of desk based research covering national policy and initiatives on migration; 60 participant interviews per partner and countless reports, ‘call-outs’ and actions. The list goes on and on and on and on….

It occurred to me mid-session that we could really add some value to the process by introducing colleagues to the methodologies involved in arts based educational research (ABER), a form of ethnographic research which involves using arts based processes as the means of undertaking research (not just communicating its results).

I was involved in a lot of ABER practice some years ago when I ran the Special Interest Group for the British Educational Research Association (or the ABER SIG for BERA as it was called in those acronym crazed days): so I drew on some of that work and presented it to colleagues.  If you’re interested in the field, the following practitioners are as a good a place to start as any:

ABBS, P. (2003). Against the Flow. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

BAGLEY, C. (2008). ‘Educational ethnography as performance art: towards a sensuous

feeling and knowing’, Qualitative Research, 8, 1, 53–72.

EISNER, E. (1993). ‘Forms of understanding and the future of educational research’,

Educational Researcher, 22, 7, 5–11.

LEITCH, R. (2006). ‘Limitations of language: developing arts-based creative narrative in stories of teachers’ identities’, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 12, 5, 549–69.

SAUNDERS, L. (2003). ‘On flying, writing poetry and doing educational research.’ British Educational Research Journal, 29, 2, 175–187.

Day 3

“I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant…” or so I thought at the start of this week. Yesterday we covered a lot of ground about the concept of who ‘counts’ as a migrant and why they ‘count’.

Fortunately, we were spared conversations about definitions of migrants which much like definitions of ‘creativity’ are interminable, exhausting and inconclusive. This is because someone at UNESCO had the good sense to conjure up some definitions of what counted as international migration which all the partners were happy enough to go along with. In summary, these were:

a) Temporary labour migrants: also known as guest workers or overseas contract workers: people who migrate for a limited period of time in order to take up employment and send money home;

b) Highly skilled and business migrants: people with qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians or similar, who move within the internal labour markets of trans-national corporations and international organisations, or who seek employment through international labour markets for scarce skills;

c) Irregular migrants or undocumented / illegal migrants: people who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits;

d) Forced migration: in a broader sense, this includes not only refugees and asylum seekers but also people forced to move due to external factors, such as environmental catastrophes or development projects. This form of migration has similar characteristics to displacement;

e) Family members: or family reunion / family reunification migrants: people sharing family ties joining people who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above mentioned categories;

f) Return migrants: people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.

The guys at UNESCO also make the useful point that:

“Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved.”

So in hindsight (always my best friend, Mr Hindsight), perhaps I am a migrant after all… perhaps we all are, one way or another… Something to consider over the weekend as I migrate from Maribor to Ljubljana and take on the role of being another form of transient: the tourist.