Post written by: Erin Walcon
This is a post about failure.
My own failure, and that of our funding structures.
It’s also about solutions. So do keep reading.
I don’t think we talk about failure enough – the good kind, the kind where we figure stuff out by messing up and doing it better. I really believe in that kind of failure – owning our mistakes, and reflecting on them, and then trying again. My best life choices, my best drama workshops, my best teaching moments are all grounded in that kind of useful, gritty, regular kernels of failure. It’s the grist to a mill of doing better.
But today I also want to talk about a different kind of failure… the kind where you realise it’s bigger than yourself, and you zoom out your thinking and start to see a pattern emerging. The kind of failure where you realise the problem is systemic. That something in the very bones of the skeleton need to change. And about the feeling of heaviness that comes just before you realise that tiny changes are indeed possible – that from tiny changes, bigger changes grow.
Here at Doostep, we developed a programme called Theatre of the Mind. It’s a school enrichment programme which uses drama methods like Forum & Image Theatre to support young people to develop positive coping skills in terms of their own mental health & wellbeing. It’s a good programme… we know it works because we co-developed it with a group of Year 8 students across a full academic year, working in residence at Brixham College. It’s been honed and developed further since then, working in partnership with digital specialists and mental health specialists. I’m proud of it – it’s a simple but very effective programme, which can be delivered across 3 or 6 workshops (or longer). It’s simple but potent, fits within the school day nicely, and provides a creative & embodied way for students in Years 5, 6, 7 & 8 to explore key themes. We have a pressing mental health crisis with our young people – this kind of work is badly needed, and particularly for that age group.
As a former secondary teacher, pieces of my heart will always live inside of formal education structures. I know how relentlessly hard the staff in our schools work – the late nights marking at 11pm, the weekends spent prepping instead of relaxing, the bleary early morning starts in the dark. I know that the work is enormously underpaid and impossibly gargantuan in its task. And I know that most of the measures of ‘success’ are deeply flawed. I’ve written about this before.
So when we first started talking to our partner schools about Theatre of the Mind, we really understood when the headteachers and deputy headteachers and PSHE leads told us that they just didn’t have the budget to pay for it. We knew that their discretionary spend for arts activities was already pretty much eradicated. That senior leadership teams have become very clever at having to fund dance from PE budgets and source enrichment activities through Pupil Premium. Schools budgets were skeletal well before this cost of living crisis… and now that we face rising utility bills, headteachers are having to make impossible decisions in order to keep the heating and the lights on. Losing staff from already understaffed classrooms, getting rid of the few enrichment activities that were left.
Sorry – this sounds really depressing. I don’t mean it to be… this is actually a post about proactive solutions. I have positive and helpful suggestions. Specific, detailed ones. Keep reading.
Back to Theate of the Mind. So we were told by local Torbay teachers that we trust that they wanted the programme but that they couldn’t afford to buy the programme in – that they just didn’t have spend allocated to arts for PSHE enrichment. We listened and then we went off and wrote some grant applications – to try and fund the work ourselves so that we could offer it to the schools for free. We had an artistic teaching team ready to go, we had the programme ready to go, we were experienced fundraisers with a good track record of successful delivery. I thought to myself, ‘This will be easy. We can make this happen.’
After 2 funding rejections, I began to wonder if I was doing a bad job of storying the programme. After 3, real self doubt crept in, nagging me. I began to fret that maybe the artistic work really wasn’t that good. Or if it wasn’t good value for money?
But each time I looked back on it, and each time we delivered one of the workshops, I got reminded that it was a strong, sound, thoughtful and potent programme. One that deserved to be in every Year 7 & 8 classroom.
Fast forward 3 years and we have yet to have a single funding success for Theatre of the Mind. We have had failure after failure. The reasons? One of these is a structural flaw…that very few funders are willing to fund artistic work within the school day. Many of the funders we have approached or considered have rejected the programme purely on eligibility grounds – i.e. because they do not fund any artistic activity which falls inside of formal education structures. They just don’t fund work inside the middle of the school day.
Historically, trusts & foundations have steered clear of funding any artistic work inside the day at school because it was perceived to be a conflict of interest with the Department for Education’s funding remit. I have PhD in Applied & Education theatre and so I’ve read a lot of specialised niche articles and therefore, I understand the reasons behind this. If we look back to 1980s Thatcher-era Britain, you can see why these tectonic plates are in place… to try and make it clear that the Department for Education has a remit to provide a rich, balanced and full education to children… which should of course include the arts.
But we ain’t in 1980s Britain anymore folks.
In fact, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
We’re in a new space – a rapidly changing, urgent space which requires radical solutions and a willingness to scrap old ways of thinking in order to meet the need which is so clearly right in front of us. Our systems are rusty, broken, archaic. We need to reinvent. Now. We need to innovate. To be willing to admit what isn’t working and to act quickly to change it.
Arts Council England rightly recognised several years ago that arts were disappearing like extinct dinosaurs out of the school day curriculum. It was clear then that DfE budgets were skeletal (without any specific remit for arts) and testing/academic/success measures pressures (i.e. SATS, Ofsted) so intense that arts were being rapidly sidelined.
So, in one of their greatest acts, ACE changed their funding policy. They recognized the urgency and acted upon it. This is one of the best moves they have ever made.
And now it’s time for all funders to do the same.
We live in rapidly changing times, and denial is a luxury.
Our changing climate, and therefore the very fabric of our societies, rules of culture, & old shape of our economy is going to make last year’s rules seem ancient. The machinery is in motion – we’re inside it.
And clinging to ‘what we used to do’ isn’t going to serve our children. Rather than feeling powerless, or feeling overwhelmed, let’s focus on 1-2 real positive steps for change that we can make. Shifting the rules of funding structures is not rocket science – we can do this. It’s just as urgent as research into climate change. This is investment in human hope.
Our children deserve as much laughter, connection, community, embodiment, joy, and hope as we can muster. We need to grow these things. The arts are uniquely situated, beautifully potent, in this regard. They are the weapon we need right now to face overwhelm, apathy, fear, war, greed, ignorance.
If we can do one thing for our kids, it’s this, right now. We can alter the rules and create spaces where their capacity for imagination, for creative re-visioning, for building their own resilience are nurtured. And that work must, of course, take place inside the education system. Our teachers need the support. Our headteachers need the budgets. Let’s action 1 change, 2 changes. Let’s see where it leads.
Yes, of course, let’s continue to lobby and advocate for DfE funding for creative subjects, for arts enrichment, for creativity within the curriculum. Let’s herald the long-awaited Cultural Education Plan when it finally arrives. Let’s not give up this fight. But we have to think outside the box too – we need to send resources and support in to the teachers who are working inside this system with dwindling budgets. Who didn’t stop or take a break during the pandemic and now are facing new challenges, with no rest or recuperation time.
Education isn’t about Ofsted inspectors and SATS results and league tables. Real education is about preparing humans to face the realities of our world.
Rather than dwell on the impossible, or read the doom-and-gloom newspaper headlines, or stare blankly at the evening news… let’s do this instead. Let’s not step into the boring murk. Let’s carve out spaces to dream the possible. To vision forward. To prepare armadas of hope.
Let’s change a few simple rules on funding remits.
Let’s get some money into the schools, specifically for arts.
Let’s get every school an arts lead staff member, paid.
Let’s see if we can repurpose some discretionary spend into headteacher’s budgets to enable this kind of simple, ready, effective arts work to take place inside the school day. Not after-school, not once a year for a ‘special trip’.
Every. single. day.
Hope isn’t passive… hope is active. It’s a daily fight, a stick-your-chin-out choice you make when you slide on your socks.
We’ll keep writing the bids. We’ll keep looking for a way to fund this work. We’re not alone – there are a wonderful array of participatory arts organisations out there ready and poised to do this work. Let’s find a way to unleash this work in our schools. Let’s free up our incredible teachers to deliver the kind of rich, whole, nuanced, rounded education that they first got into the profession to do.