24 Mar 2017

Opening Doors

Post written by: Erin Walcon

When we began our work in Torbay in 2013, there were a lot of closed doors – particularly with schools. There were some very good reasons for it, but it still felt a bit like knocking with no one answering the door.

When we would ring or email a school to offer them a free visiting workshop with a professional artist, we would be met with silence. At first, this baffled us. Why would a local school not leap at the chance to work with someone amazing, for free, at a time to suit them? How could all other schools in regions across Devon have waiting lists for this kind of offer, but our own local Torbay schools just seemed to disregard it utterly? It was (sometimes) hard to not be bitter, when 4-5 emails, 2-3 phone calls, and occasionally even a personal visit to a headteacher would result in… nothing. Lots of hours of invisible labour, all ending with tired eyes at the office and a sense of despair at what appeared to be willful ignorance.

But when you turn on your empathy button, and look at the big picture of Torbay, this apparent willful ignorance becomes something much more complex, much more understandable. It even becomes a kind of defiant courage, if you look at it right.

I have distinct memories of wrapping my ankle tightly around a metal chair, sitting in a headteacher’s office, gritting my teeth and attempting to explain (again) why this grant-funded work was not an ‘insult’ to her school, not a marker of their inability to deliver a good education to their students… I stared at her defensive face and something clicked.

This headteacher wasn’t ignorant – she was powerfully clued up.

She saw right through the trappings of this grant funding to the core premise: that we are able to offer this kind of outreach only because we’re working in an area of deprivation. And she perceived (with a sharp intelligence) that her school was eligible because she works with students in a particularly deprived area within that larger region – and she took it on the chin (like a good leader would) that this free offer was somehow a handout, or a remedial intervention, intended to ‘save’ or ‘support’ her school. And she was (naturally) defensive. The walls were up.

Because she is in that school, day-in and day-out, ensuring that students are having a meaningful experience at school, working against immense odds to deliver an education which is excellent. In spite of government initiatives which embrace nonsensical standardised testing, Year 2 SATS and a national curriculum which does not adequately honour multiple intelligences or leave space for teacher creativity or complex processes of assessment which move beyond reductive checklists.

She is in the trenches. And we were approaching with what she perceived to be a charity handout. In that moment, I kept my ankle wrapped round the chair leg to give me courage  enough to stay in the room, and I lifted my chin and I looked her in the eye and I gave her the respect she deserved. And I explained (again) with patience (not my strong suit) that this grant-funded work would be welcomed by any school, in any district. That the artists we were offering in residence were pure-magic, absolutely top of their game, and anyone would snatch them up, because they would provide a safe space for children to play, explore and invent. That I was here because we were in the trenches too – a parallel trench, fighting the same battle. That we were on the same side… the side of the children. That I profoundly respected her school, her approach, the work they were doing.

Something shifted in our conversation.

After over a year of attempted communication, we finally worked with that school for the first time after that conversation – we delivered free drama workshops with Year 6 students in Autumn 2015. Since then, we’ve been back 3 times. Now, when we email, they reply within the hour. Now, when we offer a free workshop, the replies start with ‘Yes please, when can you come?’ When we arrive, the teachers and the students have a gleam in their eye and bouncy legs – they are ready and poised to play.

This isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy story about breaking down walls, though. To me, this is a story about how long and slow the trust game is when working in an area of deprivation. Because trust is earned, not given lightly. Because people have been burned – by bad practice, by short-term parachuted work which doesn’t continue. People are used to inconsistent and short-term ‘interventions’ which don’t begin to touch the sides of what is needed. Trust is earned. Trust is earned by us knowing what is needed – because we live here too, and our kids are growing up here and we see it daily. It is earned by us respecting the courage of the school staff, starting a conversation with patience, delivering consistently excellent outreach workshops to these schools, and continuing to offer this once that first flicker of trust- so that we don’t just disappear again like so many quick-fire projects have in the past. From this flicker of trust, through this consistent bridge, we begin to form partnerships. Slowly slowly, gently gently, with patience. Something I struggle with. But I’m learning.

We’re still building this trust with schools. But we’ve seen some remarkable progress from 2015-2017, and there is clear evidence that it’s working. We are just completing the first full Open Doors Outreach programme, which is ran from 1 Jan to 31 March 2017. We worked with an astonishing 760 students, across 18 schools, delivering 30 workshops and 2 platform events. I’ll write more about this soon. Suffice it to say, the doors are opening.