Friday, 19 June 2009

Caution Assessment

For years, I have wanted to create a caution assessment form. Organisations would use the form to ask themselves questions about their recent, current, and future activities, and whether they are doing enough to promote risk. Excessive caution may ultimately be more hazardous than excessive risks.

I have always struggled to think of a possible structure and suitable questions, beyond the obvious 'what risks are you taking?', 'what cock-ups have you made, and how have you learnt from them?' There may already be templates out there, or maybe it's a case of subverting the standard risk assessment form.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Shall We Dance?

Halfway through an illuminating 3 days at Sadlers Wells, my late night remote control-flicking brought me to this advert for McCoy's "man-crisps" - A depressing message for anyone trying to change the image of dance.

Win Man Gadgets with McCoys Man Crisps

What would you cut?

Today the National Campaign for the Arts launched their Manifesto for the Arts. At the conference, The London Mayor's head of Culture Munira Mirza posed the ‘what would you cut?’ question. We used to ask the same question at ippr, during the height of the 'no return to boom and bust' boom. Now, the question is even more relevant and unavoidable.

It is easy and tempting to look beyond the arts for cuts – Trident, ID cards, even the sacred, sometimes opulent spaces of health and education. Having visited lots of schools in the past few years, resourcing levels can occasionally feel extravagant.

However, sticking with the arts, Munira pointed to the ‘bureaucracy that is supposed to support you’. She made similar points in her Culture Vultures publication. There is without doubt a messy clutter out there of organisations and agencies that are supposed to support artists, or support artists to support others.. Radical action, especially if resources are reallocated to the creation of art, could be timely and popular.

But bureaucracies are easy prey, and cutting them rarely saves you as much money as you think it will.

Here is one other option, backed by zero data, and unlikely to be popular. Given that audience numbers are unlikely to rise much more in tight economic times, is it now time to face the possibility that we have an oversupply of cultural venues, in particular performance spaces? Last week, I heard about a £1.5 Million theatre, built at the start of the decade with mainly Arts Council money, that was now dormant, maybe used for two weeks of the year. This could be a London problem, or even an inner London issue. Meanwhile, the Building Schools for the Future programme is only just peaking; hundreds of schools will open or reopen every year for the next decade, many with modern performing and visual arts facilities – BSF has been described as England’s largest ever cultural building programme. If used as they ought to be, for wider public rather than school-only use, these schools will create even more capacity, but contribute to oversupply.

Also, the trend for producing theatre at mobile venues, or reclaiming space to produce temporary theatre, continues, and the recession has made many more spaces available for ‘pop-up’ performances and galleries.

So, what would I cut? If we do have an oversupply of permanent 'static' venues, in certain areas, now may be to cut some of them loose and cut our losses.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Good politicians borrow, great politicians steal

Tory Education spokesman Michael Gove today proposed that 11 year olds should take their tests in the first week of secondary school, rather than when at Primary School.

Here is what I wrote in The Guardian on the subject seven years ago:

A simple solution [to problems with SATs] would be for 11-year-olds to take their SATs during their first few weeks at secondary school, invigilated by their new teachers. For the number-crunchers out there, the results could still be aggregated back to produce primary school league tables. Primary teachers would be able to prepare children without cramming them, and secondary teachers would believe the results, and use them diagnostically. Taking the test after six weeks holiday (provided they aren't eroded by yet more "booster classes") would give a more accurate reflection of children's literacy and numeracy levels.

The Tories are right on this one, and will probably have the chance to prove it.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


I swore I would never blog about children or animals, at least not my own. Children rarely do the funniest things, and even those things are rarely funny to anyone unrelated to them. Here is where I break my promise.

I am reading Atul Gawande's Better: A Surgeon's notes on performance. Gawande identifies "three core components for success in medicine - or any endeavour that involves risk and responsibility" These are: diligence, do right, and ingenuity. Simple.

On Saturday I took my seven year old out for a Pizza. She is overtaking her older sister in the race to adolescence, and even during the act of ordering I did something to annoy her. I asked her how I could be A Better Dad. In the style of Norman Foster, she scribbled all over a serviette, and thrust it at me.

Be Better
  1. don't. tell. other. people. what. I. said.
  2. don't. say. err. in. the. middle. of. the. sentence.
  3. don't. do. disgusting. burps. and. farts. and. poos. and. breathing.
  4. don't. tell. us. off.
  5. don't. make. us. do. work.
  6. don't. make. us. walk.
  7. don't. eat. and. slurp. your. food.
I guess I now know my seven deadly sins. I am just trying to work out how many of these I can do at the same time.

Monday, 8 June 2009

The Tyranny of Success

I once knew a brilliant headteacher in Leeds who suggested that the national curriculum should be designed by those who failed at school. Or, at the very least, the content of each subject should be decided by those who hated that subject, or found it very difficult. Getting a roomful of geographers to determine the geography curriculum just created overload from people who may love the subject, but were too precious and knowledgeable to make good choices.

I was reminded of this at last week's Clore Leadership conference ' Its the Arts, Stupid'. A panel of four artists spoke passionately about how the arts infrastructure, and we leaders, could better support artists. Kwane Kwei-Armah asked us what we were going to do to create environments for artists to fulfil their potential across different artforms. Siobhan Davies argued that Dance needed a formal 'warts and all' history to take the form forward. Grayson Perry railed against the cult of 'originality', the quest for which can devalue the search for quality. Louise Wilson talked about how collaboration can be nurtured.

Thoughtful stuff; one problem. Similar to most 'panels', these were four highly successful artists, whom the arts infrastructure has clearly worked for, in various ways. From the joy of arts school to public funding of buildings to the Turner Prize to close relationships with theatre directors, the usual cocktail or talent, effort and serendipity had brought them success.

But maybe our starting point needs to consider those for whom the infrastructure has failed. Those with unrecognised talent, whose creativity was never nurtured. We all know them. Some of you are them. It is easy to fault the education system, and wider societal barriers, and the concept of a meritocracy in the arts is as outlandish as in any other sphere. But what could the cultural sector do itself to make sure that success came more to those who deserved it?