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Meet the North West's Artsmark expert!
We often refer to schools' relationship with Artsmark Award as a 'journey', because that's what it is! A voyage of curiosity, discovery, growth and creativity that everyone in the school family - staff, leadership and pupils - can take together.For schools in the North West, one of the people most frequently encountered on this journey is Emma Bush, Curious Minds' Director of Sector Support. Emma has been working with Artsmark and supporting schools for much of her career and is deeply passionate about its power to engage and transform.
As part of Artsmark Celebration Week 2022 - and as we reflect on Curious Minds' 10 years of being the Arts Council’s Bridge Organisation for North West England - we spoke to Emma and asked her to share own personal 'Artsmark journey'.
Tell me about your Artsmark journeyI’ve been involved with Artsmark pretty much since the beginning.
When I worked across Education and Leisure at Knowsley Borough Council, we were on every list that you didn't want to be on, and the third most deprived place in the country. There were so many challenges that sometimes it was hard to talk about things like arts and culture as being a priority. But our Director of Education was really innovative and always up for trying something new.
Artsmark was a great way to engage and support schools. We had no budget, so I had to become incredibly good at working in partnership and finding ways to join-up different programmes and help schools with some of the big challenges they were facing. Artsmark was a key part of this.
When I left the Council, I became a freelance moderator and validator. At that time, Artsmark involved a lot of paperwork and maths. Schools had to deliver a certain number of hours per subject, and I’d have to check teachers’ calculations. I will say that's not my strong point! But I loved school visits. Sometimes it was like being the Queen. They would put you in the front row and do a show for you. Whenever children perform it makes me cry - I’m a proper mess - but it was lovely.
"I love working with schools that are so committed to arts and culture and creating brilliant opportunities for their students."
When the new version of Artsmark was launched, it was very different – no longer a numbers game, but much more strategic and focused on quality. We’d have teachers coming to Development Days and telling us all about the amazing things they’d already done. It was a bit of a shock to them when we told them it didn’t count and introduced the idea of a forward-looking change model. We quickly realised that many of them needed extra support, and that’s what inspired our Leading the Arts in Your School programme – something that I’m really proud of.
There are so many pressures on schools at the moment - why should they commit precious time and resource to Artsmark?I think many Teachers and Heads feel that arts and culture are incredibly important, but there are so many external drivers for their work, so many hoops they have to jump through. Fundamentally, it's the experiences that arts and culture provide for their students - that’s why most people get into teaching.
I think the time and space that Artsmark creates for strategic planning is really important. By really thinking about where you want to make a difference, where the gaps are and how you’re going to fill them – that helps you target resource where it’s needed most. And that’s best value. It makes everybody’s effort, time and money worthwhile – you’ve got a strong plan, you know why you’re doing it and you know the change you want to see. It can help schools to step back and look differently at what they’re doing. Sometimes people run trips because those are the trips they’ve always done. They go to the same museum they’ve visited since, well, forever. It’s become a habit and they’ve stopped asking why.
Artsmark is a great process – it helps to build a strong foundation that schools can use over time to grow and improve their offer. The new framework is really lovely, and there’s so much room for manoeuvre that you can create a completely bespoke journey for your school. So, whatever the drivers are for you and your pupils, your teachers, your community, you have the freedom to shape the journey so it really fits your needs.
Can you give me an example of a school that you’ve worked with?One of the schools whose Artsmark journey I feel like we’ve really shared is Bedford High School in Leigh. I remember going to an event years ago at The Turnpike and meeting Janet Madden, their Arts Lead and Assistant Head Teacher. She had so much energy and enthusiasm.
What have you learned from Artsmark?To not underestimate schools. Although the new model is more challenging, schools are great at coping with complexity. If you can create space and time (the magic ingredients) for teachers, they’re really up for this sort of stuff. I love the bespoke nature of it, there's no simple answer or one approach that fits every school and that’s what makes it so much more powerful at the end of the day.
For Curious Minds, Artsmark has given us privileged insight into the inner workings of schools for over a decade. We've seen first-hand how priorities have changed, how schools have changed the way they’re working and where arts and culture fits within that. We’ve helped cultural organisations to understand what schools are up against, and the importance of meeting them where they’re at and responding to their needs. And we’ve helped schools to realise that they don’t have to have all the answers – that there are specialist, creative, fabulous people out there who can help.
"the arts are often the shop window to a school – it’s the way parents will engage (even if they are reluctant otherwise)"
What else would you like to see?I think Artsmark can play a really important role in helping to develop the cultural education offer in local areas. Collaboration and community are built in, that sense of working with cultural organisations in a more joined up way, of matching need with opportunity.
I’d like to see more Artsmark schools linked into their Local Cultural Education Partnerships – helping them to know what’s out there and to identify new cultural partners. I also love to see schools and LCEPs working together to plan and apply for funding. This is a really easy model because the school gets the activity it needs and the arts organisations get paid to do what they do best.
Curious about Artsmark Award for your school?
Cultural Education Manager