Over the last few weeks I have been working on a couple of pieces of evaluation, talking to lots of schools about work they have done with professional artists and arts organisations. As might be expected, responses have been very varied. Some have had overwhelmingly positive – in some cases transformational – experiences. Others identified aspects they would like to see adapted, approaches they would like to see applied (or avoided), or different outcomes they would like to focus on in future projects.
This of course is what evaluating projects is all about – learning in order to develop and improve (and definitely NOT just to tick some boxes for funders!) Lots of important feedback has been given – and I look forward to a summer of analysis.
One thing that has already struck me is how significant starting points have been. Significant in setting expectations and therefore, to some degree at least, in determining approaches taken and outcomes achieved.
These starting points have not only been about the school’s previous experience in engaging with the artform in question, but also their experience – and confidence – in working in partnership with external agencies. Their confidence to set out what they required from the project – and what they would put in – rather than to simply buy into a project that others would deliver. Their confidence to work proactively with professional artists, in true collaboration. Their willingness and ability to support work outside of the time that the artists were there. Of course this is a lot about individual members of staff and their expertise – or their perceptions of what they can do – but it is also about school structures: timetables, room availability, and the value placed on activity which may not be obviously contributing to easily measurable academic outputs.
So what were the expectations? For some schools – both primary and secondary – it was about developing work of the highest possible quality in an artform in which they are already skilled. Offering significant challenge to their pupils and raising their game – perhaps specifically contributing to a course of study or a unit of work. For others, it was about enriching what they already offer as a school, taking it a step further and showing children some possibilities. Some were interested because they wanted to motivate particular groups of children, who were perhaps less engaged in learning more generally, or for whom the artform in question offered a learning style that they could relate to more easily. For others, it was simply about opportunity, and giving their children an experience that they would not otherwise ever have. And all of these expectations for the same project! Quite a challenge for those planning and implementing the activities.
Interestingly, the expectations people talked about were overwhelmingly in relation to what the projects and programmes would deliver for the children. Even when prompted, some staff had no expectations of what it would do for their school more generally, or for themselves and other staff in terms of their learning and development. Only a few staff seem to have considered their own starting points, or anticipated a journey for themselves or their colleagues. This surprised me, as I would always see working with a skilled professional as an opportunity to learn something that might support my practice. Something to explore further I think.
In all these discussions, I have been excited by the honest and constructive feedback from schools, and the genuine desire on behalf of the artists and organisations to learn from schools’ experiences to improve planning, processes and outcomes. One thing that is already coming through clearly is that starting points and expectations need to be thought about very carefully to ensure projects meet needs and stay on track.
It seems to me these starting points and expectations merit deeper consideration and more explicit discussion at the outset than is often allowed for. Those early explorations of what might be – how things could work, what support is needed and what all involved might hope to get out of it – can be so valuable in ensuring success for all partners.
After all, it’s not really that hard.
It all starts with a conversation…