The Art Party Conference 2013

The Art Party Conference was always going to be a lot of fun, not least because of the delightfully irreverent call for attendees to create portraits of Michael Gove. These were the best-looking protest banners I’ve ever seen, a colourful exercise in the democratic right to say what you think humorously, and often very beautifully. Most were funny, some were a bit mean, but they all conveyed artists and art practitioners’ righteous anger at the downgrading of the arts in education – and the impact this will have ongoing.

hall of portraits I


The day-long event at the Spa Centre, Scarborough was organised by artist Bob and Roberta Smith, whose outsized flags you might have seen on the Southbank over the summer. He was so outraged by the impact of Michael Gove’s educational reforms on the arts that he made a painting called Letter To Michael Gove. This became a singularity which, when expanded, became The Art Party Conference: a gathering of art teachers, kids, curious locals and artists including Jeremy Deller, Cornelia Parker and Richard Wentworth for a day of curious actions on the north eastern coast of England.

bob speaks

In a room looking onto the steel-grey sea there was an impromptu opportunity to do life drawing of surfers with easels and paper already in place. Around the corner, there was a Michael Gove lookalike in a bad suit, pushing his way irritatedly through the crowds at the Goveshy where crowds lined up to chuck stuff at the (beautiful, hand-crafted) plaster busts of the Secretary Of State For Education. Up the stairs, nestled in a corner was a nail bar where you could have images of iconic female artists applied to your nails and where the real art was in the conversation that the artist was curating between nail technician and recipient. There were all kinds of transactions going on and very few involved handing over cash. You paid your fiver entrance and everything was free, bar the normal commercial transactions of tea and bowls of chips that reminded you that we were indeed at a conference centre. Plates of home-made chewy cookies and lollipops were freely available on artists stands, alongside beautifully-printer A2 posters from Pavel B├╝chler, Ian Bourne and Bobby Baker. We were citizens in the free state of the Art Party and it felt like a participatory version of Carry On Up The Situationists.

missing woman

It was also neatly democratic. We went up to see what was happening with Roger Clarke’s Record Player Orchestra and ended up doing our own performance which involved choosing a tone on a record and playing it whenever you wanted along with nine other people doing the same thing. It was strangely comforting, the hum of electricity and the drone sending us all into somnambulance. This also led to another discovery: spending an hour playing pure frequency makes your eyeballs buzz.

turntable orchestra

And finally, we stumbled upon curator Lynda Morris’s talk, titled Drinking With Gilbert and George. This was a real highlight and could be compressed into ‘we got drunk/ we made art’. She finished her talk with a hearty ‘cheers!’ and played out the pair’s singing sculpture, which became our theme tune as we wended a happy way back the Travelodge, which like everything else, now looked like a piece of art.

Michael Gove’s EBacc

I can’t help but wonder what the unintended consequences of Michael Gove’s EBacc will be. I suspect these will be legion and that it will be students who suffer.

There are a couple of problems as I see it, from a laypersons point of view. Firstly, the EBacc is extremely restrictive and doesn’t include any arts, social sciences, IT or RE, and given the global importance of the creative economy, this is a strange anomaly. But hey, I can hear you say, surely kids will able to do cool and fun stuff around their EBacc?

Well, maybe not. Seeing as schools will be judged on their EBacc successes, you can be sure that heads will focus on these subjects in an absolutely ruthless fashion. An anecdotal example should give you a flavour of what’s to come: when my friend asked the new head of a local primary why the school wasn’t celebrating the Jubilee earlier this summer, he said quite simply “it’s not on the curriculum.”

One unexpectedly helpful side-effect might be impact on league tables, the removal of which would be the single most important thing you could do in education – allowing the focus to go back to students and what they want and need rather than an appearance of success which serves mostly to benefit heads and local authorities. In my local schools in south east London only around 20% of students would have got the EBacc this year round and it’s hard to see how this will be turned around by the time the new EBacc cohort start in 2015. I can’t imagine schools will be dying to show off results like that – although I guess it’s one way of dealing with what the government charmingly calls ‘grade inflation’ and what successful GCSE candidates probably saw as the result of a huge amount of hard work.

The above is particularly true of the language component, and whilst I absolutely support the notion that everyone in the UK should learn a second language, I imagine there will need to be significant investment in language teaching at primary and secondary in order to get enough young people both up to speed and engaged with languages.

It’s a shame that no-one’s actually asking what education is for – and building ideas for change that would actually empower and educate future generations in a way that will allow them to navigate the huge challenges in front of them.

It’s probably best I refrain from commenting on the faux indignation in Gove and Clegg’s Evening Standard article, which raged against those who hold back disadvantaged young people, and it’s probably not worth asking why a government that introduced free schools in order to liberate schools would attempt to centralise education in such a sweeping way. Instead, I’ll just point out that teachers are not the enemy of teaching and that the single most important things politicians could do for education would be to back right off.

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