Guest Blog: Artsmark at 20

To ring in Artsmark Celebration Week, Felicity Woolf, our Chair of the Board of Trustees reflects on 20 years of the Artsmark Award.

In 2000 I tendered to devise a quality mark scheme for the arts in schools. Pauline Tambling, then Director of Education at Arts Council England, had secured the support of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and from the beginning DCMS civil servants were closely involved in every aspect of what we decided should be called ‘Artsmark’.

I impressed the panel to a certain extent at my interview, but I was only contracted on condition that I would work with another consultant, Keith Spencer, on researching, writing and piloting the quality mark. I happily agreed, as I had known Keith from the 1990s when he was an advisor at Coventry local education authority, and I was an officer at West Midlands Arts. Keith had been the author of Sportsmark, a programme that set the national standard for sport and PE provision in schools. Schools could get Sportsmark if they met a combination of qualitative and quantitative criteria, including a commitment to providing two hours of physical exercise and/or games per week for every child alongside extra-curricular sport.

Keith and I worked on a similar approach for the arts, believing that children should be offered a range of arts teaching and creative activities in and outside the curriculum.  We saw our new scheme as a process of audit that could raise the profile of the arts and show teachers where there were gaps and where they had cause to celebrate their achievements. Not only did we agree standards about curriculum time for the arts, but we insisted that all four major art forms – dance, drama, art and music – should be included and for both boys and girls from 5 to 16. Many schools were not best pleased to be told that boys should be given lessons in dance if they were to be awarded an Artsmark.

Our other criteria included arts partnerships, that is working with professional artists, continuing professional development in the arts for teachers and, again I believe for the first time, schools were required to have an arts policy, showing a whole-school commitment to the arts and to equality of opportunity.

We ran a national pilot with 80 schools, listened to their feedback and adapted our criteria. The scheme was ready for roll out in England in 2001. Everything was paper based, with slightly different forms for primary, secondary and special schools and I now shudder to think of the trees we destroyed!  Pauline’s team at Arts Council led by Norinne Betjemann assembled a small group of people to read the 400 or so applications sent in for what we called Round 1 – a very exciting moment as we had no idea how many schools would respond. We stayed in London for three days checking the applications against the criteria. In almost every case, a validator was employed to visit the school to talk to the headteacher, arts staff and to a group of children and to clear up any issues identified on paper.

Over the next seven or eight years much the same approach was used with minor adaptations, and the number of applications averaged about 1,200 every year. A group of us assembled annually in Great Peter Street and settled in for five days of intensive reading and discussion of issues relating to arts quality and provision. ‘Where did creative writing fit in? How should we define an extra-curricular offer? Was there enough emphasis on diversity? Which examples of good practice should we use in our guidance?’ It was exhilarating, informative and a wonderful exercise in teambuilding, but in the end unsustainable. Schools were not charged for taking part and the costs were becoming too great for Arts Council to bear.

While we found 1,200 annual applications plenty to manage, it was clear we were only reaching a small percentage of the 25,000 schools in England. There was pressure from government ministers to reach more, even if this threatened the notion of a quality mark.

Artsmark went through the first of several radical reviews around 2008, although I think its main principles have stayed intact. Becoming an online scheme was the first and obvious reform. Evaluations had tended to show that schools and teachers strongly valued the programme and especially liked the validator visits, but the quantitative standards were unpopular, because they could appear arbitrary and increasingly difficult to meet. I would still maintain that what gets counted gets done, and once clear targets for provision disappear, some children will miss out. On the other hand, more emphasis on whole-school policy, diversity and inclusion are very much to be welcomed.

I have much less direct contact with Artsmark nowadays, but I still enjoy the annual celebrations where schools collect their awards and hard-pressed teachers can gain some recognition. These are now regionally based, as Artsmark is run through the Bridge network allowing the scheme to reach far more schools, but in the early years Arts Council ran big and glamorous national celebration events. Artsmark remains Arts Council’s only programme which can potentially reach every school in England and safeguard entitlement to the arts for every child. At the last September reporting, our 376 Artsmark schools in the East Midlands had 154,018 pupils on roll. Imagine how many children and young people have benefitted from Artsmark over the last 20 years!

I am very happy that the discussions I had with Keith Spencer in my kitchen over many weeks in 2000 created something that has lasted 20 years and has had a significant impact on children’s education. I’m only sorry that he died last year and cannot celebrate this milestone with us.