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> > > Extraordinary Change: Engage International Conference 2013

Engage are an advocacy and support organisation for gallery education. Liz Porter attended their international conference in Birmingham on 7-8 November, which explored the challenges that education in galleries and the visual arts face in a period of uncertainty.

I’ve worked as both a creative practitioner (using storytelling and drama including visual and musical input) and as an access advisor in the museum and heritage sector. I’m passionate about arts education access and pushing the boundaries.

The ‘Engage’ conference came at a crucial time, as we need to engage with the proposed changes to our Education system and what this means for us as Deaf and Disabled people and as creative practitioners. We also need to consider what the changes will mean for interaction between the museum and gallery education sector and schools.

The Keynote speeches on the first day of conference concerned the proposed changes to the National Curriculum (NC). Numerous case studies were presented. There was much food for thought and opportunity to discuss the potential impact of what such changes might mean within the visual arts sector.

Speakers included: Lesley Butterworth General Secretary from National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD), Lizzie Crump Cultural Learning Alliance, Joan Parr Creative Scotland’s Portfolio Manager on Education. There were also 3 presentations on education activities in international museums. Hungary, India, Finland.

Listening to the speakers I was struck by the incredible differences between the newly-proposed English NC (going active in September 2014) versus both Scotland and Wales. In England, arts input is massively reduced, whereas in Scotland and Wales the approach is creative and dynamic, with more opportunities for embracing different learning styles and individuality.

I’ve long thought that Gove is damaging the education system - perhaps beyond repair. His proposed changes around SEND (special education needs & disability) will cause the Museum/Heritage and arts sector to rethink their relationships with schools as the History/Arts curriculums are completely reshaped. A return to written-based exams, with a heavy emphasis on spelling, grammar and punctuation, will cause huge difficulties for many young people.

It is proposed to shift SEN support from statements to single, all-encompassing Education Health Care plans for children from 0 – 25. These offer families an opportunity to have a say how money that they are given for these services might be spent, but who will advocate for them in conversations with all the professionals?

It is clear that it will be much harder to obtain any additional support and schools will be responsible for paying for much more. Many educators I know still seem uncertain as to what this new system might mean in real terms financing support in schools and the important role of Teaching Assistants, who are crucial to classroom support and so many of whom - as indeed is the subject of a Unison campaign - are under threat of losing their jobs. It is imperative that any pilot projects have a rigorous monitoring and evaluative procedure in place as well as consideration for how those children currently in the ‘gap’ might now receive support.

Engage’s presentations made me realise the importance for the arts sector and disabled people to get involved with the debates and any research initiatives that are developed and to share information. The Alliance for Inclusive Education has been a longstanding campaigner on many initiatives around inclusive education. Its latest campaign feeds into the debate on the new Special Education Needs Code of Practice (SENCoP) that is being debated in the House of Lords. Consultation period ended 9 December. Please check out their press release on their website and send your feedback in.

I would also suggest that Deaf and Disabled artists consider joining Engage and Group for Education in Museums (GEM) to familiarise yourselves with the current debates. 

Please click on this link to watch videos of the conference