Cultural Playing Field

Launching The Learning Revolution by Robin Simpson
March 24, 2009, 8:03 am
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On Monday morning I was looking out at wonderful views across the Thames to the City of London from the top of Tate Modern where I attended the launch of ‘The Learning Revolution’ – the Government white paper on ‘informal adult learning’. This was a heavyweight political occasion featuring four Government Ministers from three Departments and the small invited audience also included former Education Secretary, David Blunkett.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, launched the white paper, stressing that “the learning people do for its own intrinsic value … provides personal fulfilment … and contributes to community cohesion” and suggesting that this makes it even more important at a time of economic downturn. John Denham said “we need better links between different kinds of learning and ways to enable people to navigate around the system”. The white paper seeks to join up approaches to ‘informal learning’ currently being supported by several Government Departments. ‘Informal learning’ includes the learning that happens in voluntary arts groups, such as amateur dramatics societies and choirs, as well as ‘classroom learning’. DIUS is keen to support people who want to run their own groups or classes and to enable all kinds of organisations to open up their spaces for learning.


Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said that his department “and all of the wonderful cultural organisations we sponsor are here to play a full part in this learning revolution”. He said “I know there are millions of talents and passions going unidentified through their lifetimes”. DCMS represents much of the backbone of informal learning – particularly public libraries. Andy Burnham emphasised that “we have to open up this huge network of resource and link it to those out there with a hunger to learn”. He finished by saying “this goes right to the heart of what DCMS has got to be all about – providing quality of life and building confidence”.


Communities and Local Government Minister, Sadiq Khan, confirmed that the enthusiasm for informal adult learning had spread to his department and told us that Hazel Blears was threatening to teach him tap dancing and how to ride a Harley Davidson! He said “informal learning is very important: it brings people together and gives a sense of community. These things matter more now than ever before. Three times more people get a job through personal relationships than through a job centre.” Sadiq Khan was keen to stress, nevertheless, that “learning is fun: we could all do with some fun.”


Anna Cutler, Head of Learning at Tate Modern, pointed out that “informal learning is a great opportunity to innovate – to experiment, test and try out new ideas”. DIUS Minister, Siôn Simon, and Adam Gee from Channel 4 talked about the growth in self-organised learning through digital technology, with the web empowering individuals to do it for themselves.


Finally, I followed John Denham, Andy Burnham and a wide spectrum of interested organisations in publicly signing the Voluntary Arts Network up to the ‘informal adult learning pledge’. The pledge is supported by six Government Departments (Communities and Local Government, Department for Children, Schools and Families, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Department of Health, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Work and Pensions) and by independent organisations from NAVCA and NIACE to the National Trust as well as non-departmental public bodies including English Heritage, Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and Sport England (though not Arts Council England – notable by its absence).


The white paper does not redress the dramatic decline and ongoing problems in arts in adult education. John Denham was careful to stress that “a lot of this is about a commitment to start making best use of the resources that are already out there” rather than representing any major new cash injection. Nevertheless, such a public, cross-Government statement that “learning for its own intrinsic value makes an enormous contribution to creating the kind of society we can be proud of” is very welcome. And it is great to see the Voluntary Arts Network mentioned in a Government white paper.


Full details of the white paper are at

Robin Simpson.


Naming and framing the art across Europe by Robin Simpson
March 23, 2009, 2:20 pm
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On Friday I was in Utrecht to attend ‘Naming and Framing the Art’ – an ‘expert meeting’ organised by Kunstfactor: the National Institute for active participation in the arts and cultural activities in the Netherlands. I was one of three keynote speakers asked to address the thorny issue of the best terminology to describe the voluntary/amateur/participatory arts sector – particularly with the intention of developing a clear common way to refer to the sector across Europe. My presentation literally tied the audience up in knots (see the picture at, suggesting that the subject was even more complicated than it first appeared. I pointed out that the ‘voluntary arts’ exists within a range of overlapping spectrums and suggested that the best terminology always depends on the precise context and purpose for its use. I felt that, in the UK, we had used the vagueness of ‘voluntary arts’ to our advantage – enabling us to encompass a wide range of interests whilst always being clear about our main focus.

Kaat Peeters, Director of Forum voor Amateurkunsten, which supports the amateur arts sector in Flanders, felt that the sector as a whole does not have a real image. Arts participants define what they do by referring to the particular discipline (music, drama, dance etc) rather than seeing themselves as ‘amateur artists’ or ‘voluntary artists’. Kaat revealed, however, that the findings of new research commissioned by Forum voor Amateurkunsten (and due to be published in May 2009) would show that the term ‘amateur’ was viewed much more positively in Flanders than might have been expected. Asked to identify descriptions they would associate with ‘amateur’, the vast majority of respondents chose positive phrases. The top two terms were ‘enthusiasm’ (chosen by 67.7% of non-participants and 76.1% of existing participants) and ‘creativity’ (65.2% of non-participants and 72.2% of existing participants). Interestingly, though, younger people were much more likely to equate ‘amateur’ with negative phrases.

Ilona Kish, Secretary General of Culture Action Europe (formerly the European Forum for Arts and Heritage) spoke about the reasons for changing the name of her own organisation. Her key message was that “terminology is both extremely important and not important at all”. Ilona thought a name didn’t matter as much as a shared vision of what we are trying to achieve.

It was a fascinating debate which, while it didn’t resolve the problems of terminology, helped us all to develop our thinking about how to approach lobbying for the ‘voluntary arts’ across Europe effectively.

Robin Simpson.

Driving participation in culture, sport and tourism by Robin Simpson
March 18, 2009, 1:28 pm
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On Wednesday I was in Brighton to speak at the Local Government Association/Chief Cultural & Leisure Officers Association annual culture, tourism and sport conference. NODA Chief Executive, Tony Gibbs, and I led a session called ‘Working together to develop participation in the voluntary arts’ in which we discussed how councils might work more effectively with local voluntary arts groups to increase participation. We looked at the role councils could play in helping voluntary arts groups to network with each other and in capacity-building the sector. A recurring theme was the need to build the financial sustainability of voluntary arts groups through more effective marketing, planning and management. We also called for more fairness and consistency in how councils engage with our sector – particularly in relation to venue hire and licensing issues.


I then attended a session titled ‘Recession: opportunity or threat for cultural services and sport?’ in which the Chief Executives of Arts Council England, Sport England and MLA and the English Heritage Director, Policy & Communications, discussed the initial impact of the recession and the prospects for their sectors.


Alan Davey from Arts Council England said that in times of recession people want the things the arts can provide. Arts attendances appeared to be holding up so far but the pattern from previous recessions was that there might be a twelve-month time lag before effects are seen. Alan warned that, in previous recessions, boards of arts organisations had become very conservative which had led to unadventurous programming, resulting in declining audiences – creating a spiral of decline. He urged small arts organisations to maintain the quality of their work whilst adapting how it is offered, to accommodate the way audiences behave, eg performing at different times of day to suit changing lifestyles. Alan said ACE’s aim was to use its funding to “keep the excellent excellent”.


Roy Clare from MLA agreed that there may be a need to reduce numbers but it was important to ensure that the quality of those remain is high. Roy urged local authorities to remove ‘silos’ to reduce overheads – suggesting, for example, that adult education doesn’t need to be in a separate ‘silo’ to the provision of libraries.


Jennie Price from Sport England felt that the recession was just one of a number of factors representing a period of immense change. She thought the biggest change, in relation to participation in physical activity, is going to be informal ways of organising sporting activity using online social media.


Deborah Lamb from English Heritage confirmed that visitor numbers were holding up so far. She said “a lot of what we have to offer is fantastic value for money: making people feel better is a great offer!”


Robin Simpson.

Get set, Go! – the Olympic volunteering legacy by Robin Simpson
March 11, 2009, 5:56 pm
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On Monday I spoke at the Greater London Volunteering ‘get set, go!’ event at City Hall in London. Celebrating the achievements of GLV’s ‘2012 Volunteering Legacy’ project, the event focussed on how the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games can be used to develop a legacy of increased volunteering after 2012. Sophie Chapman from the Office of the Third Sector spoke about the planned online participation portal which will channel people inspired by the Games into opportunities to participate in communities across the country. Along with speakers from the sports and environment sectors, I looked at how the catalyst of the Games might enable us to develop better connections between local community groups and the volunteering infrastructure. One of the key messages that emerged from the day was that there is no shortage of people wanting to volunteer. Volunteer centres from across London told us that the problem was not having enough volunteering opportunities in the arts, culture, heritage, sports and environment to meet the demand from potential volunteers. Yet we know that most local groups need more volunteers so it seems that there is a key need to help small, community organisations to develop properly defined volunteer roles in order to take advantage of the support available from the volunteering infrastructure.

Robin Simpson.

Funding, physical activity and the environment by Robin Simpson
March 3, 2009, 3:51 pm
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On Tuesday I was in London for our regular meeting voluntary cultural sector alliance meeting. Unfortunately Kate Pugh from Heritage Link couldn’t join us this time but we still had a useful three-way exchange of information and issues between the Central Council for Physical Recreation (CCPR), the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) and the Voluntary Arts Network. We heard in detail about the recently launched NCVO Funding Commission which is being chaired by Rachel Lomax, the former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, and is now seeking views on the themes that it should consider and any big ideas on how to secure a sustainable future for the Third Sector. This first phase of consultation will run until 13 May, see: We also discussed the Department of Health physical active plan which aims to get 2 million people more active. The Physical Activity Alliance, a sector led organisation comprised of leading physical activity promoting organisations including CCPR, is working with the Department of Health to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the target. Infrastructure bodies representing the more physically active artforms (particularly dance) might consider joining the Physical Activity Alliance. CCPR has been awarded BS 8555 accreditation for its Environmental Management System and is now working to help its member organisations to become more environmentally sustainable. These are just a few of the many topics we covered along with our usual sharing of peer support and gossip!

Robin Simpson.