Cultural Playing Field

Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Reference Group meeting by Robin Simpson
February 18, 2011, 5:19 pm
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On Friday afternoon I took part in the second meeting of the Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Reference Group at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The focus of this meeting was to plan a series of ‘policy roundtable’ consultation events which will take place over the next few weeks. These events will look in detail at specific aspects of informal adult and community learning, including: funding, infrastructure, access, Big Society, impact, progression and quality.

Robin Simpson.


Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Advisory Group by Robin Simpson
February 4, 2011, 3:09 pm
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On Tuesday afternoon I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to take part in the first meeting of the new Informal Adult and Community Learning Reform Stakeholder Advisory Group (catchy title?!). This group, which includes representatives of a wide variety of types of informal adult learning, is to advise the Minister, John Hayes, on how best to encourage learning to take place in local communities and to reach disadvantaged people. In the Comprehensive Spending Review last October, John Hayes and Vince Cable successfully defended the existing £210M budget for informal adult and community learning (known as the ‘adult safeguarded budget’). With the replacement of the Learning & Skills Council by the new Skills Funding Agency, changes to local adult education provision and the publication of the Government white paper, ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is about to embark on a consultation process to decide the best way to use the adult safeguarded budget. In Tuesday’s meeting we started to plan a series of roundtable consultation meetings that will take place in February and March. John Hayes joined us towards the end of the afternoon to thank us for our work and reiterate his passionate belief in the importance of informal adult and community learning.

Robin Simpson.


Voluntary Arts England Epic Awards 2010 winners’ reception by Robin Simpson
February 3, 2011, 6:58 pm
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On Monday evening I was in the Attlee Room at the House of Lords for the Voluntary Arts England Epic Awards winners’ reception where the awards were presented by two Government Ministers, John Hayes MP, the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, and Ed Vaizey MP, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. The Epic Awards were devised by Mary Lowe in response to the challenge issued to Voluntary Arts by Arts Council England Chief Executive, Alan Davey, at the Our Creative Talent conference at The Barbican in July 2008. Alan challenged us to develop a scheme to showcase and encourage excellence and innovation in the amateur arts. I was particularly pleased, therefore, that Alan Davey was able to join us on Monday to meet the four award-winning groups. The reception, hosted by the President of Voluntary Arts, Lord Luce, was attended by representatives of each of the winning groups, MPs from the winners’ constituencies and representatives of the Epic Awards sponsors. In welcoming everyone to the reception, Lord Luce talked about the origins of Voluntary Arts:

“Almost my last act as a Minister, in 1990, was to say that I think the amateur arts ought to have something that will give them inspiration and encouragement in the work that they do and that needed some kind of a parent body who could provide them with advocacy, support, information and advice. My budget was very small but I managed to find a very small sum of money as a kind of seedcorn fund which I said should be used for the creation of support for amateur arts. When I left the Government of my own volition in 1990 after 5 years as a Minister … I then joined a small group that helped to set up what has now emerged as a highly successful organisation. I am very proud of it and very proud to be the President of Voluntary Arts.”

Engagement and Partnership Award winners

John Hayes presents the Engagement and Partnership Awards to Apsara Arts and Milton Keynes Islamic Arts Heritage and Culture Organisation

The Further Education Minister, John Hayes, who presented the Engagement and Partnerships Awards, said:

“I believe in all of the virtues that art brings – the way that it can inspire, the way it can ignite, the passions that it can engender, the things it can communicate, the touch of the sublime brought to lives of people in all kinds of ways and all kinds of forms, through artistic endeavour … I celebrate what you’re doing in these Epic Awards. I celebrate the joy of all those people associated with amateur arts across the country and I am just pleased and proud to be a very small part of that joy.”

Innovation and Creativity Award winners

Ed Vaizey presents the Innovation and Creativity Awards to the Cobweb Orchestra and UC Crew

Ed Vaizey, the Culture Minister, who presented the Innovation and Creativity Awards, said:

“It’s delightful to be here for a number of reasons. First of all to be reminded again how important voluntary arts are to the arts world … I will work with Arts Council England to make sure we continue to remind the world that the world of the arts extends far beyond those organisations that simply receive funding from the Arts Council. I’m glad to see these awards are supported by Arts Council England and I will continue to work with the Arts Council to make sure that the message goes out that the Arts Council is there for everyone … Just as we talk about innovation coming from some of our leading arts organisations, those arts organisations that regard themselves, as it were, at the top of the pyramid could certainly learn from many of the voluntary arts organisations who are also pushing to innovate.”

The representatives of the award-winning groups were great – lovely people with inspiring stories to tell. Apsara Arts from Croydon won the Engagement Award for their Story of London project which explored the history of Asians in London. Milton Keynes Islamic Arts, Heritage and Culture Organisation received the Partnerships award for their Islamic Art Banner – a project that enabled local students to explore Islamic culture through contemporary and traditional art. The Innovation award was won by the Cobweb Orchestra for their Undercover Orchestra Bolero – a flash-mob rendition of Ravel’s Bolero at Newcastle’s Eldon Square bus station that became a YouTube sensation. Breakdance group UC Crew from St Helens took the Creativity Award for their anti-smoking project. In their brief acceptance speeches, several of the winners warned about the damage being inflicted on the arts by public funding cuts, making their case firmly but politely. Andy Jackson from the Cobweb Orchestra said:

“With all the cutbacks, everybody knows that the professional arts are in for a really tough time, but this is our moment people. This is when us voluntary artists are really going to make the big difference.”

It was a wonderful evening, at which the excellence and innovation of the amateur arts was recognised at the highest level. The presence of two Government Ministers was an indication of the way amateur arts activity contributes to a range of agendas and recognition of the current high profile our sector has achieved in England. Many congratulations to Mary Lowe and the Voluntary Arts England team and our considerable thanks to Lord Luce.

We plan to run the Epic Awards again in 2011 and to expand the scheme to be UK-wide. You can read case studies of the winning groups and other entrants at:

Robin Simpson.

Meeting Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 10:29 am
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On Wednesday morning Mary and I were back in London to meet the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey. We gave the Minister an overview of the voluntary arts sector and started to explore ways in which voluntary arts groups might support the development of the Big Society. Ed Vaizey spoke about the support he had given to a brass band in his constituency and was impressed and fascinated by the scale and diversity of the voluntary arts sector. It was a very cordial and positive first meeting and the Minister asked Voluntary Arts to work with DCMS on two specific initiatives he is developing. We also talked about Voluntary Arts England’s EPIC Awards and invited Ed Vaizey to attend our winners’ reception at the House of Lords in January.

Robin Simpson.


‘The craft so long to lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain’ by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 10:22 am
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On Tuesday evening I was at the RSA to hear the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, John Hayes, deliver a speech titled ‘The craft so long to lerne: Skills and their Place in Modern Britain’. John Hayes wanted to stress the importance of practical skills and the need for greater parity of esteem between academic learning and practical craft. This was not just about the economic need for a better skilled nation. The Minister said “there’s plenty of evidence to show that raising skills levels brings social as well as economic benefits, like better public health, lower crime-rates and more intensive engagement by individuals in the sorts of voluntary and community activities that improve everyone’s quality of life”. He spoke passionately about the “power of learning for the common good” and said he was proud that the Adult & Community Learning budget had been protected in the Comprehensive Spending Review. The Minister said “we must not forget the role that informal learning also plays in teaching skills. Acquiring skills make our lives, not necessarily wealthier, but definitely fuller. It raises our self-esteem and often also the esteem in which others hold us”. He finished by saying “skills, craft and dexterity give our lives meaning and value. They are at the heart of our society. Craft should be honoured and those who master it revered. So while we work to encourage the learning of practical skills, we must also work to build demand for and recognition of them.” John Hayes is a passionate advocate of learning for learning’s sake. He was even more eloquent once he departed from his script and started answering questions from the floor, stressing the effect that informal learning has on health, mental health, civic engagement and much more. Though ‘craft’ in the context of this speech encompassed a broad range of practical skills, from carpenter to software engineer, it was clear that developing skills in the arts and crafts is very definitely something that the Minister is keen to encourage.

Robin Simpson.


Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme meeting by Robin Simpson
October 28, 2010, 9:49 am
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On Tuesday Mary and I were at Arts Council England in London for the final meeting of the Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme steering group. This group, which brings together Voluntary Arts, ACE, DCMS and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was established by ACE Chief Executive Alan Davey in 2008 to respond to the conclusions and recommendations of the ‘Our Creative Talent’ research. We developed an ongoing action plan for this work and have been pursuing ten broad actions over the past two years, making considerable progress in many areas. One of the most tangible outcomes of the steering group’s work has been the development of Amateur Arts Forum meetings to bring together representatives of national voluntary arts umbrella bodies with ACE senior staff on a regular basis. On Tuesday we agreed that we have now established specific ways of taking forward all ten actions resulting from ‘Our Creative Talent’ and that it would be more productive to pursue these separately rather than continuing these overview meetings. This is a reflection of how the voluntary and amateur arts has become integrated into the work of Arts Council England: the steering group’s work has had significant influence on ACE’s new 10-year strategy ‘Achieving Great Art for Everyone’ which is going to be launched next week and several of our key actions will now be taken forward as part of that strategy. Voluntary Arts will continue to work with ACE, DCMS and DBIS both separately and collectively and we have agreed that the Amateur Arts Forum meetings with ACE will continue. The end of the Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme reminds us how far we have come since 2008 and we are very grateful to everyone who has played a part in this process.

Robin Simpson.


Champions, spaces and running your group by Robin Simpson
September 10, 2010, 11:35 am
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On Thursday afternoon I was at Arts Council England head office in London for a meeting of the Amateur Arts Partnership Development Programme steering group. This was a special meeting to look in detail at three key areas. First, we considered a range of local volunteer ‘champion’ and ‘ambassador’ schemes and whether there was scope to join some of these up. We heard from Liz Cousins who is responsible for the ‘Community Learning Champions’ scheme established by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and discussed the idea of using this as a framework for the development of the Voluntary Arts England Voluntary Arts Ambassadors scheme. Secondly we looked at several initiatives to open up venues and spaces for local community activities, including work funded by BIS and the Communities & Local Government/DCMS empty shops scheme. Finally we compared a number of resources to help people to establish and/or run local self-organised groups, including the Voluntary Arts ‘Running Your Group’ material and advice developed by BIS for self-organised learning groups. In all three cases we identified some clear opportunities to address key needs of the amateur arts sector identified in the DCMS/Arts Council England ‘Our Creative Talent’ research by working in partnership with other Government departments and agencies.

Robin Simpson.