Seizing the ‘unfrozen moment’

8 June 2020

On her final day at A New Direction, Deputy CEO, Holly Donagh, took time to reflect on her time at the organisation and consider how the sector should respond to the COVID-19 pandemic

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As I prepare to leave A New Direction, I find it hard to believe I will have been in the organisation for nearly ten years. In all of that time there have been political crises, moments of deep concern (if not despair) regarding the place of the arts in schools, as well as beautiful examples of innovation and change. But nothing has come close to the seismic impact of COVID-19, so I thought I would write my last blog for A New Direction with a few reflections on the topic of the day (century?)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the ‘unfrozen moment’. This notion, often used in political theory, means a context when the normal rules are suspended (usually a political crises) and therefore those rules can be re-written once normal business resumes. Never waste a crisis. And, well, crises don’t get much bigger than the one we are living through right now, particularly at the intersection A New Direction inhabits of young people, careers, education, the civic realm, creativity, and arts and culture.

In his current RSA podcast series, Bridges to the Future, Matthew Taylor talks about the difference between the aspiration for big change in moments of great crisis and the reality of this change occurring. This is a useful caution about optimism bias. I for one feel overloaded by predictions for the future which read suspiciously like wishful thinking. It is perfectly possible that the crisis will be over, and the imperative will be to return to the status-quo. Conditions may already be freezing over. If we want to make most of the unfrozen moment, we will need to attend to the conditions that make real change possible.

The RSA analysis suggests that actual change is dependent on three critical factors. Firstly, the extent to which the seeds of the change were already apparent and circulating in culture prior to the crisis. Secondly, the extent to which people grasp the opportunity for change during the crises and experiment with new ways of doing things. And thirdly, having a clear and actionable idea as the crisis eases, with the right kind of political alliances and consensus to support action.

What ideas then, in the world of cultural learning, would we want to push into the ‘unfrozen moment’? What good ideas are lying around? What innovations are being tested? And, crucially, if we are able to re-make our sector starting with a blank sheet of paper, what values and principles would underpin that change?... Or would we want it to look the same as before?

One of the big areas for me is around collaboration and cooperation. I have been struck by the high energy approach to new forms of collaboration and partnership in the science arenas. eBay is now working, not-for-profit, on a portal for the NHS alongside the Army and the Department of Health. The UK Ventilator Challenge has seen the commercial and not-for profit worlds come together to super charge testing and manufacture of ventilators. Drugs companies are putting aside their competitive advantages to work together on the production of a cure for COVID.

We've only been together for just over a month and we've achieved in a month what would normally take 18 months or two years

- VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK) consortium head, Dick Elsy

Closer to home, the London Funders have corralled a huge number of disparate funders to respond quickly and accurately to need across a vast array of topics – completely changing the way many of these organisations operate. At moments like this, they’ve really shown the value of neutral, convening organisations.

Clearly the burning platform in the arena of science is acute and underpinned by government incentives and public goodwill. But the principle of ‘what organisational interest might we put aside in order to support the greater good?’ is relevant.

We know that only a small percentage of pupils are currently in full time education. We know that the numbers of vulnerable children receiving education is frightening low. We know that the experience of lockdown for disadvantaged and advantaged pupils are likely to be highly differentiated, and this will lead to the embedding of inequality which could take decades to undo. We know that young adults are facing a generation of mass unemployment. Our work with children and young people surely has relevance to this picture, and so the burning platform therefore seems clear.

A lot of our work at A New Direction is about connecting schools and cultural opportunity. One of our frustrations is the desire cultural organisations often have to forge their own relationships to schools with little regard to the wider cultural offer. For example, we don’t routinely see organisations getting together to consider jointly marketing their offers to schools, let alone jointly co-commissioning programmes with schools and other cultural partners. Sitting at the centre, we see that the same small group of schools are enriched and advanced through longstanding relationships with cultural actors, while at the same time many other schools have no cultural partnerships or relationships. None of this is the result of deliberate competitive strategy, but it means change can be slow.

This situation has been exacerbated by the increasingly fragmented nature of our school system, meaning there are now fewer ways of creating systemic change across several schools. When the effects of school closures are understood we may see the consequences of this fragmentation – with some places that have brilliant local authorities or strong academic chain leaders have been able to target help effectively, and others where little has happened.

Creating a structure where organisations work together to meet the needs of groups of schools is key to the philosophy behind Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs), and I wonder if this would pass the RSA ‘pre-existing idea test’. We can see that many LCEPs are now coming into their own – occupying a unique position as an honest broker, and helping cultural partners target their work more effectively.

But we need to go further. Many (if not most) cultural organisations will face an extreme hit to their finances and productivity over the next year. Therefore, in practical terms, if we want to be able to offer something to schools, we may need to be much smarter about how we share assets and specialisms and leverage scarce resources.

A number of years ago, my boss, Steve Moffitt, and I spent some time in New York finding out about how cultural education functions there. There they have an active and practical ‘roundtable’ of cultural learning professionals drawn from cultural organisations across the city who can advise, critique, and support city government and schools. The head of the Houston Children’s Museum also told us about a period where state funding was stalled and the cultural organisations in the city came together to offer a completely new way for schools to connect with culture across their diverse offers. Perhaps these models could help galvanise our sector’s response whilst also spreading the capacity burden?

While this may mean we lose a sense of individual ownership over schools work, it may also lead to a richer understanding of each other’s work; allowing for learning about different approaches and styles, as well as creating the conditions where the cultural sector is an embedded into the heart of the education system’s recovery.

Across my time at A New Direction there has been real anxiety about the place of arts in schools – maybe the ‘unfrozen moment’ offers a chance to reset the relationship between cultural partners and the education sector? But this would need more orientation towards schools needs, more time spent on collaboration and partnership, and potentially the letting go of our favourite scheme and programmes. However, I think the prize for young people would be worth it.

Holly Donagh has left A New Direction to become the Director of Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. We wish her all the best in her new role.