Arts no optional extra, says former Children's Laureate in Newcastle visit

Children’s writer Michael Rosen stressed the importance of the arts at a conference in Newcastle where delegates heard heartening stories of creative achievement

Author Michael Rosen delivers keynote address at Newcastle City Library
Author Michael Rosen delivers keynote address at Newcastle City Library

Children’s writer Michael Rosen stressed the importance of the arts at a conference in Newcastle where delegates heard heartening stories of creative achievement.

The former Children’s Laureate told the Arts Award conference at the City Library: “The arts are not an optional extra or some sort of add-on. They are the way human beings combine ideas with feelings in order to investigate and interpret the complicated world we live in.”

In his keynote speech, he told delegates: “We’re in a position for some reason, probably something to do with bankers mis-spending all the money that wasn’t there, where we have to justify these activities that human beings have been doing for as long as there have been human beings.”

Schools, colleges and libraries, he said, had to be places where young people could feel “free and proud” to participate in arts activities and the Arts Award scheme recognised this.

Launched in 2005, Arts Award is a qualification designed to help young people develop their creativity, leadership and communication skills. It is open to people aged seven to 25 and managed by Trinity College London in association with Arts Council England.

It is looked after in this region by Bridge North East, based at Sage Gateshead, which brings school groups and others together with arts and media organisations, museums and libraries for potentially life-changing projects.

Mr Rosen, author of more than 140 books, was critical of the emphasis put by Key Stage 2 sats (standard assessment tests for pupils aged seven and 11) on “retrieval and inference” which left no place for the creative process of interpretation.

Retrieval, he said, reminded him of when he was at school and had to learn by heart all the towns along the River Rhine. Once used to answer an exam question, the information was forgotten.

“There is this feeling that the younger you are, the less able you are to interpret,” he said.

“I don’t know where this crazy idea came from. What are babies doing when they emerge from the womb and suddenly find themselves in this world with lights going on and off and people shouting?

“Just observe the young children you’re in contact with and watch the way they interpret the world.”

Mr Rosen mentioned his popular book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are as examples of stories that encouraged very young children to interpret events.

Sharing his 10-point “manifesto” to ensure the arts were done well, he said: “Many young people are told constantly they’re no good at anything. We have an exam system that fails at least 60% of them. They draw it up before anybody sits the test.”

It was “very important that young people engaged in the arts feel safe in the process,” he said. “No matter what they do, they won’t be exposed to ridicule and relentless assessment or the fear of being wrong or making errors.”

Delegates heard of boys who had benefited from an Arts Award music project at Sage Gateshead and Northumberland youngsters unable to attend school because of mental or physical illness whose lives had been transformed by animation. The latter included two girls who once had been unable to leave their homes but were now studying at university

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