Unstrained Quality

Over the last year I’ve been helping Culture Bridge North East with two phases of a project called EQiIPP (Exploring Quality in Peer Practice, and no, the recruitment slogan wasn’t ‘All we need is a You’.) The first phase paired cultural organisations to explore Arts Council England’s Quality Principles for work with children and young people, the second buddied up an arts organisation or museum with a school. In each phase a question or challenge was identified and a small project or intervention trialled, centred on exploring application of the Quality Principles. I also did some training in coaching techniques to support the peer learning, and because is it’s always useful to people.

The second phase recently had a session to share learning, and there were a couple of things that really struck me.

Listening to five pairs talk about their work, it was clear how useful people had found the Quality Principles in all sorts of areas of their work. They had been used to shape planning, to examine assumptions, to stimulate creative thinking, to help refocus and as a framework for reflection. They had provided a useful orientation when people had got a bit lost – a reminder when asking ‘What are we really trying to do here again…?’

What they had been used rather less for was for measurement, although some schools had crated their own evaluation sheets reflecting the Principles. This is in keeping with the conclusions that I came to with Consilium when looking at ‘excellence’ within the Creative People & Places programme, reflected in last year’s What it Does to You: Excellence within CPP, report. As all larger organisations come to grapple with ACE’s quality metrics, it will be useful to draw on the experience of learning or participation teams working with the Quality Principles.

Mel Carter from the Culture Bridge North East team has recently written a blog about they have used the Quality Principles in examining their own work as a Bridge organisation. She argues the principles can be ‘not overlying but underpinning’.

A second thing that really impressed everyone was a re-writing of the Quality Principles by a Year 3 group from St Joseph’s RCVA Primary, Gateshead, working with Juice. It is a law universally acknowledged that presented with a definition of something, a group of cultural professionals will attempt to redefine at least 20% of the main words. This is certainly my experience of discussing the Quality Principles – ‘authentic’, ‘innovation’ and ‘ownership’ being particularly slippery when met. Obviously, though, what ACE should have done is get some Year 3 to write them…

I especially liked the rewrites of the first two principles: ‘Trying hard to be great and have new ideas’ feels much more what most actual humans do than ‘striving for excellence and innovation’. (Do NOT deconstruct ‘great’ unless you are prepared to do so to Year 3, you know perfectly well what they mean.) ‘Being yourself or one of something’ I also think feels ‘right’ – I like that it says ‘or’ not ‘and’. It makes me wonder why I’ve not heard that thought put like that more often in other contexts (eg ‘community engagement’, ‘work with older people’ or ‘audience development’).

Overall, what I’ve heard through EQiPP reinforces the recent thought that the upcoming enquiry into arts education, and ACE’s 25 Year Talent Plan ought to reflect on and embody the Quality Principles.