Creative Partnerships and starting as you mean to go on

There are currently a wave of Creative Partnerships calls being circulated and, since this is where I earn most of my income, that means I’m currently writing a lot of Creative Partnership proposals and attending interviews etc.

A quick scan down the list of projects that I’m interested in reveals phrases such as:

  • “working closely with the staff and children”
  • “committed to collaborating with our staff”
  • “a programme of staff development”
  • “a project partner who will support them”
  • “facilitate our shared generation of a project”
  • “to work with Year One pupils (aged 5 – 6 years) and their teacher to help them”
  • “work alongside staff and children to plan, model, deliver and share skills”

All good stuff, and what you might expect from a programme called Creative Partnerships. The proposals I submit typically include the following sentences in the opening paragraph

My work is intrinsically cross-disciplinary and I’m also a serial collaborator. My philosophy towards collaborations is that they should ideally enable both parties to work in ways that they would not have been able to do if they were working independently. I’m interested in processes of challenge and development for everyone involved.

and it’s not unusual to see something like

I aim to make my design process as transparent as possible so that elements of it can be applied to later projects. My skills and enthusiasms complement yours – when we work together (rather than me delivering at you) that’s when things start to be really successful. I can bring enthusiasm, sensitivity, strategies for engaging pupils, adventures, a can-do attitude, experience of what has worked well in the past, making skills, gadgets and cunning devices; I’ll be looking to you to bring knowledge of curriculum content, awareness of the pupils’ abilities, constructive criticism, and a willingness to give things a go.

as a closing paragraph.

I’ve done enough projects now that I can clearly identify the active participation of the teaching staff as one of the – if not the – most important factors in determining the long-term success of a project. Those things I say I’m looking for staff to contribute are there for very specific reasons, both to underline what I expect from them and what I am unable to contribute.

So, by the time I am invited to interview, both parties have been very explicit in setting out expectations of collaboration, partnership and co-delivery.

Why, then, is the next step invariably

  • “deliver a 30 minute taster workshop to 6 of our year 5 pupils!”
  • “a short exercise (20 mins) with a group of Y3/4 which the interview panel will observe”
  • “deliver an activity for a group of children”
  • “work with a group of 10 pupils from Year 3 for 20 minutes to introduce them to your practice”
  • “work with a Yr 2 class of 29 children. […]a creative exemplar workshop session, that can last up to 40 mins.”


Turning up at a school I’ve never been to before, working with a group of children I have never met before and whose abilities I have no indication of, to deliver an activity that somehow responds to a pressing need within the school, but which I only know through maybe a few sentences as part of the published call for practitioners. No knowledge of the space, no knowledge of the people, minimal knowledge of the context, superficial knowledge of the curriculum and only guesses at where the children are in relation to it. Worst of all: no conversation and no collaboration. I have to prepare and deliver these sessions in isolation.

Apart from the obvious grumbles about having to prepare and deliver a lot of work without getting paid, I seriously question the relevance of interview workshops in this format. Certainly I don’t feel they reflect upon my practice or my approach to working in schools.

In addition to this, if I’m proposing an Agent N project in which I appear suddenly and initiate a several-day-long adventure, it’s difficult to frame popping in for a 20-min activity in the context of whatever that story may turn out to be. My main hooks and strategies only work properly within the context of that immersive experience and I have to be really careful not to damage that ahead of time.

So, how can we better address the needs of the school in selecting the right person to work with them on their project, and the needs of the creative practitioner in communicating their skills and approaches?

Fundamentally, I think the interview needs to establish whether the working relationships are likely to succeed.

From my perspective, Mowmacre Hill Primary School – a school I’ve worked for twice now [1, 2] and have a lot of respect for their approach – have come the closest to tackling recruitment in a sensible and constructive manner.

Candidates were invited to the school where we were interviewed, a few at a time, by the school council. Actually, we got a pretty intensive grilling! The children knew their agenda and what they wanted, and the questions they asked were searching and perceptive. I believe the questions were also prepared independently of the teachers. Being interviewed with a few other practitioners at the same time meant that we could bounce ideas off each other and also that the conversation could run for a significant length of time. Teachers were present to basically chair the conversation: making sure everyone got a chance to speak and to fill in extra details where needed.

The next stage in the (paid) half day was a workshop activity, but one working with a pair of teachers: three or four practitioners spent an hour or so ‘planning’^1 some initial ideas in response to the brief. This gave us a chance to really find out what was behind and under the brief as laid out in the tender document.

In the case of the thread of the project relating to the Foundation classes, this process actually established the brief in the first place – talking through the general context, identifying the concerns the teacher had and then exploring everyone’s responses. By the end of that session we were set to go with a project to do. We felt confident that we were going to affect some long-lasting changes. (This was in contrast to the way the meeting with the Y3 and Y4 teachers panned out, where we ended up with a project about and, for me, the feeling that the affects would be short-lived.)

I find this an interesting idea to go with Sally Fort’s comment that “[schools] don’t actually know what they need until the other end of the project in my experience”. Might it be nice if more schools felt that they could go into a project accepting/embracing that they don’t actually know what they need^2? (This is as much a comment on CP paperwork as it is on attitudes of school staff.)

What changes would you make to tendering processes for artists and other practitioners working in schools? How would you get a collaboration off to a good start? Can you represent your practice in 20 minutes from cold? How useful are interview activities in helping you identify the people you want to work with?

The comments are yours, I’m interested in getting some different viewpoints on this.


1: I’ve put ‘planning’ in inverted commas there because I think it’s dangerous to regard this as actual planning, but rather getting to know each other and getting a feel for the project in general. Sound planning comes later once people have had a chance to digest conversations and establish relationships to the point where people are comfortable to challenge suggestions as they are put forward and speak up about concerns. …another blog post sometime, perhaps…

2: I remember very clearly getting a rollicking in about 1996 from my A-Level art teacher about having too fixed ideas about what outcomes were going to be and being blind to the interesting stuff that crops up along the way. I generally consider that ideas at the start of a project are likely to be wrong ideas. Also, creating is, after all, about arriving at something new and that implies a journey of some sort without knowing exactly where you’re going to end up until you get there.