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Legacies – in remembrance of those we lost in 2023 and what we learned from them

18 December 2023

At the close of the year we are thinking about colleagues and artists we have lost and the legacies they leave behind. Four figures in particular have had a huge impact, all in very different ways. 

We did not know Ruth Perry, Headteacher of Caversham Primary School in Reading, but few can be unaware of the events that led to her death in January when her school was downgraded, nor of the debates since about the role of Ofsted and the problems with its one-word judgements. The coroner’s exceptional verdict was “suicide: contributed to by an Ofsted inspection” The inspection of her school was found to have lacked “fairness, respect and sensitivity” and at times had been “rude and intimidating”.

David Wearing, Director of Cheshire Academies Trust, has reflected that he thinks the “terrible but expected outcome for Ruth Perry’s inquest will lead to a roots and branches review of Ofsted, and may open the door to free up schools to be more courageous and creative with their curriculums – making them relevant and meaningful for their pupils and contexts. This will be Ruth’s legacy.” CLA has been calling for changes to the entire system of school accountability and student assessment, and Ruth’s death has brought everyone’s attention to just how much now needs to change. We can only join David and others in hoping that Ruth’s legacy will lead to lasting change, particularly to a move away from single word judgements, and to the new creative curriculum opportunities that he describes. 

Pauline Tambling, who has died age 68, was a CLA Advisory Panel member and closely involved our work over many years. She was a founding member of the steering group that led the consultation to establish CLA between 2008 and 2010. In 1983 Pauline had been one of the first beneficiaries of the recommendation of the 1982 Gulbenkian The Arts in Schools report that cultural organisations create schools liaison posts, establishing and heading up the Royal Opera House education department, before moving to the Arts Council of England in 1998, initially as Director of Education and Training, and finally as Executive Director, Development. She was the prime mover behind several major education and training initiatives, including Youth Music and Creative Partnerships. She went to Creative & Cultural Skills in 2007, where she became Managing Director of the National Skills Academy, eventually becoming CEO. 

Pauline’s career came full circle at the close of 2021 when she had the idea of revisiting the seminal 1982 Gulbenkian The Arts in Schools report forty years after it had first launched her own career in the arts sector. Pauline’s personal archive, network, experience and recollections of all that had happened over the four decades were critical to the initiative. She stayed well enough to speak at the launch of The Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future in March and was working until the end, completing an article for CLA on the collapse of CCSkills in her final days. It was typical of Pauline that she reflected on the organisation’s achievements, but cut to the chase in her clear-sightedness about what more needs to be done. We are committed to carrying forward her legacy in terms of the ten Arts in Schools recommendations, and particularly her call for more to be done to build the cultural sector’s role in education for employment. She was an exceptionally wise, inspiring and brilliant colleague, and a guiding light to many in the sector. We will miss her hugely.

The final months of 2023 were similarly blighted by the death of Benjamin Zephaniah, who was one of the country’s most celebrated poets, writers and political commentators. He was also a passionate advocate of the transformative impact that the arts can have on young people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. He kindly gave permission for us to use an extract from his poem ‘Imagine Nation’ when we first published our own ImagineNation: the case for cultural learning report in 2011(we had not known of his poem when we came up with the title but he was very happy for us to use it). This was typical of Benjamin’s generosity and commitment to arts education. Only later did we realise that the poem itself was commissioned by Creative Partnerships London East in April 2004, and that Benjamin’s brief was to write a poem that explored the place of creativity and imagination in school.

Much of Zephaniah’s passion for education came from his own negative experience of school. Permanently excluded from secondary school at the age of 13, he was sent to an ‘approved school’ where he boarded away from home and experienced unengaging and poor-quality teaching. It was only when he began working as a spoken word poet in his early twenties that he began to attend college and become fully literate. Zephaniah visited countless schools to read his poetry and narrate his own education journey, directly spreading his passion for the arts among young people. He spoke at the Association of School and College Leadership conference in March and ahead of his inspiring talk to teachers he told ASCL head Geoff Barton that he was ‘so passionate about the arts in schools because I see what the arts did for me.’

Finally, we were saddened at the news of the death of Sir Tim Brighouse, former London schools commissioner and chief education officer for Birmingham and for Oxfordshire. Sir Tim was one of the architects of ‘London Challenge’, a transformative programme of local education policy that improved education outcomes for young people in Inner London to among the best in the country. 

Sir Tim will be remembered as a great educator, notable critic of Ofsted and someone of unfailing belief in the transformative power of schools on young people’s lives. His view was grounded in his own educational experience, where a change of schools in his childhood led him from despising school to a lifelong love of learning. His final book written with Mick Waters and published in 2021,  About Our Schools: Improving on Previous Best, is a magisterial overview of the last five decades of schools policy in England and how to make lasting, effective change to educational systems.  

As 2023 draws to a close we remember and mourn them all, and will progress into 2024 with a commitment to upholding their legacies as we continue to champion an arts-rich education for every child in every way we can.