Why we do what we do

Our Chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, recently delivered an inspiring speech reflecting on the rights of children and our role in upholding them

19 December 2019

Image credit: Steve McQueen Year 3 © Tate

On 12 December 2019, A New Direction’s Chair, Professor Maggie Atkinson, addressed an audience of 399 Primary School Teachers at the second of two Steve McQueen Year 3 teacher preview events at Tate Britain.

It was a great event – positive, celebratory and joyful. Steve McQueen and Maggie both gave great speeches on the night. Steve thanked the teachers for making the project happen and talked about the future, London and love. Maggie talked about her response to the artwork, key anniversaries and entitlement. As she was leaving, I grabbed her and whispered, “great speech – can I put it on the website?”

So, here you go! An edited version of her words, and a reminder as we take a break from work, see friends, family and have some time to reflect on the last 12 months – why we do what we do…

"Thank you and huge congratulations to Steve McQueen, who in making this project happen and having the vision to see things differently, has offered the challenge and the opportunity to see the city’s children, teachers, schools, families and communities as never before. Mr McQueen has helped to bring back to its rightful prominence the decades-old debate on the place of arts, culture in the curriculum for ALL learners and teachers.

We are challenged to really SEE our children and young people, who as well as being the future of this great capital are just over 25% of its citizens NOW - not just citizens in waiting. My husband said when we he first saw the exhibition that he was looking at future leaders, parents, scientists, artists, healers and community activists; teachers now and in years to come. He also said that, like great and ground-breaking scientists, artists see things the rest of us can’t. And here, you are letting us see, and hear, what is to come.

So, 2019...

50 years since humanity landed two men on the Moon, and still, in this, sixth richest country in the world, we have apparently decided it is okay that 4 million children will go to bed tonight hungry, cold, and poor.

40 years since the late, great Mary Warnock told us in her groundbreaking review of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) education that we are charged, as teachers, with love for the children who we work with. Not labels. Love. She was clear until she died that education is not about numbers, or league tables - it is about love.

It is 30 years since the first National Curriculum came into use. It had a whole curriculum file on art. Another on music. It included drama in the English file and dance in the PE one. And the whole curriculum, whatever the weight it placed on educators, was based on breadth, balance, entitlement, equality of access and opportunity for every child. Including the challenging and difficult ones.

30 years since the Children Act 1989, whose founding tenet was the best interests of the child. Not the adults.

30 years since the UN ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world’s most signed and ratified Human Rights treaty bar none, with only one nation not a signatory, the USA. The Convention is not incorporated into UK law, but it is a treaty and we are bound by it because we are a ratifying state party. If you don’t know it, do look at the UNICEF website where it is explained, and where you can look at becoming a Rights Respecting School. This is NOT about children being in charge. It is about mutuality, and everybody in a setting having reciprocal rights.

Articles 1-5 are about the general principles, where rights are ALL applicable.

Article 12 says children’s voices must not simply be heard, but listened to, and their views must be acted upon in line with their age and stage of development, and in ways that help them shape what happens to them.

Articles 28 and 29 say every child has a right to an education that is broad, balanced, about aptitudes and tolerance and breadth and balance. Alongside them, Article 23 is very specific and very direct about the rights to education and to adjustment for all children with SEND.

Article 31 states all children have a right to rest, leisure, and to have access to and involvement in arts and culture, in and beyond school.

We are duty bearers for these rights-holders. Children do NOT have to earn these rights. If they are here, they have these rights.

On the walls of this gallery are holders of universal rights. Whoever they are, wherever they are from, whatever their lives have given them so far or will give them in future. You hold these duties because you are teachers. What you do is not a job, it is a vocation. And the greatest job on earth. This project affirms you in that.

I’ll close with my recollections of being 7 to 8 years old (beyond having mumps at the wrong time and some other girl ending up playing Mary in the Nativity Play, that is - something I've still not forgiven). I am a West Riding of Yorkshire girl. My education authority was led by the late, great, amazing Alec Clegg who believed children, whoever they were, wherever they came from, deserved EVERYTHING from their education. So, into my very ordinary one form entry working class school came great choirs and orchestras, and termly loans from an art collection to shame the greatest galleries – original artworks by the nation’s greats. I learned a cursive script that was beautiful and italic, and learned to write on plain paper with a line guide under it.

I had an Irish-Yorkshire grandad who taught me to think, to argue, to debate. And he took me to stand in the middle of the big reading room at Barnsley’s central library, where he held my hand and said “if you never leave Barnsley, but you come here, books will take you anywhere in the world, and beyond the world, in your dreams and in your heart.” He was right.

And YOU hold that set of possibilities for these children. And so do they, because of you.”

Great words to think about during the holiday period - thank you to Maggie. We wish you all a peaceful festive period, and look forward to working with you next year.