Working with Schools – A Talk by Jane Charles (aka Smallbeans)

This talk was delivered by Cultural Provider Jane Charles (aka Smallbeans) at our Working with Schools Development Day at Arts Gateway MK. The below text has been minorly edited for readability.

I have a background in Fashion and Textiles, a certificate of learning for Adult Education, but no formal qualification for teaching children. My experience has come from working with my own children, and running play groups and classes in Children’s Centres. I took the plunge four years ago to do a project in my local primary school where two of my children attend, and where I am a Governor. The school was celebrating it’s 100th year and I thought it would be a good thing to work with every child in the school and create something for their history. There were 435 children in the school at the time. I had 7 weeks and the Head Teacher wanted it to be double sided;  he had no idea what that meant, neither did I really, but we agreed and I found a way to make it happen and stitch it together.

My big school work is all textile based; I am constantly trying to come up with child friendly ways of doing things, researching other artists and projects and adapting their thoughts and ideas. I have now completed 5 whole or large school quilts.

Starting points for these projects have varied from celebrating a School’s birthday or Creed or the school just wanting a whole school project for all to engage in. The last ones I made were for Milton Keynes 50th birthday celebrations; working with two primary schools we celebrated what was here before 1967 in Wolverton and Bletchley. These banners were part of a huge exhibition in Central Milton Keynes in January 2017.

When the initial project begins, meet with the teacher in charge and try to get an idea of the theme they want, spell out how a number of things:

  • Take examples of past work or take an illustration of your proposed project as a visual aid for the discussion
  • Discuss the time scale and how many children you’ll be working with
    • Small groups are best for us artists, but very disruptive for the class teacher
    • Whole class teaching is better for the teachers, but make sure you get the support from the class teacher and Learning Support Assistants, otherwise crowd control will take over the session and it limits what you can do in a class with specialist materials etc.
    • It is more difficult for my work to happen in large groups, as there is more chance of it going wrong! I.e. the printing of the background fabric – chaos to start with – then calm control with marking out the grid for each child to work in.

  • Do not presume that what you’ve sent to the school as preparation for the children will happen – they may forget or not have time, so you might have to add that into the first plan. If you’ve asked for reference material, take some of your own as back up.

When planning the session, think about the process you want to achieve, but also think of how the kids are going to understand the process and get the results you are after. There is generally one chance to do the project – you’ve not got time to go back and do it again! Depending on your project, consider:

  • Preparing the space
  • Have samples to show them – with the different stages if possible
  • Do a demonstration first
  • Planning – observing and drawing their ideas
  • Give them time to create and get into your zone of thinking
  • Have something up your sleeve for an alternative way of doing things (differentiation)
  • Space to store things to dry – discuss this with the teacher beforehand if you can, don’t get to the end of the day and realise you need space for 200 pieces of damp fabric to dry
  • Time to tidy up before the next session / class
  • And relax!

Have a clear plan and timeline and try to stick to it – schools need to know well in advance. Work out the cost of the project and lay it out to the school – who is paying for the materials? Who is ordering them? Artist Network suggest £206 for an artist with 4 years’ experience and under £5,000 overheads. Arts Council and (local to Milton Keynes) Community Foundation also want you to work for these rates which puts the cost of the project up drastically. When you don’t get the funding but still want the project to happen, you bring the cost down which is very frustrating.

For me, stitching the panels takes along time; make sure you plan any further work you might need to do in order to complete the project. Hours in school – remember that their days are shorter, but you cannot fit another job around the hours generally so you charge for the whole day. It will also include prep and thinking time, and in the end make up the hours to a reasonable rate (if the school can afford it!)