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Alan Clarke is working on a training programme for artists who want to work in prisons. He outlines some of the challenges faced so far.

A theatrical performance
Alan Clarke at the Cred-ability conference, Vilnius, April 2013

Whatever some of the British media would have us believe, prisons are notoriously difficult places, not only for prisoners but also for those working in them on a permanent or occasional basis. For artists aiming to use their skills and experiences for the benefit of inmates it is crucial to be prepared. If they are not, the results can be disastrous, not only for the individual concerned but crucially for the perception of prison arts as a whole.

The CredAbility project – funded through the EU’s Leonardo Transfer of Innovation programme – is currently developing a structured, comprehensive training programme to provide the necessary support for artists and others delivering arts in prisons. A key debate among the project partners so far has been about if giving precedence to the development of pedagogical skills means we risk transforming our students, who have begun the course as artists, into de facto teachers. And whether this is actually a bad thing.

Lack of suitable preparation can have a negative impact even for experienced artists. I remember an international prison education conference in Ireland, where a theatre group, which had a great deal of experience working with corporate companies, offered to do a couple of workshops in Dublin prisons. During the session in the women’s prison one of the prisoners took over the workshop, ensuring that almost none of the group’s aims were achieved; and in the male prison a riot broke out, forcing the prison officers to intervene. It was left to the permanent teaching staff to calm the authorities down and ensure that arts activities could continue there.

A very positive example is provided by the Prison Arts Foundation (PAF) in Northern Ireland – a Cred-Ability partner – led for many years by the Australian drama specialist and circus artist Mike Moloney. PAF introduced an induction programme which each artist had to undergo before they could work inside. Consequently the number of artists-in-residence involved increased from one in 1997 to over 20 in 2010 and their impact did much to transform the atmosphere in the prisons. Following Mike’s recent tragic death, tributes came not only from the dozens of artists that he supported over the years but also from many of the prisoners who had benefited from PAF’s involvement.

Cred-Ability will build on the training organised by PAF and units developed by Seeds for Growth in England. We are working towards a training programme that will be divided into three modules: the first focusing on background information and generic delivery skills; the second on encouraging critical thinking and the personal reflection required to prepare artists for such work; and the third addressing the practical issues related to the actual delivery of arts to prisoners.

Although the project does not intend to provide advice on how to deliver a particular artform... a key question is to what extent the training should prepare artists to teach

These modules will be adapted to appropriate needs and situations, including the different cultural and national environments, prisoner profiles (male or female, juvenile, long-term, etc) and artforms. And, having initially been developed in the UK, the programme is currently being adapted for testing by three European organisations: aufBruch, a theatre group which organises performances in German prisons; the Latvia Culture College; and the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. The programme will acquire international accreditation from The College of Teachers and will be offered at levels 3 (A level equivalent), 4 (HE certificate equivalent) and 5 (HE diploma/foundation degree equivalent). The partners are considering a follow-up project to create a level 6 programme (BA equivalent).

Although the project does not intend to provide advice on how to deliver a particular artform – working on the assumption that artists undertaking the training will already have gained skills and experience in their chosen artform – a key question is to what extent the training should prepare artists to teach.

Some of the discussion points have arisen from the cultural context in which the project partners operate. In the UK, for example, the arts have a long tradition of being imbedded in the education system, where, alongside the more traditional music and art classes, drama, dance and media studies are accepted components of the secondary school curriculum – often delivered by specialist teachers in these fields. In Germany, on the other hand, the latter artforms are only offered as extra-curricula activities, delivered primarily by artists or media specialists. This has led to a much clearer division between the role of the teacher and that of the artist, and consequently has prompted some concern about the acquisition of pedagogical skills as a key aspect of the Cred-Ability programme.

The counter-argument to this is that once artists undertake to develop other people’s artform skills, especially in such an intense environment as a prison, they need to be aware of how that process works, and acquire the skills to encourage it, including pedagogical ones. These can include effective communication, ‘classroom’ or more likely ‘workshop’ control, working effectively with individuals and understanding group dynamics, coping with conflict situations, operating within a set time and spatial framework, and working to a given syllabus – issues familiar to those working within formal and informal educational contexts. Undertaking training to develop these skills should not restrict the possibility of the artist exploring their own agenda; it should simply provide them with the necessary tools to operate in this environment.

Another reason for artists to have an awareness of the teaching demands of working in prisons is that, certainly in the UK, they are likely to be engaged through the prison’s education department, increasingly the main funders of arts activities in prisons. Not only does such an understanding enable artists to establish productive relations with prison educators in the first place, but also ensures that their interventions, be it one-off or for a few weeks, can be imbedded in the longer-term strategy of the prison – for the benefit of prisoners, prison staff and the artists involved.

Alan Clarke is International Consultant at The College of Teachers.

Cred-Ability will be sharing information about all the modules in development at a pre-taster event on Thursday 4 July in London, please sign up to the mailing list to receive full details when they are released

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Image of Alan Clarke