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Postcards from Scotland

Room 13

Much of this information was features in one of Carol's blogs. We are putting the info here as well so that we maintain a constant reference point to the project on our website.

Background to this inspiring project

Room 13 began in Caol Primary School, near Fort William in 1994. The head teacher had lost all support from art teachers and managed to persuade Rob Fairley, a local artist,  to come into the school. He wasn't interested in formal teaching and eventually agreed to come in to the school to paint and talk to the students if they were interested. He was assigned room 13 as his studio.

Less than 20 years on Room 13 is a social enterprise organisation with a 'network of linked studios worldwide'  - yes worldwide. There are over 80 Room 13s across the world in Scotland, England, China, Hong Kong, Nepal, India, South Africa, Botswana, Turkey, Austria, Canada, Holland, USA and Mexico.  The 11 Scottish studios are all in  primary schools in Argyll, the Highlands or the North East. There are none in central or south Scotland.  Sadly for us, there are more Room 13s in Nepal (18)  and South Africa (17) than in Scotland. 

In the Scottish schools (perhaps in the international network) the general rule is that students are allowed to go to Room 13 during school time if their class work is up to date. Once there they have ' a great deal of autonomy' though they are also under the influence and guidance of the resident artist. The Room 13 studios are also run by the students themselves as a business. They appoint a management team and nominally employ the artist.  So primary school children act as company secretaries and directors.

Claire Gibb, who is in charge of the international side of the project outlines the following as fundamental to the success of the project:

1. Room 13 studios are run as a business. This gives the youngsters a strong sense of autonomy and ownership. It also encourages them to develop skills which are important for employment and entrepreneurship.

2. Room 13 encourages creative freedom. Claire sees it as more of an 'ideas' generating process rather than simply being about 'art'.

3. Room 13 encourages 'philosophical inquiry'. The culture is one of encouraging curiosity, questioning and learning.

4. Room 13 is about equality and shared learning. The students and artists are considered equals and treated with respect.

The impact of Room 13 on youngsters can be seen in the fact that one won a runner-up Turner prize (for adults). Others have given lectures on art at the Tate.The whole Room 13 project is organic.

There has never been a business or master plan and it has grown spontaneously as a result of contacts and an expanding network.

As one of the Room 13 reports explains:

The Room 13 trained artist in residence is not teacher, parent, social worker, nurse or police officer … This 'trusted adult', by involving youngsters in their own meaningful work, instils a culture of independent thinking, citizenship, confidence, professionalism, and self-discipline. Room 13 encourages ambition and aspiration at every level by providing a continuing motivation to learn and fulfil potential.

As the artist is effectively self-employed - using the studio but having to fund themselves -  Room 13 potentially costs a school, or community centre, nothing.

Those of us at the Centre believe that one of the reasons why Room 13 works so well is that it creates a different space for students where real creativity, learning and enterprise happens. This may not be about art. Room 13 has inspired students to do many  different things such as raise money for ambitious travel or sponsorship projects. Because this is a space away from the conventional classroom there is no need for evaluation or traditional educational methods. However, these youngsters are still exposed to business as usual education in the rest of the school day.  This is what we mean about it being a parallel learning experience where students potentially get the best of both worlds.

Many in the arts community in the UK admire the project enormously. Anthony Gormley who created the Angel of the North sculpture is quoted as saying 'Room 13 is the paradigm we are all working with'. The Director of Tate Galleries, Sir Nicholas Serota, has described it as 'the most important model for artistic teaching that we have in the UK' and  Richard Demarco has called it 'the most important  arts movement in Scotland in my lifetime.' 

As admirers of the project we would like to see Room 13 have a much bigger profile in Scotland. It would be fantastic if more schools were inspired to set up their own studios and become part of growing network. There is also scope for community projects involving people of all ages. A bit of investment from the Scottish Government or business may help to spread the word in Scotland and beyond. However, we are also aware that political/establishment interest could hi-jack the project. For example, they could try to impose the Room 13 concept on schools where staff are unable or unwilling to allow the basic operating principles which Claire so eloquently identified as fundamental to its success. They could try to control it and make it fit with existing goals of the education system or their limited business model.

More information on Room 13 is available on their website. 


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