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February 22 2010

'It is going to be tough'

Today the Tories launch their arts manifesto. Is it good news? Will its funding strategies work? Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt defends it to Charlotte Higgins

Blog: Are the Tories nice or nasty for the arts? Have your say

The other day, I was chatting to the director of a major national arts ­organisation. "What do you think of Jeremy Hunt?" this person asked. "Because I think he's wonderful. Absolutely brilliant." It was like slipping into a parallel universe: Hunt is the shadow culture secretary, a Tory, for goodness sake. And it is one of Britain's articles of faith that artists, a handful of eccentrics ­notwithstanding, are on the left. So what is going on?

For the past two and a half years, Hunt, aged 43, has been diligently charming the British arts world with all the polite conscientiousness one would expect from a former head boy of Charterhouse with a first from Oxford (where he was president of its Conservative association). ­Considerably aided by culture secretary Ben ­Bradshaw's underwhelming performance, Hunt has been surprisingly successful. ­Despite his privileged background – his father was a naval officer and he grew up in Godalming, part of what is now his Surrey constituency – he lacks the Bullingdon club mien of some of his Tory colleagues. One of his tricks is to park himself at the front of a stage and address his audiences without notes. Theatre directors admit he is quite the performer.

This charm offensive reaches its climax today – with the publication of the Conservatives' arts manifesto. It has been, he tells me when we meet in a Portcullis House conference room, all about challenging the ­"assumption that Labour's good for the arts, and the Conservatives are good for ­business". A recent interview he gave to an ­in-house Conservative website put it more bluntly: "Part of my job is [...] to detoxify the Conservative brand." So that's what it's all about: the arts ­provide a forum in which to broadcast the idea that the Tories are no longer the nasty party.

So what of the contents of the Tory arts manifesto? In reality, the stated arts policies of all three major ­parties are strikingly close. It was former ­culture secretary James Purnell who commissioned, in 2007, the McMaster report, the most important Labour statement on culture in recent years. That shifted Labour policy away from valuing the arts in terms of how they might help ­fulfil social policy goals; instead, the arts were to be celebrated for their intrinsic qualities, and encouraged to strive for "excellence". That ­approach has been adopted by the Tories. ­"Excellence in everything the arts does" is one of the Tories' stated (if ­syntactically dubious) "core principles".

Hunt affirms his commitment to the principle, if not the level, of ­public ­funding. "People have had certain ­assumptions in the past about ­Conservative governments, partly because of some of the things that happened in the 1980s, and partly because of the tone of some of the debate in the 1980s that appeared to say public spending on the arts was something you might want to progressively ­reduce. That isn't where the modern Conservative party stands."

He adds: "I think it's disingenuous of Ben Bradshaw to say that arts funding is safer under Labour; the honest ­position to take is to say that it is ­going to be tough in every department." His promise is that the arts "won't be ­singled out", but he declines to go further. "We have no way of knowing what the state of the nation's books might be, and to guess a percentage cut would be ­dishonest." But, surprisingly, he does say: "I am ­confident that over the next parliament, we can increase the amount of money going into the arts."

There are two main strands to this claim. First, he says, the ­Conservatives will reform the Lottery so as to ­benefit its original good causes. With ­efficiencies and tax rejigs, he thinks it should yield another £40m per year for the arts – and, after the Olympics, "much bigger increases than that". This won't, however, be instead of regular funding: "The whole point of Lottery funding is additionality."

Second, Hunt has big plans for ­philanthropy. Organisations that take steps to build up an endowment (a large sum of money from which they can draw down interest as income) will be rewarded with longer-term funding agreements than the current three-year deals. As part of a bundle of reforms aimed to help ­museums, the ­acceptance-in-lieu scheme (which allows individuals to offer works of art instead of paying inheritance tax) would be extended. Gift aid, which gives tax relief on charitable ­donations, would be simplified. More than this, Hunt aims to engender a cultural shift. "We want to persuade people that ­giving is not just a duty, but one of life's pleasures. It chimes with David ­Cameron's ideas on social ­responsibility: if you have been successful, you should give something back."

There are problems here, not least in that it takes more than a government of a particular colour to change a nation's giving habits. In the US, endowments, an important income source for the arts, are in big trouble: failing to yield income in the current climate, they have left many organisations in crisis. "I so reject that argument," counters Hunt. ­"Saying that endowments don't work in the worst recession since 1931 is not a ­rep­resentation of what endowments can do for the arts over the next 30 years."

He adds. "I am under no illusion that this is a 20-year project. There will be no political dividends from this – at least until I am a grandpa." I ask him to sketch out what part he sees endowments playing in an ­organisation's finances. Say the National ­Theatre's income is £20m, he says, derived equally from the government, ticket sales and private donations: "Wouldn't it be great if they could get an extra £5m from endowments, so that the total income is £25m?"

Also problematic is the fact that certain arts organisations attract philanthropy more than others. In the US, high-profile outfits like the Metropolitan Opera act as magnets to the wealthy. A seat on the board of a glamorous museum or opera house is much more ­attractive to the rich than ­involvement in less glitzy establishments. My suspicion is that Tory policy favours – consciously or not – "posh arts". Tory temperament is inclined less towards, say, the avant-garde performance ­artist in a fringe venue. "That's exactly why philanthropy should never replace grant-in-aid," ­argues Hunt. "But if the Met can tap into all that wealth, then isn't it better that it should?"

In line with Tory rhetoric on other departments, Hunt is keen to see Arts Council England (ACE) and the ­Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) strip administrative costs "to the bone". He reckons ACE is "top-heavy" or "admin-heavy". He also believes that the DCMS ought to be in the arts policy "driving seat". "I want to see people with ability ­working for the DCMS and not ­thinking that the only place to go is ACE." Some ­Conservatives have, in private, ­expressed reservations about ACE chair Liz Forgan (who also chairs the Scott Trust, which owns this paper), because of her perceived ties to ­Labour. Hunt answers carefully: "We don't have an agenda to replace every boss of every quango who might be perceived to have Labour ­leanings. We will work happily with ­anyone willing to work with us."

It is traditional to enquire of MPs with culture jobs what film they last saw. In Hunt's case, there's no need: he recently wrote an admiring piece on his blog about An Education, which he and his wife Lucia, who is expecting their first child, went to see on Valentine's night. He has also tried his hand at art ­criticism, on the Van Gogh show at the Royal Academy in London.

What has he seen and hated? "Part of an otherwise excellent performance by Candoco dance company in which they mutated the national anthem into Hitler salutes. I thought it was tasteless and unnecessary." He is referring to the piece Still, by the respected choreo­grapher Nigel Charnock, a founding ­member of dance company DV8.

As for his theatre likes, he ­namechecks Gethsemane, David Hare's ­critique of New Labour; the National's hit War Horse; Jez ­Butterworth's ­Parlour Song (he says Parlour Games, but I know what he means) and ­Jerusalem. He enjoyed what he calls Doris ­Salcedo's "crack" (her ­Turbine Hall installation in Tate Modern), but a Dalí exhibition there proved "more ­challenging and I'm still not quite there with some modern abstract art". As for classical music, he says: "I am still early Schoenberg rather than late."

He says he likes poetry: "Osip ­Mendelstam and ... [he clicks his ­fingers] who's that woman Isaiah Berlin fell in love with?" At the end of the interview, he remembers: Anna Akhmatova. He liked Chaucer at school. "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote," he quotes, and I follow: "The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote." It's not every day you recite Middle English with a member of the shadow cabinet.

A game of pool with Tricky

At the end of the interview, Hunt brings me to his rather spartan office, and I search for more clues. There's a CD of bass-baritone Gerald Finley on the desk, a print of geishas by Koryusai (Hunt lived in Japan after university), and an 1808 ­Rowlandson and Pugin print of the House of ­Commons. "Only Tories have prints like that," he says of the latter.

Tony Blair once promised to write the arts into Labour's "core script". How important are the arts – surely a ­marginal electoral issue – to the Tories? And are there not, for every ­modernising Cameron, legions of rightwingers who would leave the arts to the vagaries of the market? "They are fundamentally important," says Hunt. "George Osborne gave a speech [last December] at the Tate about the importance of art for art's sake. We haven't heard Alistair Darling give such a speech. David Cameron has reiterated his commitment to the arts, and indeed Samantha Cameron's ­commitment, which shouldn't be underestimated as an influence on David." Samantha Cameron, a scion of the blue-blooded landed gentry, studied art at Camberwell and Bristol Polytechnic, where she used to play pool with Tricky (which somehow seems a very ­modern Tory combination of grandeur and bohemianism).

As we finish talking, I ask Hunt if he thinks his efforts to win round the arts world have succeeded. Trust in ­politicians is so low at the moment, he says, that it will all boil down to what we actually do. It will indeed. At the moment, the burning question is: "Is this guy for real?"

What the other parties offer


Since 2007, the government has had four culture secretaries: Tessa Jowell, James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Ben Bradshaw. Though no pre-election ­document on arts policy has been published, the most wide-ranging statement on Labour arts policy came when Purnell accepted the recommendations of the 2007 McMaster report. This shifted the focus away from "the achievement of simplistic targets" (on, say, social or ethnic makeup of audiences) towards "a focus on the quality of artistic ­experience". The watchword became "excellence".

In 2008, Burnham pledged schoolchildren five hours of culture a week, and announced a million free theatre ­tickets for under-26s by 2011; ­according to Arts Council England figures, 121,345 have been taken up. In 2009, he ­announced a new scheme for British cities to be dubbed capital of ­culture for a year. Bradshaw recently argued that arts funding will be safer under Labour than the Tories.

Liberal Democrats

This month, the Lib Dems set out their thinking in a document called The Power of Creativity. Unlike the other parties, they pledge to retain current levels of funding. They aim to strengthen the arts' role as a tool of "soft diplomacy" (with performances for visiting foreign ­dignitaries) and increase culture's ­visibility at No 10. National arts organisations, they say, must get out of ­London more (this was also a theme of Burnham's tenure at DCMS). Like the Tories, they want gift aid reformed and acceptance-in-lieu to be extended to lifetime ­giving. Local ­government is to be helped to use culture as a regenerative force.

Mark Lawson on how the last Tory government dealt with the arts

Thatcherites objected to the arts from various angles: political, class, moral and financial. These progressively overlapped. The critique was that money from taxpayers (through arts council grants and the BBC licence fee) was used to deliver material that was either filthy or leftwing or both. Why, asked the Tories, should we fund stuff that offends our values and attacks our principles?

So the strategy was to reduce the flow of state cash. Thatcher would make pointed visits to Glyndebourne, which funded its operas privately, while grants to the big institutions were mostly frozen or filleted.

The rejection of the "arm's-length principle" in which the state pays the bills but doesn't ­question the content, resulted in a series of attacks, either directly or through proxies such as Mary Whitehouse: Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain at the National was attacked and there were challenges to some current ­affairs shows, such as ITV's Death on the Rock, which criticised the ­government over the shooting of IRA suspects in Gibraltar.

This punitive attitude (Thames TV lost its franchise largely because of that film) was tempered by the Major administration. But some aspects of Thatcherite policy – encouraging public companies to seek sponsorship and private cash, for example – remain prevalent 30 years later, regardless of the party in charge. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 13 2009

Tate goes back to school

What happened when the Tate's director went back to school? We follow three of the country's top arts bosses as they swap places with headteachers for a day

A moving assembly – then a scream in year 13's art class

Tate director Nicholas Serota takes charge of Thomas Tallis school, London

Nicholas Serota is sitting on a small plastic chair in a school hall, facing a sea of expectant 11 and 12-year-olds in blue sweatshirts. The director of Britain's Tate galleries is stepping out of his comfort zone – becoming, for one day, the headmaster of Thomas Tallis school in south-east London. Assembly begins and he listens intently as teachers from Ghana, St Lucia and Malaysia tell poignant stories about their childhoods as immigrants to Britain. "It was," he says later, "incredibly moving."

If the 1,670 pupils at Thomas Tallis – a specialist arts college in a deprived area of London that's just been christened a "national school of creativity" by Arts Council England – are surprised to find one of the country's top curators in charge for the day, they don't show it. This may be because their usual headmaster, Rob Thomas, is hovering in the background, showing Serota the ropes.

The men are taking part in a series of job swaps organised between headteachers and arts leaders by the Culture and Learning Consortium (an umbrella group of arts funders). Earlier this year, it published a report saying cultural organisations, such as galleries and theatre companies, should work more closely with schools, in order to get more creativity on the curriculum. Serota is here to see how he can make this happen.

Strolling through the narrow corridors, he pauses at some brightly coloured collages on the theme of the 2012 Olympics: the pupils were divided into 57 groups, each representing a country, and had to put together a bid to host the games for that nation. Many children chose countries their families originally came from. Serota has reason to pay attention – he's on the board for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. "It makes me conscious," he says, "of the tensions that exist in people's identity. Are they going to be cheering when a gold medal goes to someone who's ostensibly British, or are they going to be really thinking about Jamaica, or Bangladesh?"

Next on the timetable is a year 13 art class. Fascinated, Serota moves around the room, stopping to ask one student, who is painting a woman screaming in agony, if he's familiar with Francis Bacon; and to see if another, creating a photomontage of a street scene, knows the work of Jeff Wall. The answer, in both cases, is no. The whole experience, says Serota, is a bit like entering an artist's studio: "You go in and you're looking at something you've never seen in your life before. You have to tune in really quickly."

A meeting with the pupil-led Creativity Action Research Group, set up to explore how teachers and students can make lessons more creative, follows. Serota works hard at drawing out the quieter students. "Like in Tate meetings," he says, "sometimes the quiet ones have the best ideas." Then, after tea and biscuits in the crowded staff room, and a tense meeting with a pupil about behavioural issues, he's interviewed by Tallis TV, the school's very own TV station, and drops in on a year 8 lesson in internet technology. "We did not," he says, "have anything quite like this at my old school."

Serota is not called on to issue any detentions and, when the bell rings at the end of his command, he seems to have enjoyed himself. "The great thing about teaching," he says, "is stimulating young people's curiosity. It reminds me of some of the best moments I have – working with younger curators who haven't had it all beaten out of them." Has going back to school taught him anything? "I need to get out of my office and into the gallery. I need to get to know my staff better." Laura Barnett

'We think this is boring. So go crazy. Show us what you can do'

Rob Thomas, headmaster of Thomas Tallis school, takes over the Tate

In a small meeting room overlooking Tate Britain's elegant entrance, a team are unfolding a guide to the organisation's vast website. Made of several dozen pieces of paper held together precariously by sticky tape, it looks a lot like a school project – the sort of thing that Rob Thomas, headmaster of Thomas Tallis, is very familiar with. And he wouldn't give this one good marks. "It looked quite funny," he says later. "Our pupils would be a bit more advanced than that."

Although he and his pupils do visit Tate Britain and Tate Modern, Thomas knows he can't rival Nicholas Serota's art expertise. So, for his first appointment as Tate director for a day, he's sticking to what he knows: bringing in his own pupils to help Tate make its website, well, funkier. They begin with the site's pages on The Kiss by Rodin. "The problem," says Sharna Jackson, Tate Kids editor, "is that these are just boring. Go crazy. Show us what you can do." The kids promptly pull the pages apart, demanding a comment forum, colours that feel less "angry" and "sad", as well as a 360-degree, Matrix-style view of Rodin's sculpture.

Meanwhile, Serota talks Thomas through one of his job's less enviable moments. In September, police urged that a part of Richard Prince's exhibit, featuring a photograph of a naked, 10-year-old Brooke Shields, be removed from Tate Modern's Pop Life exhibition. The gallery did so, a decision that earned it an unfavourable and, in Serota's view, irritatingly inaccurate newspaper article. Thomas recognises this kind of fire-fighting. "A lot of the issues I face around student well-being involve negotiating with the police and social services. Like Nick, I need to be skilled in diplomacy."

Thomas takes a taxi to Tate Modern. First stop is the cavernous Turbine Hall, dominated by How It Is, a 13-metre-high steel container by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka. Thomas follows Serota inside it, groping blindly in the dark. "It just got blacker and blacker," he says afterwards, somewhat relieved. It reminds him of Eye for an I, an installation made by his A-level pupils. "You went into a box, with letterbox-size slits around the wall, through which you could see students' eyes, expressing different emotions. Like this, it was about going into the unknown."

Lunch takes place in the seventh-floor restaurant. The stunning view across the river to St Paul's is, Thomas admits, nicer than the one from his school canteen. Summing up his day, he says: "I could see that Nick and the Tate really want to engage younger people, when traditionally that hasn't been the case. They make an effort to listen, which is what we do at school. It's about mutual respect. Once you build that, it works both ways." LB

The new headmaster sneaks out for a smoke

Michael Boyd, artistic director of the RSC, at Queensbridge school, Birmingham

"Good morning," says the new boy. "My name is Mr Boyd and I'm taking over from Mr Boyes as your headteacher. It isn't a very big change when you think about it – just one letter really."

Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, is taking assembly at Queensbridge school in Moseley, an inner-city area of Birmingham with a predominately Muslim population. The day began with the 8am staff meeting at which Boyd (not so used to these early starts) encouragingly promised not to let the school run off the rails. He certainly has a lot to live up to: in 2006, Queensbridge was named Birmingham's most improved school, and held up as a model of arts teaching.

"I can see I'm going to need a crash course in acronyms," says Boyd, reading his schedule, which tells him he has an "SEN meeting with NQTs". But first, there's a question-and-answer session with a year 10 class, who get right down to business: how many GCSEs has he got? "Blimey – I can't remember," Boyd replies. "I think I did all right. But I didn't take drama. The fanciest one I did was Russian."

The children go rather quiet when Boyd brings up the subject of Shakespeare, but then he has an inspired thought. "Who likes hip-hop?" he asks. Hands shoot up. "Who writes lyrics?" More hands. "Are they in rhythm? Do they rhyme? Then you're ready for Shakespeare." And suddenly everything clicks; the class even concludes with inquiries about how to get a job at the RSC. "Write in," Boyd says. "Tell me you're a genius and I need you badly."

The school already has one genius-in-the-making: Fahad Malik, aged 16, who earlier this year impressed Boyd by standing on stage at Stratford and reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet as part of the RSC's Shakespeare birthday ­ celebrations. "It was wicked," Malik recalls. "I showed Sir Donald Sinden how to moonwalk." Was he any good? "Not really – cos he's got a stick."

What has Boyd learned? "The importance of working within a strong ensemble," he says. "A successful school, like a successful theatre company, is a community united around a single vision. You're only as good as the people around you."

There are more classes, back to back, but by mid-afternoon there's one obligation Boyd can put off no longer. For 10 minutes, Queensbridge is leaderless as the headmaster leaves the premises – for a smoke. Alfred Hickling

The day I had to give acting tips to Victor Meldrew

Tim Boyes, headmaster of Queensbridge, takes charge at the RSC

Tim Boyes would usually be in his office by 7.30am. Taking charge of the Royal Shakespeare Company means that, for once, he can have breakfast with his family. Theatre companies have a more leisurely start, although the working day will end at around 11.30pm, after Richard Wilson makes his RSC debut as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. ("I spent the whole day unsettled by the fact that I was supposed to give Victor Meldrew notes," says Boyes later.)

The headmaster of Queensbridge is met at the RSC's Stratford offices by Liza Frank, his PA for the day. First question: does Boyes share his opposite number's 40-a-day habit? (It seems everyone at the RSC is curious to know how Michael Boyd can survive a whole day in a school, where smoking is forbidden.)

Boyes is taken aback by the artistic director's desk: there's no computer, only a copy of Julius Caesar. Boyes, who carries a laptop at all times, feels "envious of someone who lives in a world which allows time and space for creativity". His first task is an inspection of the £150m rebuild of the Royal Shakespeare theatre, followed by a meeting in which the main topic is how its ushers should dress: too formal and they will look airline cabin crew. Boyes knows a thing or two about public perception – one of his first measures at Queensbridge was banning hoodies.

Things seem to be going well. "I would never have an uninterrupted day," says Boyes happily towards the end of morning. "There would always be a crisis of some kind." As if to prove the point, developments back at Queensbridge mean he has to spend his lunchbreak firing off urgent emails, for which a computer has to be found and then installed in Boyd's office.

The afternoon is spent supervising education workshops. Queensbridge is among a select group of schools with which the RSC maintains a three-year relationship. "That's the same length of time as an actor's contract in Stratford," Boyes explains. "Michael and I share the view that it takes that amount of time to establish something of lasting value."

Boyes's day confirms his belief that the arts have a vital role to play in education. "Standing in the RSC's workshop, amongst armourers, carpenters, props specialists and wig-makers, it occurred to me that if you could expose even the most reluctant student to this, they could not fail to learn something. With the establishment of trust schools and co-operatives, the soul of education is up for grabs. Who would we rather was setting the agenda in our schools? Businesses? Faith groups? I prefer to think that creative organisations like the RSC might provide the model for inspiring our children." AH

What experience do I have? Well, I once played a tree . . .

Tony Hall, director of the Royal Opera House, takes over Grays school in Essex

"I love you, mum," says the girl on stage. "Even though you didn't remember my birthday, even though you never call. 'Cos you're my mum. I'll always love you." It's a tear-jerking performance and Tony Hall, director of the Royal Opera House, is visibly moved. Other members of the audience are wiping away tears.

This isn't a night at the Royal Opera House, however. It's a weekday morning at the Grays School Media Arts College in Thurrock, Essex, and the monologue is being performed by a year 11 pupil. "I was hooked," says Hall, when the drama teacher asks Hall for feedback. "Right from the start."

Next, year 11 get to quiz their head-for-a-day. "What were your main parts on the stage?" a boy asks. "Erm, I think I was a tree in a primary school play once," Hall says, adding that he came to arts management after a career in journalism. "Being in the arts is a lot more than just being on stage. What happens backstage is every bit as creative."

Some of the kids had a taste of the arts, on stage and backstage, in a Covent Garden production earlier this year called On the Rim of the World. Its actors were schoolchildren from Essex, who also took care of backstage tasks, including designing and creating the sets and costumes. It was a project close to Hall's heart, part of a bigger plan to move ROH's production operation, from set-building to scene-painting, to Thurrock next year. So Hall has a vested interest in enthusing the local kids not only about the on-stage elements of opera but the backstage ones, as well.

"I was lucky enough to get scholarships to independent schools, which gave me wonderful opportunities, but this school hasn't got these advantages," says Hall. "It's an Essex comprehensive that's only recently come out of special measures. That doesn't mean the pupils are less talented, or deserve less." Later, on a board of year 10 artwork, he spots a poster made by a girl who was involved in On the Rim of the World. "I've worked with the Royal Opera House," it reads. "I can put ROH on my CV now – how good is that?" Hall grins from ear to ear; that's made his day.

At Covent Garden, he's constantly aware of the need to woo audiences. Grays, he thinks, could do more in that area. "Schools traditionally haven't spent anything like as much time as arts organisations on thinking about their image. But Grays has loads of strengths, and it needs to be out-there about them." What's the first thing he would change? "I'd do something about the entrance area, which isn't very inspiring. You need to make a big impact right from the start." Joanna Moorhead

A canteen encounter with Carlos Acosta

Lynn Ibeji, head of Grays school, takes charge of the Royal Opera House

Lynn Ibeji is enjoying the view from Tony Hall's office. But as she looks out over the rooftops at Covent Garden, her mind is on much more down-to-earth matters. As the Royal Opera House's boss for a day, Ibeji is grappling with a subject she is very familiar with: perception. How do you persuade all those people out there that the place where you work isn't all the things they think it is?

Usually when she ponders such things, Ibeji's focus is on Grays and her battle, as its head, to chip away at its reputation as a failing school, an image that persists even though it has now come out of special measures. Today, the institution in question is the ROH, and the perception that it's elitist, interested in attracting wealthy audiences.

One solution is to open the doors and invite the sceptics in to see for themselves. So today the ROH is doing just that. Ibeji is invited to take a tour; along the way, there are glimpses of events to which teachers and community groups have been invited. "It's a good idea – to get people in who wouldn't normally see the place from the inside," she says. "We ought to do more of it at Grays." All the same, she says, as a teenager she spent time at the ROH, and it didn't give her a lifelong passion for opera – she prefers plays.

Ibeji is impressed by the swishness of the surroundings, all that red velvet; even the staff-only areas have a luxuriousness unknown in most secondary schools. It would be wonderful, she says, to provide her 160 staff and 900 pupils with better spaces in which to work and chill out. She might not be able to turn Grays into a night at the opera, but she has a scheme to give it a sculpture garden; there's even talk of involvement from artist Antony Gormley.

At lunch, in the staff canteen, Ibeji finds herself sitting near the world-famous Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta ("It's good to see that he eats in here with the rest of us," says her ROH minder admiringly). But Ibeji refuses to get too overawed by this glitziness: she's old enough to remember the "really bad patch" at the ROH a decade ago.

"If national arts organisations were put into special measures, as schools are, that's where they'd have been in 2000," she says. "But the thing to remember is the ROH came back from that – because it had enough people who were passionate and dedicated. That's quite inspirational to us, because it's where we are now – pulling a school up after special measures is a tough task. It requires a lot of dedication, passion and commitment. But, just as happened here at the Opera House, it absolutely can be done." JM © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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