Tag Archives: Heather Stack

On art and creativity, the Royal Academy Why & How Conference & magnetic moments


Stellar Adler

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

Stellar Adler, American actress and acting teacher, (1901 – 1992).

There are moments in my working life when I feel truly blessed and thrilled beyond words at the invitations that find their way to my inbox. There are times also, when I wonder what path I have set out on, that is so challenging, lonely at times, devoid of recognition or appreciation. But that is another matter.

An invitation from Molly Bretton, Access Manager at the Royal Academy, London, to deliver the opening keynote presentation for their second annual Why and How Conference – engaging children with SEN in creating art and cultural experiences, has been one of the greatest delights of my professional life. I have loved this event, Saturday 19th March 2016, truly, madly, deeply.
Royal Academy
Here is the Reynolds Room, the venue for my opening Reith-style lecture, and closing panel discussions. The logistics of hosting a conference taking multiple gallery rooms on a busy working Saturday seemed vast, but all was handled with ease and efficiency.

I have been impressed with every aspect of the event – the venue, unfamiliar to me (guilty confession, keen to make amends), the programme, the workshops, the food, the people. Perhaps I should say ‘the good people’, echoing Susan Potter’s closing comments. It has been a journey of discovery, with so many magnetic moments. Of which, more…

This conference invitation has also held challenges for me in several weeks of deliberations: what shall I say, what form will my presentation take, am I using visuals, can I really expect an audience to listen to me, alone, for the duration of my allotted 50 minutes delivery time? I am of a mind to think, how shall I occupy my time now the writing of this great beast of an 8,000 word lecture, is complete. Or at least, the significant part of my task is over. My bibliography is still a work in progress.

I will not revisit my lecture here, but instead, the thoughts that flood my mind are the abundance of good, joyous, uplifting conversations with strangers who have been as dear to me as the most familiar of friends. There have been so many remarkable, inspiring, ridiculously funny and moving moments, borne out of the passion, insight and hard work of so many individuals and teams, setting out to inspire and bring creativity to an audience that includes some of our most vulnerable young people in society.

In my lecture I referenced a phrase I heard once on the radio, some years ago, but never did discover its origins. So I have seized upon it, eager to popularise its use. It is ‘magnetic moments in time.’ They are the moments that create a lasting imprint on the mind, so that, long after the details and minutiae are forgotten, there is an impression there, that lingers and attaches itself, like a magnet to our heart.

There have been so many magnetic moments this day.

In the workshop, Illustrating a journey of engagement with children with SEMH, the presenters, Jhinuk Sarkar, Robin Johnson of Keddleston Schools and Matthew Johnson, Outreach Officer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, shared some of the museum’s Inuit artefacts. Aside the very serious matter of how best to engage with young people with SEND, the workshop allowed us to explore the artefacts and create our own block prints. It was the most unexpected delight! I have to confess, though, finding the artefacts in much demand, my attention was caught by some fine bust of a gentleman on display in the Saloon.
November 2015  - February 2016 314

I suspect I shall not be in great demand for my print-making, but I am so keen to find further opportunities to explore this beautiful craft.

In the past I had some fanciful notion I would attempt to recreate the William Morris prints of animal and nature, scenes that I so love on post-cards and wrapping paper. And then, and then, create for myself prints of my own design on wrapping paper. How simple it all looks, but how complex the design and detail…

William Morris prints



Little way to go, huh?

The second workshop I attended, Understanding Creative Empowerment for Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities, with Corali and Greenside School, was also breathtakingly fantastic, unexpected, slightly surreal and almost spiritual in its beauty. Coralis use a partnership, performance-led, mixed-media methodology to provoke and discuss inventive and original ways that children and young people with LDD can be artistically and creatively empowered to engage with the arts.

Corali are the heroes of my heart. Whatever your audience, children, young people with LDD, adults, the corporate world, emotional and mental health and well-being, the potential is huge. I feel bereft already that I am missing my dancing partners, as we swirled and swooped and caressed and tip-toed on our precious object, inspired by the environment, a stretch of red velvet fabric.

What a privilege also, in a one hour workshop, to be gently encouraged to move and dance and create, and to conjure up such inventive scenes, around flowers, a bowl of fruit and a piece of red velvet. My words cannot do justice, but I was, and am, captivated. I loved the gathering around to watch the instant video playback of our shared movements, and performing as a group before a video backdrop of our earlier work.

In all the excited chatter with my fellow dancers, we decided that we each took on different persona, as we played and indulged our inner creative selves. One lady in the group was constantly tuned to practical uses of our precious red velvet; another erupting into bull-fighting drama and peek-a-boo scenarios, with another using the red velvet to soothe and caress. (I was told I was majestic, with my red velvet, so I will stay with that, thank you).

Sadly, I did not have time to attend all the workshops on offer, but with such a richness of choice, and in such a beautiful setting, how could delegates fail to be impressed?

Bringing together events like The Royal Academy’s Why and How Conference, is a challenging task. It takes great insight, courage, tenacity and flair to bring such diverse elements of a complex and ever expanding field of expertise together, in one venue. My hat goes off to Molly Bretton for a truly inspirational event.

I must also mention the precious joy of meeting colleagues I have only conversed with by phone, or have met too little – Noel Hayden, SEN Programme Manager from the Museum of London and Dermot Dolan, Training and Partnerships Manager of Whizz-Kidz. Dermot’s cheery greeting was the sweetest moment.

And then, there were the post-event discussions and far ranging chatter with Molly Bretton, Rachael Christophides, who so expertly chaired the close of day panel discussion, and Paul Anderson Morrow, artist, teacher and workshop presenter. Well, that was a world in itself. A brilliant end to a perfect day! Slight matter of my missing my last train home, aside.

chinua achebe

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) Nigerian novelist, poet, professor and critic.










On neutropenic sepsis, Nightstand Central, laughter, family and good friends


Nightstand Central
I have extolled the merits of Nightstand Central this past week, since I discovered the existence of this wonderful app, created by Thomas Huntingdon – http://thomashuntington.com/. I have recently had a five day stay in an isolation ward in hospital for neutropenic sepsis, and on day one, my son kindly loaned his mini-ipad and set up Nightstand Central to play my favourite music (which, coincidentally, is also amongst his music collection).

What a Godsend Nightstand Central has been during all the stresses and anxieties of hospital life. I wonder how I might have coped without it. During my most awful moments and long, painful nights, when illness seemed to take over every fibre of my being, Nightstand Central has displayed its wondrous images and played its sweet music so unfailingly, that I have drifted into a different world entirely, far, far away from my hospital bed.

Several nurses and the Consultant, discharging me on my final day, have enquired about the app and also about the classical piano music collection (though I confess amongst the 32 tracks in my son’s compilation, I know the names of only a few pieces). It has been my delight, and I am most blessed to have a son who anticipates my needs, even before I know them myself.

Tuesday 7th May, 04:04am. I raise my hospital bed and contemplate my choices: to write or to read. There’s an overhead reading light that is really quite magnificent, and so beautfully accessible even as I’m attached to this drip and my bed. The night shift nurse, who’s ‘part of the furniture’, brings me simple linctus for the cough that’s awoken me. The drink is sweet and familiar. It reminds me of childhood. I ask about the other patients and chat as the nurse lingers. There is a momentary calm on the ward beyond my isolation room, a world I can only hear and imagine, but never see.

The spacious and high tech room fascinates me and I am mystified by the positive pressure room I inhabit and resolve I must investigate further on my discharge.

My son’s gift for my hospital stay of his mini-ipad set up to Nightstand Central, has been a godsend and the greatest delight. I am soothed by music from his classical piano collection, by the images that drift across the screen and tempt me to worlds far away, and by our mutual favourite sound track, Dr Zhivago. Not the old Julie Christie version, but the more recent tv adaption with Keira Knightley and Sam Neil. Outside, early morning birdsong drifts through the just ajar window (how is that possible to maintain a positive pressure with an open window?) and I gather my book to read to the sound of Dr Zhivago and the morning chorus.

Scott’s Last Expedition is my night time reading, though I am sad that it is only this last few days of my stay that reading, or any task of pleasure, has been on my agenda. All this time on my hand, and too poorly to do anything much at all.

I had a signficant birthday during my hospital stay, and on the morning of my birthday, after the most debilitating night, I felt that I could not cope with visitors. I was of a mind to ask the nurse to turn any visitors away. I looked dreadful, my skin dry and sore from persistent coughing from my chest infection, I have no hair or eyebrows or eyelashes at this stage during chemotherapy, and in the hospital room it was far too hot to wear my bandana. I pictured myself as some awful, alien creature the likes of which would inhabit a Dr Who, or episode of Buffy, and on top of that, I felt poorly too.

Such is the nature of the wonderful, caring staff who tended all my needs, that I was persuaded around to see my first visitors at 12 noon. I am so pleased I did not give way to my initial maudlin thoughts. The sight of my three visitors, lined up on guest chairs against the wall, in transparent gowns and bright blue gloves, was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud. It looked for all the world that they were waiting on some bizaree, shame-inducing party game. And oh, how their visit and our chatter lifted my spirits! It was so good to escape the prison of my own misery.

After a respite sleep, my second visitors called late in the day, my son and daughter, carrying a host of cards and presents, keen to chat and share their day in Oxford and lunch at the Cherwell Boathouse – http://www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk/ The restaurant choice was inspired by a conversation on Twitter, with the delightful and quite wonderful Josh Spero.

The weather was good and I was so pleased they continued with the planned birthday events as there is such pleasure in sharing these precious moments. I hope I will get to visit there myself some day, when my treatment is over and recovery assured.

Cherwell Boathouse

I have been profoundly moved by the comfort and support of family and good friends, who have weathered these stormy times during my treatment for breast cancer, without a murmur of discontent. I am blessed indeed.

My final image is of the restaurant that so impressed my son and daughter, as they dined and gazed out at punters on the river Cherwell at the Cherwell Boathouse, which seems to my mind, the epitomy of elegance, redolent of the finest of our English customs and traditions.

cherwell boathouse 2

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

Marcel Proust

On Year One Phonic Checks, identifying need and Hyde Park Corner


I am always most pleased to be invited to speak at conferences, seminars, symposiums and to be in London again, for the two fall hand in hand, most naturally and frequently.

I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Westminster Education Forum’s seminar on Assessment and Testing in Primary Schools on Tuesday 27th November. I enjoyed a very enlightening debate and heard some excellent speakers contribute to the agenda, in the most sublime of surroundings – the Caledonian Club on Halkin Street.

The library was most impressive and I would have been terribly happy, curled before the huge fire, reading from one of its fine selection of biographies, drinking coffee, eating those lovely shortbread biscuits, if it were not for an agenda to consider, and my contribution…


Ballroom at the Caledonian Club

So, here is my contribution to the panel discussion on Year One Phonic Checks. For all those delegates attending the event, this will also form a part of the event transcript out soon.

I have raised my concerns previously regarding the Year 1 phonic checks prior to its implementation, and there is nothing in the results that lead me to believe I should be any less concerned now.

There is much misguided and flawed thinking in the premise behind the Checks – that they may be the best way to raise reading standards and prevent children with poorer skills slipping through the net. I do not in the least believe that to be the case.

The SEN Code of Practice defines special needs as the point at which children require educational provision which is additional to, or otherwise different from, the provision made generally for children of their age.

One of the key points to emerge from Ofsted’s Review of Special Educational Needs and Disability has been that of teachers’ over-identification of special needs, a concern that forms the heart of much of the SEN Green Paper of March 2011.

I’m interested then to note the plethora of editorial comment that points to the need for additional support for some 235,000 children, or the 42% of children taking the phonic check who did not meet the pass mark, for the moment we begin to talk about ‘additional support’ we are talking really of special needs.

Journalists over simplifying a complex issue perhaps, creating alarm at the expense of parental confidence –  but nevertheless, pointing to vast numbers of children who are likely to fail in their reading, if not now, in the near future.

When we raise parental expectations, there is a need to deliver. So, I do not see that it is helpful to have our Education and Childcare Minister, stating that there are “many thousands of children who will now receive the extra support they need to develop a love of reading.”

Actually, I would question – is that a necessary or logical outcome? Is it helpful to set up that expectation? Is that a sensible response, given all the work that has gone before to reduce expectations of support, to move away from teacher’s over-reliance on seeing low attainment as special educational need.

If we want to ensure that children do not slip through the net nor add to our burgeoning special needs registers, there is much that can be done that doesn’t submit six year olds to early experiences of failure, that does not require testing, that affords instead, teachers an opportunity to provide a range of approaches to the teaching of reading, recognizing individual need, difference and learning style.

I do not subscribe to the view that the phonic checks have been set at too high a level, given the pass rate. For some children, the tests will have been set too low – for others, at an unattainable level, even if they were to re-sit them for each of their remaining five years in primary education. The wrong demands are being made of our teaching profession, the wrong questions asked of our young school population.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is to plant the seed of doubt in children’s minds – doubts about their capacity to learn, to understand, to succeed. When a child believes they cannot succeed, they invariably fail.

To raise reading standards there is a need to consider, what are the factors that create the barrier to developing reading skills?  Is it the emergence of a learning difficulty – specific, general, moderate or more complex? Is it a disability – visual impairment, speech and language difficulty, hearing impairment, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Is it disadvantage, poverty and deprivation that hinder that child’s achievement?

In all instances, special educational need, disability, disadvantage – it is understanding that is key – knowledge and understanding of what is really going on in a young child’s life that creates the barrier to learning.  Good teachers have that knowledge at their finger tips – they do not need measures to keep them accountable, but the means to ensure the right support can be given, to the right children and their families, at the right time.

All policies are borne out of a particular climate and context. In these challenging austere times, many families have suffered as their lives and opportunities to enrich their child’s early learning experiences, have been curtailed by economic necessity. Access to public libraries, to visiting library vans, has been significantly reduced. For children living in homes where books are not bought, but loaned, opportunities to grow up in a learning friendly household are severely impacted.

The Year One Phonic Check is a flawed, divisive and crude mechanism for measuring standards. It is poorly thought through, at great public cost, with the capacity to create unnecessary tensions, as it submits many thousands of children to experiences of failure.

I see in the Year One Phonic Check, opportunities, not necessarily to ensure children do not slip through the net, but for the Department for Education to ensure that schools and teachers are compliant, are monitored for their capacity to drive home government policy on the teaching of reading.  That would be fine if what was presented was in any measure, half-way decent, but I do not believe that to be the case.

There is much good, sound, practical advice in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education’s report of July 2011 – Report of the Inquiry into Overcoming Barriers to Literacy – http://www.educationappg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/APPG-for-Education-Literacy-Inquiry-final-report.pdf

It seems a pity the Dept for Education has not heeded that advice.

Thank you

I always enjoy the question and answer session that follows the panel presentations. It is a challenge, often, keeping pace with the questions that are posed from the audience, but that part of the event is highly rewarding.

Speakers I must reference, whose views, comment and insight impressed me highly, include –

  • Professor Peter Tymms, School of Education, Durham University
  • Hazel Danson, Chair, Educaiton & Equality Committee, NUT
  • Alison Peacock, Headteacher, The Wroxham School
  • Professor Dominic Wyse, Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education, University of London
  • Matthew Young, Assessment and Accountability Division, Dept for Education

My final thoughts are of the stunning London landscape that greets the eye on departing from Hyde Park Corner tube station (exit 3) – an area I do not know well at all. On a finer day, there is much here that I wish to explore further. It is really an extraordinarily visually rich corner of London.

So I will leave you with one quotation from the Duke of Wellington, which seems aptly to coincide with my thoughts post-seminar –

All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the  other side of the hill.’