Nine years ago alum Sarah Rowles set up Q-Art, an organisation that seeks to break down barriers to the arts. From her experiences at a school on special measures to finding her feet at university, Sarah tells us what led to the creation of Q-Art and how she hopes to make a difference.
Tell us about your background
I grew up in Lancing, and went to the local comprehensive school. It was on special measures the whole time I was there. At a guess I’d say only 30 or so students went to sixth form, and about half that onto higher education – and it was a huge school with about 1,000 students.
There was a pretty high turnover of teaching staff and lessons were often disrupted by other students. By the time many of the classes had settled down there wasn’t much time left for any teaching and so although there were some exceptions, much of what I learned took place in my own time after school had finished. I worked every day after school to get myself through my GCSE’s.
I had good biology and art teachers but I felt frustrated by the environment. A private school called Lancing College sat on the hill in the same town as my school, but the students there never even came into the town and we never went up there. The newspapers used to report on how their students had got straight A’s in a whole variety of subjects that weren’t even offered at my school. I felt quite early on that there was some sort of injustice happening. I desperately wanted to access to the quality of education they had and knew I would have excelled if I’d had the same opportunities.
I didn’t know anyone who had been to university, including my parents, so it was difficult to know what to do when I finished school. It’s that saying, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. One teacher actively told me not to go to art school in London as he said it was pretentious and I wouldn’t fit in. After my week with the Sutton Trust, another teacher really pushed us to apply for Oxford as he thought that would make the local paper, and the school’s reputation would improve.
What was your experience as a Sutton Trust student?
At the outset I didn’t really know what the Summer School was. I got handed a form by a teacher, who told me to fill it out as it was a great opportunity. Once I was accepted I found out that the Oxford Summer School I’d applied for clashed with the school band tour – it was one of the few field trips my school offered and it was a highlight of the year. One of the music teachers tried to discourage me and others from going to Oxford, but I had a hunch it would be worthwhile.
I remember being sent a copy of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, a book of poems by Wordsworth, and The Tempest. I didn’t have a clue what James Joyce was talking about but I felt touched to have been sent books that we had to read in advance. My overriding memory is of sitting in these grand old buildings, and feeling like I was being asked to really think for the first time in my life. I enjoyed the experience immensely and overall, it confirmed for me that I could go to university and that I could aim for a top one. I’m still in touch with a few others from my cohort, which is nice!
Tell us about your university experience, and your career since
It took me a little while to get my university course right. When I was at school my local librarian in Lancing was doing an Open University course on art history, and she used to loan me her books. So, I started out studying art history at Goldsmiths. I stuck that out for a year before I realised that I really wanted to be making art, so I did a foundation course at Camberwell, and then managed to get into the Goldsmiths fine arts BA. It was such an achievement – I’d interviewed there before I did the foundation course, and I think that being rejected first time around made me want to prove them wrong!
The fine art course was great but I didn’t really feel like I belonged, and I wanted to try to change that. I started Q-Art, the organisation I still run now, while I was at Goldsmiths. Our aim is to break down the barriers to art education and contemporary art. I started out by producing publications to demystify the art world for students, but they’ve also ended up being a valuable resource for teachers in helping to develop their teaching practice.
In the nine years that I’ve been running Q-Art, we’ve worked with about 10,000 people and 120 schools, colleges, universities and other arts organisations. We’ve also run about 70 crits – an art-world term that refers to when artists present their work to a group to gain feedback on how that work is being ‘read’ and ways that they might develop it further. And we’ve published five books which have sold over 5,000 copies in the UK and overseas. Now we’re doing things like cross-sector symposia, through which we explore some of the issues raised in the publications and aim to untangle some of the barriers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds face.
I’m also in my first year of a professional doctorate at the Institute for Education and I’m using Q-Art as the basis of my research. I’m excited about where it could go – I have been thinking a lot lately about how we might learn from international models of arts education.
Do you have any advice for young people?
I’m a really big fan of following your interests. For me the fact that university is so expensive now makes it tricky – but in addition to subject knowledge what it offers is essentially social capital. I feel like going to university opened up a whole other world of work and opportunity. While it’s not for everyone, it gave me the opportunity to see something other than what was in front of me in Lancing, and I wouldn’t trade my experience of that for the world.