room 13 01bFirst of all I would ask you to visualise two works of art.

Rice River, by Rosie Flannigan, is a four by five foot canvas covered in rice, showing a curve of white rice with a dark shore outlined against a background of rice painted black. It is tranquil and absorbing.

9.11, by Jodie Fraser, is six foot square, made with over three thousand burnt match-sticks, one for each person who died in the attack on the Twin Towers, scattered over the canvas and clouded over with pale blue and grey.

The second was exhibited at Tate Modern in 2003. Both have frequently been taken for the work of adult artists, but when they were painted Jodie was eleven years old and Rosie was ten.

What age can you start being an artist? is a half-hour TV programme, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2004 and short-listed for the Grierson award for the best documentary on the arts. It was made by the above-mentioned Rosie Flannigan and her friend Ami Cameron, who were provided with equipment and professional advice from Emma Davie, a Channel 4 representative. Emma was police checked so she could accompany the children out of school during school time and she taught them the art of film editing, but otherwise left them to their own devices.

Jodie, Rosie and Ami were at Caol Primary School, just outside Fort William. They are not the only children from the school with such astonishing achievements. The corridors are lined with fine works of art. On the wall in the art studio there are two CVs. The one for Danielle Souness, born in 1992, reads:


Danielle Souness (1992 - )


Artist in Residence posts:

  • 2004 to present Lochaber High School Room 13
  • 2005 Museum of Modern Art Dublin


  • 2002 Collaborative Project with Peter Haining. West Highland Museum
  • 2002 Two woman show (with Jodie Fraser) West Highland Museum
  • 2002 Barbie prize. Royal College of Art. London
  • 2003 One Woman Show. West Highland Museum
  • Artworks. Tate Modern. London
  • 2004 Kingly Court Gallery, London
  • 2005 Eden Court Theatre, Inverness

Exhibitions curated

  • 1999 Scottish Contemporary Art 1 (including Paolozzi, Morroco, Knox etc) in Caol Primary School Gallery
  • 2000 Scottish Contemporary Art 2 in Caol Primary School Gallery
  • 2001 Peter Haining 'Recent Drawings' from the Museum of Modern Art in Ireland, in Caol Primary School Gallery.
  • 2002 Room 13 Studio Retrospective in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery and the West Highland Museum, Fort William
  • 2002 Co-curated Thirteen Hands Crafts Exhibition. To tour Britain until 2004


  • Art Education: exploration in identity, power and regulation to be published in 2004 edited by Dennis Atkinson / Paul Dash
  • 'What Age Can You Start Being An Artist'? West Highland Museum 2003

Selected Articles

  • Young Art Lucy Sweet Sunday Times 17th Nov 2002
  • John Innes Scotsman 6th Dec 2002
  • Young Masters Craig Mclean Telegraph Magazine 8th March 2003
  • Kids stay in the Picture Waldemar Januszcak Sunday Times July 13th 2003


  • Director of 'What Age Can You Start Being An Artist?' a Room13/ZCZ production for Channel 4, January 2004. Short-listed for a Grierson Award in the category for best Arts documentary 2004.


  • Delegate at the NCA/NUT conference Creativity in Education. Tate Gallery. London. July 2002
  • Delegate at Children in Scotland's conference. Young People in Management. Stirling Sept 2002
  • Delegate at Hi Arts conference Fort William, June 2003
  • Delegate 'Creative Heads' conference, Dartington Hall, Creative Partnerships, December 2003
  • Delegate at International Democratic Education Conference, Bhubaneswar, December 2004



All this activity springs from Room 13, the independent art room tucked away at one end of the top floor of the school.

room 13 2bThe very phrase "independent art room" raises questions. How can an art room inside a state primary school be independent? How can the children escape from their time-tabled classes to attend this independent institution? How can the staff get paid?

The story of the beginning of Room 13 provides the necessary answers. Rob Fairley, the artist in residence, was originally employed as artist in residence to the whole area around Fort William in 1994. When the funding ran out, the children from Caol Primary asked how they could make him come back to them, and he said that would be easy - all they had to do was pay him. He came in for one day a week, and by taking and selling school photographs and postcards and other more typical fund-raising the children managed to buy their own paints and occasionally pay him a little. Catriona Jackson, the eleven-year-old who was managing director of Room 13 in 1999/2000 applied to the Scottish Arts Council for a grant of £19,000 and with this employed Rob and another artist, Wendy Sutherland, on a job share. Various private companies were also very supportive, and Room 13 also received occasional lump sums from Enterprise Scotland.

Then in 2002 Caol won £20,000 for the Barbie Prize, which is sometimes described as the junior Turner. The current treasurer wanted to give it all to Rob, but the management team decided that instead it should be used to benefit the entire school. It bought a reserve of materials and is now used as the basis for funding travel.

"When I came," said Miss Cattanach, the head of the school, when she spoke to me," he only worked on a Friday. On a voluntary basis, basically. There was very little financial input. And sooner or later he found he was involved in a project that he wanted to see through, and then, bit by bit - 'Do you mind if I come in an extra afternoon? Do you mind if I come in an extra day?' - And slowly but surely it built up - and it has to have grown really quickly, because that was only six years ago."

Rob is now in school all day; children are of course free to go to Room 13 in break times, after lunch and after school, but they are also allowed to leave their classes to go to Room 13 whenever they have finished their day's work and have permission from their teacher. In Primary 7, the top group, they don't even have to wait for permission; they can just "go through", as it is termed, whenever they want.

For years Rob was working, as Miss Cattanach said, virtually on a voluntary basis, but this changed in 2003 when Danielle Souness and Eileen Innes approached NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, with an application for a grant of £250,000 over three years, "to extend the present project from the existing one school to embrace a firm geographical base of three full time units in neighbouring primary schools and in time to open a further one in the local secondary school." The two girls filled in the fourteen-page proposal form with only the same sort of advice as anyone else would have needed when faced by such an unfamiliar task, and after a good deal of discussion, involving many emails between Fort William and London, they received a grant of £200,000, which they are now administering themselves, submitting invoices to NESTA as the money becomes needed. At last Rob is being paid a sensible salary. Rosie told me, "The good thing about having the NESTA money is that this is the first year not having to pay Mr. Fairley's wages. The project is now secure for the next three years, so we can experiment a lot more."

After the three years are over, the future of Room 13 may depend on the Crannog project, a £64 million scheme for developing a waterside retail and cultural centre at Fort William. For Finlay Finlayson, the local businessman backing Crannog, a Room 13 headquarters would be an essential part of the development. Children from Caol Primary School have been involved in the planning, and there is a map of the proposed development on the wall in Room 13 itself.

room 13 3bIn providing answers to my original three questions I have introduced another element of Room 13 that at first seems frankly incredible. It is run by a management team of children who really write the cheques, keep the accounts, write the letters, answer the emails and write applications for a quarter of a million pounds. They have access to a balance of £20,000 in their bank account, mainly from art awards, but also from business transactions like the sale of DVDs of the Channel 4 film at £10 each, and the school photographs raise £500 - £800 a year.

In the Channel 4 film Ami Cameron, the managing director, says, "As managing director I have to run meetings and organise them, I have to keep the room well-stocked with paint, paint-brushes etcetera, I have to keep the letters and emails up to date and we have to Christmas cards, sell postcards, T-shirts and bags and we do our own school photographs to raise money. I also have to make sure everyone tidies up, and I have to manage the room as well."

To outsiders this seems amazing, but to the children it seems normal. "They do it without thinking," said Miss Cattanach. "They don't see anything remarkable about that. I mean, 'What's the fuss? So we write letters. Doesn't everybody?'"

I have visited schools all over the world which children are thought to running themselves, but all of them have adult staff to deal with the secretarial and financial affairs. Why? Room 13 raises the question.

After I had first heard of Room 13 I wrote to ask whether I could come and spend some time there, and I sent a copy of my book, Real Education: Varieties of Freedom, to introduce myself. For a long time I had no reply, so after the summer holidays of 2003 I emailed again. I had been involved in the appointment of a director for the Phoenix Education Trust, and knew that Anna Leatherdale, eventually the successful candidate, had given Danielle Souness, then aged eleven, as one of her referees. I also wanted Room 13 to join the International Democratic Education Network (IDEN) which I run, and thought they might be interested in attending one of the annual International Democratic Education Conferences (IDECs). I was delighted to receive this reply:


Dear Mr Gribble,

After Danielle was a referee for Anna she said she was sure that you had contacted her at the end of the summer about a conference in America.

She said she had printed out your e mail and would bring it in. We now have a copy and think the IDE network is very important. It seems to be something very similar to what we are slowly building up....a group of schools who all think the same way.

We have two Room 13s in Fort William and this will soon be joined by a third and we have similar projects in Glasgow, Rotherham and Bristol. These are independant from us but we are working to bring them into a loose grouping. We also have schools in Nepal and India we work with and they will be added to by schools in Tibet and Bangladesh.

When you first e mailed us Mr Fairley was away with some of the older Room 13 people in India. We would certainly be interested in joining IDEN and wonder if you could be so kind as to send an attachment which gives the application form again.....if you have not given up on us.

We would be very interested in going to the next conference in India and think we might be able to fit it into what we have already planned. Hope your foot is getting better and we ARE looking forward to meeting you.

Ami Cameron and Rosie Flannigan

MD and Treasurer of Room 13


(My foot comes into the email because I had said that I would not be fit enough to come for a while because I had cracked my pelvis.

room 13 4b

I eventually spent three days there in March 2004, staying with Rob Fairley and Fiona Marwick in their croft some twenty miles away. At the school I was looked after by Ami and Rosie; I watched what was going on and chatted and recorded interviews with children. In the evenings I talked for hours with Rob and Fiona. All this was not enough. I went back for another week in December, while Rob was away with some of the older students at the IDEC in India, and I began to understand what is going on.

I must start by describing what I saw.

Room 13 itself is as untidy as any professional artist's studio. There are finished and unfinished canvases propped up in several different places. There is a sink full of not very well-washed brushes and paint trays. In addition there are two sets of book-shelves, three computers, a desk for the treasure and the secretary, a shelf of files labelled "Letters," "Receipts and Invoices," "Lucy's emails," "History of Room 13 Photo Album," "Orders," "Minutes" and so on, and a few insecure chairs and battered arm-chairs, a step-ladder for children painting canvases too large for them to be able to reach the top and a number of pin-boards with a huge variety of information ranging from posters for art exhibitions to a rather crumpled list of rules.

During my first visit I made notes of what was going on in the studio. Some extracts will show how difficult it was to form any overall opinion.



Thursday afternoon

  • Eleven people present
  • Cameron and Nick preparing a power-point presentation about the school council on a computer, scanning something; Nick goes off to get stationery.
  • One girl with a bit of A3 drawing a lot of red stick men.
  • Rosie and Ami painting two canvases with black acrylic, trying various ways to get it even. Rob offers advice.
  • A girl reading Mega Sleep-over Club.
  • Rosie keeping everybody in order, fairly strictly


  • Sean sitting on the top of a step-ladder with a piece of paper and a ruler.
  • Another girl talking to him.


  • Another boy in conversation with Rosie.


  • A girl and a boy together are painting a foot-square piece of board white; it had been painted before, and has a bumpy surface.
  • The girl doing the stick men is scribbling over them - just doodling, she said, when I asked her.
  • Dean has asked how many countries I have visited and lots of people listened to the answers.
  • Stephanie came in to chat with the red stick-man girl.
  • Lucy and a friend are going off to take photographs of "nothing" for the cover of some document. The "nothing" has to be bright-coloured and apparently abstract. They have a digital camera. Their eight best pictures will be submitted (I think with others) to whoever it is who has commissioned the project. (Scottish Arts Council)
  • Cameron comes in with a pack of pages of the Annual Report.
  • Lots of people go off to extra gym.
  • Sean was, as far as I can see, drawing a maze. He has gone to help collate the pages of the Annual Report.
  • Ami and Rosie have finished their painting. Ami is at a computer.


  • Stephanie has noticed that my biro is running out and has got me another one from a drawer without me asking. Rosie has told Cameron off for leaving the drawer open.
  • Ami says "This is a typical afternoon with everyone shouting at everyone else." When I asked if it would be different if Mr. Fairley were there she said yes, everyone would be good. (It didn't actually seem to me to be particularly unruly.)
  • Mr. Fairley has come back with a middle-aged woman. The room is quieter and several people have left.


  • Ami has been called over to talk to Rob's visitor.
  • Only five people left now.
  • The wee photographers are back. Lucy has put the camera batteries into the recharger. The other is painting a brown castle on dark grey paper. Lucy starts drawing in pastel on the same sort of dark grey paper.
  • Three children on chairs, three on the floor.
  • Then two on chairs, two on the floor, two standing.
  • Then to the previous arrangement, which was due in part to Ami suggesting a helpful way of separating complete copies of the annual report, which is 30 pages long.
  • 2.50 Rosie and Ami have gone (to singing?)


  • Lucy is now also painting a castle, but she already has a white pastel moon up in one corner. As yet it is just a tower, and looks rather good. My guess is that she will go right across the page and seem a bit clumsy, like the other one. Now I see that the other one has a white moon too.
  • Cameron and Nick are discussing whose computer can cope with the size of the powerpoint presentation.
  • Lucy's friend is doing a black sky with a roller - it can't go between the battlements or up to the moon.
  • Lucy's castle has a big gateway in the middle (or perhaps it is just somewhere to hold the paper without getting paint on her hand)
  • 3.00 Five people left, all working with concentration.
  • Lucy is painting in the space she had left.
  • Rosie and Ami are back with two messages from the office, one of them about an attempt to pay in a cheque which has been refused because there is no sort code (?)


End of school.


  • Lucy's friend is filling in the space between the battlements with her fingers and seemed to me to have finished her painting, but now she is drawing a red gate over the top.
  • Rosie has come to say goodbye to me as she won't be here tomorrow.
  • Everyone has gone except Lucy's friend, but two other girls have come up.
  • Lucy's friend is adding windows.
  • Lunch break on Friday
  • Lucy and her friend are adjusting their photographs on the computer.
  • Some very small boys are collecting masses of paints and using very little.
  • Two girls are painting A3 sheets, over and over again, in swirls of colour.


  • When the bell goes, Ami gets a mop to try to clear up a crushed blue pastel on the floor.
  • Everyone else left before or just after the bell, except Lucy.
  • A parcel arrives containing a new camcorder. Ami opens it and starts reading the instructions.
  • Ami gives out A3 paper to two boys and a girl.
  • Jennifer McCleod is sitting in an armchair glumly eating an apple.
  • Ami read the rules (!) to three boys and has a bit of an argument.


  • Jennifer, wearing a very painty sweater, has started painting her white board (the square that was being painted white yesterday). She has drawn on it carefully in biro, and now she is painting round a shape in blue.
  • 2.45
  • Jennifer has finished her piece - it is blue and green round the outside of a white circle. She explained that this was an inversion of the usual cartoon of the world, which has a blue and green globe in the centre. In her white circle she has written all the days of the week, muddled up, because nobody likes school.
  • Lucy and her friend are painting now - apparently coloured rectangles.
  • Ami is keeping order.
  • A boy is reading the National Geographic.


  • Lucy's picture is now a purple circle on a dark green background.
  • Several boys are rather waiting for the end of school.


  • John MacGillivray has only just started coming to Room 13. He has done a picture called "Money isn't everything." He took me to see it in his classroom. It is 1p and 2p coins on a dark blue background, like stars in the sky. Money isn't everything, he explained, you have your family and other things that are more important. He did his picture because Mr. Fairley said "good art doesn't need to take a while." It had only taken him one afternoon. For his next work he wants to break a bottle and stick the bits on canvas to reflect the sun, but he doesn't know what to call it, and the broken glass may be dangerous.
  • Lucy's painting now has orange revealed by scraping away paint.



Most of the time I was the only adult in the room, and I was in an inconspicuous corner sheltered by a book-case. That is one of the extraordinary things about my observations. Another is that when the parcel arrived containing the new camcorder it was one of the children who unpacked it and began to read the instructions. Another is that two eight-year-old girls were allowed to take a school digital camera wherever they liked, and that they were later able to work on their photographs at the computer. (I asked Rob what their designs were to be used for, and he told me it was probably the cover for the corporate report for the Scottish Arts Council. Other direct commissions had come at different times from Scottish Natural Heritage, The Guardian, the Scottish Arts Council, Grounds for Learning, the West Highland Museum and the Highland Council.)

Room 13Another extraordinary thing is that the children had prepared and printed a thirty-page annual report, which they were now collating. Another is that the two boys were preparing a powerpoint presentation to show the parents. And another is, of course, the extraordinary variety of artistic activity. All this without adult control, and almost without adult supervision.

During my second visit I felt, for some reason, that there was not as much art work in the room as there had been when I first visited. It was a new school year, so perhaps there was a less experienced top group. I decided to make a list of all the works I could see, with brief descriptions, but I gave up when I had reached twenty. A few examples may give an idea of the range of the work, and the ready acceptance of whatever it is that the children may have to offer:

  • A blobby brown creature with dots on it, on a plain green background under an unfinished dark blue sky.
  • Patches of colour with writing in some of them, for instance, "Do you think you are lucky to be alive" and, "Death kill blood money."
  • Two textured backgrounds made by screwing up a canvas and then spraying it green before stretching it on the frame. This gives a vivid, 3-dimensional effect.
  • A glorious, rough, red sky above a strip of sand - real sand - and a large expanse of dried grass and lawn weeds.
  • Yellow Chinese symbols on a dark red background. The biggest symbol, which is repeated, means "love".
  • Three photographs one above the other; the top two are landscapes, and the bottom one is a dead lamb.

There is no censorship of the children's work, either in terms of quality or subject-matter, except for a rule, decided by the management group in 2001, that says, "No bedroom door signs. No football slogans. No 'silly' cards. No cartoons. No pouring paint on to paper, card or canvas just to make a pretty mess."

Joanne Kane told me that she liked to come to Room 13 to talk to Mr. Fairley, and to ask him what she could do on her canvas. He only tells her, she said, that she has to think of it for herself. I asked Rob himself what sort of guidance or stimulus he gives. "Only my own curiosity," he said. "In as much as I wouldn't go into a professional colleague's studio and expect to proselytise or teach. I would just ask the children questions about their work, and expect to get perfectly reasonable answers. . . So I think in that respect it is just a professional relationship. . . And possibly even in writing workshops when you actually look at a piece of work and then say what you know - 'Do you realise that if it was punctuated this way, or if you missed out those words it would still mean the same thing?' - maybe you'd get the same result more easily. It's still the same sort of criticism."

It occurred to me as I was writing this that Rob's approach reflected the discovery made by George Williamson and Innes Pearse at the Peckham Centre in the 1930s: that "individuals, from infants to old people, resent or fail to show any interest in anything initially presented to them through discipline, regulation or instruction which is another aspect of authority." (Williams and Pearse's report on the first eighteen months of the Peckham Centre, quoted in Alison Stallibrass's book, Being me and Also Us.) The re-emergence of this idea in a society which bases its educational practice on an opposite thesis is enormously important.

Room 13During my second visit I had an enjoyable demonstration of the way the children in the school have absorbed this concept. One day I played the piano to myself in the TV room for a short time at the beginning of lunch break and Lynne Smith, the Primary 7 teacher, and several children came in to listen. Some of them immediately asked for piano lessons, so during lunch I drew a keyboard on the blackboard, labelled the keys with their names and added a few suggestions for simple improvisation. When the children came back no one paid any attention to what I had done. They were not interested in what I wanted to tell them, but only in what they wanted to know for themselves. They wanted to play the piano, which most of them had never done before; I encouraged them to come back and go on experimenting. I hope the resulting noise hasn't driven other people to desperation and resulted in children being forbidden to use the piano. Anne Cameron, for instance, learnt the first two bars of the black-note chopsticks and refused to learn any more. The next day three of her friends spent a few minutes devising a dance to a piece which consisted of this phrase played six or seven times in succession. They were good at following each other's movements, and at the end Anne slowed down and did a rumble in the bass and they all fell to the ground. I wondered whether this corresponded to the children going into the studio and making random patterns in paint and gradually finding more purpose in what they were doing. It seemed possible.

In 2003 Room 13 published a booklet with the same title as the TV programme - What age can you start being an artist? - to coincide with an exhibition of work by Danielle Souness and other Room 13 artists in the West Highland Museum. Much of it is professionally produced, for instance the photographs, which are all taken by Päl Hansen, from Denmark, and an article by Craig McLean reprinted from the Telegraph Magazine, but there is also a piece by Danielle on her own work and an article by Danielle and her friend Kerrie Grant entitled Creative Education, first published in NCA Art News Magazine in 2002. This article ends:


"It would be really good to be in charge of our own education, as we have always had to go with adults thinking, and they don't do the work that they make the rules for. This does NOT mean we do not want to learn, quite the opposite, we would like to find a way which would make learning better and we think that we should be listened to a lot more. Adults often think that we are more stupid and ignorant of what goes on in the world than we really are. We actually DO know what would work."



On the first page of this booklet Jennifer Cattanach is quoted as saying "When I first experienced Room 13 the hairs on the back of my neck stood up." When I had the opportunity I asked her why. It turns out that this first experience had not been of the studio itself.


I was interviewed on a Monday, and appointed the same day, not due to start for another month, and because I was local, on Tuesday I received an invitation to come on Thursday night to a slide show. After they've been on an expedition Rob usually has an information evening for the parents and they show slides and they talk about what they've been up to on the expedition. And I sat there in the canteen that night thinking, "Have I made a mistake? Am I an optimist?" It was just so different, it was just so exciting, so new. It was just - tingle factor. I hadn't seen Room 13 at that point. It was just a slide show of their expedition. But they were talking about things that they did. And yes, it was quite an introduction. They were just talking about how they decide on their expedition, how they organise it, who they involve, what all the responsibilities are, and then there was the slide show, showing what they had done, some of the problems they encountered, and how they dealt with the problems. And on that particular one they were trying to walk across Scotland from West to East, and they didn't actually make it. They had difficulty, they had over-estimated their capabilities and so difficult decisions had to be made, partway through, and they changed their original plan and adapted it, and it was just the discussion and the involvement of the children and the level of decision-making with the children - it was evident right from that point that it was different.

I was for the first time ever setting foot in the school that evening - for the slide show. And the invitation had come from the children, and I thought somebody prompted it, somebody's put them up to it, and then of course it became very evident that no, that wasn't the case, because they were talking about how they had written to the army to organise supplies, food supplies, and so on. And I thought, "They do it themselves," and they genuinely do.

In some way, you see, people think of Room 13 as being art art art, art-driven, and yes, art is a huge part of it, but in other ways the art work's almost insignificant. And there are children up there that don't consider themselves talented in any way artistically, and aren't all that interested in art, but they just want to be part of Room 13, want to be part of the group, want to be part of the decision-making.



During my second visit I asked eleven children a series of questions about why they went to Room 13 and what they valued about it. They had to mark each of a number of possible answers with a response of 0 to 5, where 0 meant of no importance and 5 meant extremely important. To get full value from this little bit of research, you should guess how well each item scored before looking on.

The suggested reasons for going to Room 13 were:

  • To do art work
  • To use the computers
  • Room 13 administration
  • To talk to friends
  • To read
  • To discuss things with Mr. Fairley or Mr. French [Joe French is another
  • Room 13 staff member, splitting his time between Caol, Lochyside and Lochaber High School]
  • To get away from class
  • To avoid having to go out into the playground.

All these suggestions had cropped up in discussions with children during my first visit in the spring. When I asked the questions, individuals added a few others that I had not thought of, including playing chess, learning the guitar, and coming up to clean. As I did not offer these possibilities to the first children I interviewed, I have not been able to record comparable statistics, but five of my eleven interviewees were chess-players.

The things I suggested as perhaps the most important aspects of Room 13 were:

  • Good art materials
  • Choice of what to do
  • Room 13 belongs to us
  • Respect
  • Doing something real (instead of school work)

The additional suggestions from children were the opportunity to go abroad (of which more later) and, "Just learning. When I came up I didn't know how to draw or paint or use computers."

The total scores for the activities I had suggested, expressed as percentages of the maximum score possible, were:-

  • To do art work (85)
  • To use the computers (55)
  • Room 13 administration (53)
  • To talk to friends (27)
  • To read (35)
  • To discuss with Mr. Fairley or Mr. French (75)
  • To get away from class (35)
  • To avoid having to go out into the playground (36

The variation in responses was wide. All of the activities suggested scored 5 from at least one child, except for reading, which however did achieve three 4s. All of them except for art and talking to Rob or Joe French were of no importance to at least one person.

As you would expect, art comes top by a long way. Administration was only important for the children actually working with the management team. Conversation with adults was enormously more important than chatting with friends. The children who wanted to get out of the classroom were mostly the same as those who didn't like going out into the playground, which suggests the desire to get away from the crowd as a common factor.

The total scores for the second set of options were more surprising.

  • Good art materials (78)
  • Choice of what to do (75)
  • Room 13 belongs to us (69)
  • Respect (89)
  • Doing something real (instead of school work) (95)

Good materials, freedom and ownership all score highly, but are still valued far less than respect and purpose. Eleven children from one primary school are hardly a representative sample, but the almost total unanimity should surely carry weight.

The last question I asked had no suggested answers. "In Room 13 children do a lot of things that are normally only done by grown-ups, and some of the art from Room 13 is impossible to tell from grown-up art. What do you need grown-ups for?" The range of answers suggests that although some children see limits to what they can do alone, even in Room 13, others don't agree.

  • Adults are no better than children. We can do it ourselves.
  • They think they're better than us.
  • Adults aren't important
  • Miss Smith has been telling the children about their responsibilities and giving them freedom, so they have a new self-confidence.
  • Helping to do the chess, helping to find books, keeping things tidy. Children sometimes do when an adult asks. Two or three times a week there is a major tidy; sometimes people get sent for to help tidy, or pack up pictures for exhibitions.
  • Grown-ups come to do the same things as the children.
  • Mr. Fairley mucks about with people's minds. He says when you are eight you are blind.
  • Adults are needed for help.
  • It would work without any grown-ups at all. Unless you want help you are left alone.
  • Some people only come up when it's cold outside, or to spy on the people outside. This can be a nuisance. If they're being too noisy we tell them to go. If it's an adult, they go first time, but if it's me or Hayley they don't go first time.
  • Mr. Fairley and Mr. French do help, but they're not important. Other adults don't help us much.
  • We could manage without them.

Given these contradictory messages, I tried to determine exactly how far the management team is really in control over everything that happens. Lucy MacGillivray, the current Managing Director, was away, but I was able to persuade Stephen Mitchell, the chair, to allow me to see the minutes of their recent meetings.


Here are some extracts:

(Extracts from the minutes of Room13 meetings)


8th September

Room 13

Lucy said that we should start to look at the London Exhibition and it was decided to get Aardvark to come and get the work and take it to London. it was also decided that we should be the centre for collecting and that Lochyside [the other primary school in Fort William with a Room 13] should get their stuff to us. Lucy said she would get Mr. Fairley to book sleeper tickets as it might need his Visa card.

We decided that Hayley or Nikki should go to the opening and that one person from Lochyside should go.

Lucy said that she wanted to go and bring the pictures back but thought she would find it difficult to get the time off, and instead Stephen should go.

We then discussed fund-raising. Advent Calendars, Christmas cards, postcards and mouse mats made in the shape of a mousehole.


September 22nd

A big discussion on what paintings had to go to London. It was sort of decided. If Nikki is going to be one of the main artists then we thought that she should go to London at the start of the show and speak to Channel 4 about the new film.

A big discussion on the ordering of materials and Hayley said she would look after getting this done.

Eileen and Ann said they would see about getting people to tidy the sink and Lucy said that Mr. Fairley had been complaining about food being left in the studio.


November 3rd

Nikki told us about the exhibition in London and her meeting with Jan Younghusband in Channel 4. She told us that the Ch 4 building was amazing and that the meeting went really quite well. The night before Mike [Mike Lerner from ZCZ films, the company behind the Ch4 film] had been introduced to Rod [from a big international company interested in Room 13] and they had talked about the South Africa studios and how all sorts of people could get involved, people like UNESCO and Nelson Mandela. Mike was sure that if we can get the film ordered by Ch 4 that he could get free tickets from British Airways. Nikki is going to discuss things with Rosie and Ami and then write a plan for Jan.



When I had arrived I had seen a new notice on the door forbidding food and drink in Room 13. I asked several people who had made this rule; one person said the management team, another said Lucy and Mr. Fairley, another just said it was obviously necessary because of the mess - as Stephen Mitchell said, "People come up with their lunch and then they stick their rubbish down the side of the seats and eventually there's packets all over the place." The rule seemed to be being well kept, without adult supervision.

I asked Anne Cameron, the secretary, about how the fund-raising suggestions had been progressing, and she said, "They haven't started doing anything yet because we're supposed to have a meeting every week, but it hasn't been happening because Mr. Fairley's away in India for a conference so we can't really do it for now. We're waiting for him to come back." But then, when I asked her how much they depended on Mr. Fairley she said, "Well, he isn't anything to do with the management team, but it's quite good having him around with us."

Stephen's explanation made this all clearer. "He's actually rather important because he talks about all the things we're going to be talking about and he explains, and then we start." When they start, Mr. Fairley leaves.

Michelle Love, an ex-director, told me how the meetings are arranged.

They meet up together because Lucy, one of the people, managing director or something like that, she tells Miss Cattanach or Mrs McClellan to put, "There's a management team on in the Science and Tech at one o'clock," and it says it round the school when they get the yellow folder, so everyone knows there's a management team because then the teacher reads it out.

When I interviewed Eilidh Innes Mr. Fairley came into the conversation fairly frequently. She did not want to be recorded, so her comments are not verbatim, but she told me, for instance, that Mr. Fairley takes her to the bank, and taught her what to do as Treasurer. If he really likes a painting, she said, he won't sell it. He helps with trips abroad - not, you notice, "he organises trips abroad," but nevertheless Eilidh thought that if he left there would not be so many trips abroad. He sometimes makes people pick up stuff when the management team hasn't succeeded. If they wanted to, the management team could sack him. He has nothing to do with the management team, he just makes sure everything is done, and does it himself if no one else is there to do it. He wants to make sure everyone knows how to manage things if he was to leave.

Room 13During my second visit, when Rob was away, I saw how Joe French behaved in much the same way. Hayley Boomer was sitting at the office desk in Room 13 dealing with the day's correspondence. She had to cope with a cheque for £500, a bank statement with a £75 debit unaccounted for and an order for Christmas cards. The only reason I know this is that she asked for Joe's advice about each of them. This seemed different from my previous visit, when I had the impression that Rosie, the then treasurer, would have handled all these matters on her own. The difference can be excused, because Hayley was new to the job, standing in for Eilidh who was recovering from an operation. Nikki Donnelly, who came in another day to deal with correspondence in lunch break, also asked Joe's advice, but it was Nikki who was actually handling the business.

I attended an after-school meeting with Rosie and Ami, two older girls from the High School and Joe and Lynne. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the proposal for the new film for Channel 4. There were emails to answer from both Channel 4 and the company proposing to support the operation. Another member of staff who should have been there was absent, and the meeting seemed unfocussed, but at the end of it Ami wrote the two emails and Joe read them and approved.

During my first visit I had interviewed Cameron MacKenzie about the new School Council, of which he was the chair, and the secretary. The conversation shows their assurance and effectiveness.


Cameron: Pupil council started last year, and it really helps like school problems like playgrounds and toilets. In a wee while we're going to be focussing on the toilets, we're going to fix them up, paint them and maybe hang pictures. The classes put forward their ideas and we meet every second Wednesday at one o'clock. There's two members from Primary 4, two from primary 5, three from Primary 6 and three from Primary 7.

DG: Have you decided some things that have happened already? The toilets you are going to decide about, but have you decided on some things that have already happened?

Cameron: Well, we're focussing on the playground just now, because people from Caol in Bloom, that's like people with the community that are interesting and more exciting, they've come and helped us and we're going to plant flowers and things and games outside. We were going to put the games out today but it was a bit too windy.

DG: You've already bought the games?

Cameron: There's a few games that have already been bought but there's a lot more to come, so that'll be interesting.

DG: How many teachers are there at the school council?

Cameron: Well, there's usually Mrs. Smith, that's the Primary 7 teacher and Miss Cattanach, that's the head teacher, but sometimes one of them can't make it, but that's not a problem. Even if there's no teachers there we can fire on ahead. But it's pupil run and pupil based, and so . . .

DG: Can you actually decide things, rather than just saying "It would be nice to have some new equipment in the playground." Can you say "We will have some new equipment in the playground"?

Cameron: Last year it wasn't a very good success. We tried to do too many things at once. So there wasn't a lot being done. We kept saying we will do this, we will do that, but it never got done, but this year's been a lot better. We managed to do a lot of things.

DG: This is just the second year.

Cameron: Yeah. The second year.

DG: And as secretary, what do you have to do?

Sec: Just write down notes on the meeting, what people think, and type them up at the end of the meeting and photocopy them and put them round the school and things like that.

DG: Everybody in the school sees the minutes of the meetings?

Sec: Aye, most everyone. On the notice-boards when they're opened up. It depends if they look at it.

DG: Are those people interested?

Sec: Aye. Most people, I'd say. Most people have got really good ideas about how they want the playground to be.

Cameron: Some people just ignore it and don't take any heed of it. Their problem.

DG: Are there other things you've got plans for the future to talk about?

Cameron: As I said we're focussing on the playground, so the next one will definitely be the toilets. I'm not just saying definitely, I mean it.

DG: And after that anything, do you know?

Cameron: No, well, because it's near the end of the term.

DG: Could you tell me about the powerpoint presentation?

Sec: It's a presentation we've just been working on. It's one just telling the school what we're doing in the playground and the school to see so that we can publicise it a bit more.

Cameron: We're going to take it to the community centre just down the road there to view it there with a projector so that the parents and teachers can see more of what we're really going to be doing. So they can have their say and things like that.




When I discussed the School Council with Lynne she told me that she thought it was less effective this year, and she herself had to push the children to take things forward. It reminded me of a question I had asked Rob in an email after my first visit, "Does a lot happen without being discussed in the management group?" Rob's reply was, ". . . This varies from year to year. Two years ago Fiona would run everything past a management meeting. Danielle ran it almost as a dictatorship and Rosie and Ami

room 13 10b

sit comfortably between the extremes." The striking thing about this reply is that Rob completely missed the implication of my question, which was that adults might sometimes make decisions without consulting the children. He obviously found any such an idea inconceivable.

The influence of Room 13 spreads throughout the school. At the time of my first visit Lochyside, the Roman Catholic primary school in Fort William, had just begun to develop its Room 13 under the guidance of the Caol management team. Clare Gibb, the artist in residence, had already worked in Caol. The novelty of it made the differences more conspicuous. I met Connor Gillies, the Lochyside Room 13 Chairman, who told me of some of the changes: people had started to look forward to coming to school, because they knew Room 13 was there; his own work had improved; the teachers, although not really involved, had come to think more highly of their pupils, and to allow more choice; there was, he said, less "Do this, do that."

When I met Danielle Souness, who had already moved on to the High School, I asked her whether it would be possible to have a whole School 13, where the atmosphere was the same throughout the school. "That's what it is a bit at Caol," she said. "Most of the top floor, because we've got Room 13, Science and Technology, the TV room and Miss Smith's classroom. Every room's different but they've still got creative ways."

Science and Technology is the room where classes are brought to use computers, and the TV room has a big screen which can be used, among other things, for PlayStation games in break times.

Lynne Smith's classroom is for Primary 7; that is where the children can walk out of a lesson and go to Room 13 whenever they like, as long as their work is up to date. This expression seems to be very broadly interpreted. This is what Rosie and Ami told me about it in a recorded conversation in the studio:


Rosie: You can just come in here to read, or you can sit and talk, or like if you're not feeling well you can just come in and do things like relax even though it's probably quieter in the classroom, it doesn't really matter.

DG: I've seen you here the whole of yesterday, I think, and all today so far. So do you even know what's happening in the classroom at the moment?

Rosie: No. You just go in there after school. You go in for five minutes or something and you catch up with your work in five or ten minutes.

DG: Are you in Room 13 often for as much of the time as this?

Ami: Yes. We're usually in quite a lot.

DG: Nearly all day?

Ami: Yes. While we were making the film we didn't go to any class at all. We just went after school to get our work.

DG: Did you feel you were missing anything?

Ami: No, no. Well, there was maths and that, that I think I didn't really understand, and I think we had pie-graphs which I had never done before, but the teacher sat with us for about five minutes to show us and that was OK.


Yet what goes on in Lynne Smith's classroom is unusually interesting. This is the voice of Anne Cameron:


"She makes it more fun to get taught because she makes things more interesting. She doesn't like doing work that's just boring. She doesn't like doing just the same things so she tries and makes us do articles and that, research on the news and that, and we've been watching about all the different stuff on the news."


James Robb said:


"If you respect Miss Smith she'll respect you and respect gives you freedom. Before Primary 7 you would be told what to do and then you'd have to snap, do it really quickly, or the teacher would shout at you, but in Primary 7 the difference is you get extra time if you forgot to do your homework, so you get your time to do that and then time to do your language and maths and then you'll get a computer time as well."


Another pupil told me:


"Miss Smith doesn't want us to waste time on things we already know. She makes everything interesting."



Lynne herself, who had taught for thirteen years, four of them at Caol, said that when she arrived at Caol she didn't have to change, because she was at last able to be the way she had always wanted to be. She used to think she was doing it all wrong, and had to be a proper teacher. She used to have spelling tests and lining up in the

room 13

corridors and she used to ask lots of questions, she said, but now she can justify what she likes doing and no longer does those things. She does her best to make sure that the children in her class do not waste time either (a) sitting about doing nothing ("listening") or (b) doing work that means nothing to them. She even allows children to eat fruit in her classes - something no other teacher in the school allows.

"There must be a place in every school," she told me, "where the whole school can have an opinion, think the unthinkable, make mistakes, be themselves, not expected to be an average child to fit in the group, freedom to use materials that artists would use (including dictionaries), a place where they are respected as the person they are."

By the time of my visits, Lynne and Rob were working as a team, and would often change places. Rob's work in the classroom was described to me by the children as "chatting". When Rob was with them, they chatted, for instance about current affairs.

Current affairs was one of the two most unusual subjects on the curriculum on the top floor, and often had a strong influence on the children's work. (A particularly striking example of this is Jodie Fraser's 9.11 piece.) The other unusual subject is philosophy. Sophie's World is one of the books available in Room 13, and Rob often discusses the ideas of major philosophers with the children. Much of Danielle Souness's work stems from her realisation that you can play with words and the meanings of words; she did a whole series of prints of a picture of a cat with a variety of titles playing on Plato's distinction between the perfect ideal cat and the imperfect individual cats - My cat is a cat, not the cat, for instance. Rob says he starts teaching pure philosophy in a fairly formal way to seven- and eight-year-olds, but finds that two years on they won't understand what he is saying. Then when they are eleven or twelve the interest will re-awaken.

During a school year Lynne usually presents her class with five big questions:

  • What happens to the part of you that is you when you die?
  • What is beyond space?
  • How did the universe begin?
  • When and how will the world end?
  • Why are we here?

Recently she asked her class how many of them had thought about these questions, and most of them had; then she asked how many of them had talked about them with other people, and very few had done so. She gives her pupils time to discuss these questions with each other, and admits that she does not know the answers herself.

Anne Cameron asked her, "May I ask a question? Why do you ask us questions when you don't know the answer?" and in doing so pinpointed one of the curiosities of conventional classroom technique. Ordinary people ask questions not just when they don't know the answer, but precisely because they don't know the answers. Anne had become so used to being asked questions by teachers who already knew the answers that Lynne's admission of ignorance astonished her. It would actually be more reasonable to ask a conventional teacher, "Why do you ask us questions when you already know the answers?" - exactly the opposite of Anne's query. In areas where the children know less than the teachers, it is logical that the children who should ask the questions and the teachers should provide the information. That is what usually happens in Room 13. It is not a place where children are told what to learn and then asked questions to find out whether they have learnt it; it is a place where they do what they want to do, and ask questions when they need help.

The striking fact about these two subjects - current affairs and philosophy - is that they both deal with the children's own concerns. In most schools these subjects are ignored, so the children see the horrors in the news on television and nobody asks them how they feel about it; they worry about the big philosophical questions and never get a chance to discuss them. In Room 13 and the Primary 7 classroom the children have the opportunity to talk, to listen, and to express their ideas in works of art.

The adults do not steer them away from disturbing ideas. Lindsey Martin's photograph of herself wrapped in underlay with rubber gloves over her face was an attempt to create the feeling of lying under the wreckage after 9.11. As Gillian Bowditch wrote in The Observer, this is not the sort of picture of which Mrs. Martin would have said, "That's nice, dear," and then stuck on the door of her fridge. Nor would she have wanted her daughter's triptych, entitled Certo, idem sum qui semper fui (It is certain that I am what I have always been) made of the bones of three dead foxes and the dried maggots scraped off them, with panels underneath painted red for blood and gold for "rest in peace." I doubt whether Nikki Donnelly's family display any of her photographs of dead animals in their sitting-room. And what of the memorial to Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the victims of the Soham murders?

Children think about such things, they worry about them, but they are seldom given the opportunity to express their worries uncensored. Rob Fairley welcomes such expression. It was he who supplied the dead foxes when Lindsey was looking for bones; when an animal dies on his croft it is he who brings in the photographs of dead animals for Nikki to use. It is he who talks with the children about wars and disasters.

Yet there is no pessimism, only acceptance, and there is no feeling that in order to be serious all art work must deal with gloomy subjects. One of the most famous of Room 13's pictures is Rachel Allison's The Magic Yellow Elephant, a gloriously colourful canvas covered with elephants of all colours and all sizes, inspired by the Hindu creation myth which Rob had explained to her class. Lucy McGillivray made a huge, bright, painted collage entitled Everything I have thought of in eight years (except for two dead hamsters). John McGillivray, on being told by Mr. Fairley that "good art doesn't need to take a while," as he said, spent an afternoon painting a dark blue background and sticking 1p and 2p coins to it, like stars in the sky. The work is called Money isn't everything, and he explained to me that family and other things are more important. Rachel, who told me that she was one of the people who had thought about the big questions, said she used to be afraid of dying, but now thinks it's just like going to sleep for ever.

The range of interests encouraged is too wide to describe easily. An indication is the variety of books in the book-case. Art-books dominate, but on a non-art shelf I found this group of books next-door to each other: Children on the Oregon Trail, Finnegan's Wake, Philosophical Problems (actually a book of logic puzzles), Sophie's World, Swallows and Amazons, Martin Pippin in the Daisyfield (a sort of Puck of Pook's Hill) and The Rough Guide to Kenya.

The last title suggests another aspect of Room 13, which is the opportunity to go on expeditions. Jennifer Cattanach described her feelings when she heard about the walk across Scotland on her first visit to the school. Present plans include climbing every highland mountain over 3000 feet in the next two years; some of these expeditions will involve overnight camps. Advertised at the time of my second visit was the chance to go stalking. This was to be no naturalist's observation trip, but would offer the chance to shoot, kill and gralloch a deer. At the bottom of the notice was a warning that you should not take part if you liked killing things. Camping, killing, gralloching are all more examples of the reality that the children of Room 13 are invited to experience, and that, according to the questionnaire I gave them, they so value.

The Barbie Award that they won in 2002 was worth £20,000, but it was not to be used to employ staff. Instead the management team decided to put £4000 towards running costs, and to use the remainder to fund trips to exhibitions and to France. In fact there has yet to be a Room 13 expedition to France, but there may well be a trip to Germany in 2005.

However, their travel has not been limited to Europe. Rob takes pupils of secondary school age to Nepal. The group who had impressed Jennifer Cattanach with their account of their failed trans-Scotland expedition later made a successful expedition to Everest Base Camp. The children and Rob have been involved in setting up a Room 13 in a school in Kathmandu, and a project called "Mountain Spirit", which offers education for women. In 2004 Rob, Claire Gibb and two students went on a month's visit to India, during which they attended the International Democratic Education Conference in Bhubaneshwar, where they gave a presentation about Room 13. Early in 2005 there may be an expedition to South Africa, as described in the management team minutes that I have quoted. The visits to Nepal and India have not been typical tourist visits; the children have lived among local people and have seen the shattering poverty. Here, too, they are allowed to experience reality.

All that I have so far described is about the opportunities for children who are or have been at Caol Primary School. The money from NESTA is being used to expand the initiative to other schools. There are now three staff involved - Rob Fairley at Caol, Clare Gibb at Lochyside and Joe French visiting both primary schools and also the new Room 13 being set up in Lochaber High School. (The High School has been persuaded to open a Room 13 firstly as a special needs unit, and secondly to ease the transition from primary to secondary. Danielle Souness, now a pupil at the school, has been appointed as artist in residence.)

Claire, who joined Room 13 straight from school, worked at Caol with Rob before she went to Lochyside. She was away in India with Rob during my second visit, but I talked to her briefly during my first. She defined Room 13 as "finding different ways of learning, different ways of thinking, being, doing." She sees that philosophy goes hand in hand with art, but for her the essential quality of a Room 13 artist in residence is that she should be a person who is doing work of her own, who can spark enthusiasm and who appreciates what the children do. It is important to Claire that the children should know that they are able to reject adult proposals.

Joe's ideas are a little different again. He is not an artist himself, but a musician, a chess-player and a special needs teacher. These interests mean that he is more active in providing ideas than Rob might be. On the occasion of my second visit, for instance, he was helping the children to organise a chess tournament. I met one of his pupils who had been diagnosed by an educational psychologist as having no memory; by the time I met him he was a successful chess player, and teaching other children how to play. One of Joe's secondary pupils was writing hiphop lyrics and recording them over manipulated musical samples. To another boy, unhappy at home and refusing to come to school, he had given a tent which he could set up on the shore of the loch and keep entirely to himself. If Joe was allowed in, he went in; if not he stayed outside. Sometimes the tent was a boat, sometimes a bus - whatever the boy wanted. He had collected flotsam from the shore of the loch and at the time of my visit he had actually chosen to bring some of it into school, to Room 13, to assemble into a sculpture, which he intended to return to the shore.

I told Joe of the work of Jürg Jegge, the Swiss teacher whose book Dummheit ist lernbar (Stupidity is learnable) propounds the theory that maladjusted behaviour is taught - that you are stupid because you have been told over and over again that you are stupid, that you lie because you are repeatedly told that you are a liar, you steal because you are told you are a thief. Joe and I agreed with Jegge, and we also agreed that everyone, of any age, whatever the appearances may be, actually wants to learn.

The difficulty of defining the Room 13 approach is illustrated by the "Notes on Room 13 Management Structure Proposal" which were pinned to the wall in the studio. (These notes had been produced in response the many requests that had been received for a definition of the ethos of Room 13, so that it could be replicated elsewhere. No one at Caol when I was there could remember who had produced them, but I was assured that much of it looks as though it came from children. )

Notes on Room 13 Management Structure Proposal

It is difficult to write a set of rules for an organisation (even that word seems wrong!) who exist for the purpose of constantly redefining, breaking, bending and disproving set rules which govern the way we think (or are told to think) we should live our lives. We have tried to distil the complex theories of Room 13 into very simple values which we think sum up Room 13.


"Believe in the supreme worth of the individual." (J. D. Rockefeller)

Room 13 puts every individual at the centre of their own learning.

"If I advance, follow me. If I stop, push me. If I fall, inspire me." (Robert Cushing)

So say the students of Room 13.

"A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle." (Erin Majors)

There is no distinction between learning and teaching. Both aspects of Room 13 are continually reciprocal.

Respect the intelligence of all others.

"Of course we all have our limits, but how can you possibly find your boundaries unless you explore as far and as wide as you possibly can?" (A. E. Hotchner)

Encourage exploration, experiment, and all areas of enquiry.

Mutual trust and respect.

Treat every person as one who has thoughts and experiences different to yours and recognise their potential as one you can learn from.

A personal commitment.

Enter Room 13 in any capacity and accept your responsibility to impart what you have learned about life to those who are seeking answers to their own questions. You owe it to them to be honest.


Share the benefits of your experience - but be careful not to impose them. You may know that a certain activity will end in disaster or that a proposed solution will fail comprehensively but others will benefit from finding out for themselves. Only intervene if there is likely to be dangerous or potentially serious irreversible consequences. Even then, intervention should be just enough to subtly steer participants towards a more appropriate line of thinking.

Integrity and self worth.


As Room 13 spreads, it is bound to change. However, it is not being allowed to change too much. Some Caol children had recently visited one primary school which had expressed an interest in starting a Room 13. These are quotations from their report on their visit:

The teachers looked as if they would be very interested but when we got to know them we found out they wouldn't give two monkeys.

We ESTIMATE that about 75% of the teachers were crabit and moody, 10% were very nice and the rest were in between.

The proposal for a Room 13 at a school in Rotherham has fallen through. Nevertheless, there are new Room 13s planned. As well as in Lochyside and Lochaber High School there are now Room 13s at Hareclive Primary School in Bristol, in the Sacred heart Primary School in Glasgow (a music studio with a composer in residence) and in a school/orphanage (The Helpless Children's Mother Centre in Kathmandu. Other possibilities are a school in Skye and a school in Johannesburg, under the auspices of a London-based company who were moved to react after seeing the Room 13 film, and who have in fact expressed a wish to set up a Room 13 in every country in which they operate, which means another sixty countries.

When you consider that, in addition to all this, Room 13 is involved in organising exhibitions in London and Inverness, negotiating a new film for Channel 4, selling school photographs, booklets and CDs, publishing postcards and printing T-shirts and selling them, writing reports for organisations like Children in Scotland and the National Campaign for the Arts, planning a Room 13 qualification and perhaps even a degree course as well as managing the day-to-day running of the studio, dealing with correspondence and accounts and purchasing materials and equipment, it is difficult to see how one small, part-time management group of any age can ever cope with it all. Nevertheless, when you see what the children are achieving now with minimal adult assistance - clearly without adult interference or authority - it is still possible to hope that greater numbers of children will mean greater potential, and that they will be able to ensure that future Room 13s remain true to the original ideals.

If I were asked to describe the Room 13 approach in a single phrase, I would say it was a profound manifestation of trust. Children are trusted to do real things, to administer their own studio affairs, to negotiate with adults from outside the school, to weigh up the significance of world events, to face physical difficulties, to formulate and express their own philosophical ideas. Here, as everywhere, different children have different needs: some said that it is useful to have adults around to help but others were sure they could manage everything by themselves.

In a Room 13 children are trusted, no matter how far they may grow beyond the kind of work that their mothers might like to stick on their fridges.

Rob tried to define Room 13 for me in a recorded interview.

Rob: It's a constantly evolving idea. I think it has to be an environment which allows kids to create and learn and I think without these two things Room 13 probably doesn't exist. Of course you can create just by thinking. That is perfectly valid. There's one or two other strands that at the moment exist with all four of us - bear in mind there's Shani in Bristol as well. That's probably a global understanding that we are all in this together, to phrase it in its most dumbed-down version.

DG: We, including the children, are all in this together?

Rob: All of us. It's definitely not a them and us situation. The reason all four of us are working with youngsters is because they've got as much to teach us as we've got to teach them. Possibly more, actually.

Miss Cattanach's understanding of the staff's common approach is that "they have a theory going that they want children to see themselves as people who are respected by people and it doesn't matter whether the people are children or adults."

In the Channel 4 film Rob has another shot at it: "It's just a case of teaching people how to think. It's the one thing that we are different about - we actually think, and we think quite deeply about things. And then all our thinking is transferred into art."

And in the proposal for funding to NESTA, a voice which sounds to me like Danielle's says:


"We are (we hope) changing people's ideas about creativity and what young people can do and (slowly) showing adults that there are other ways of education that work. We also show that the Arts are important in everything. Everybody says we are talented but we are not really, it is just that we do and think about things differently. A newspaper reporter asked us yesterday (March 21st, 03) if we thought we were different from youngsters in other schools. Of course we are not - we just get the chance to work with adults rather than for them."


That seems to be the simplest and clearest definition of all. It is also the most ambitious and optimistic, and it has the widest implications for the whole world of education.

More articles by David Gribble