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Kim Waldock and the Royal Opera House

Orchestra pit and auditorium of the ROH

In 2015, Kim Waldock, at that time Director of Learning and Engagement for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, was appointed by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to be its new General Manager of the Learning and Participation team. Two years later, how has she found working in another environment and what lessons has she learned?

February 2015 my phone rang: ‘It’s Jillian Barker from the Royal Opera House. I would like you to come and be my new General Manager. ‘A life-changing conversation had me breaking the news to my family, friends and colleagues that I was heading to London to learn from ‘the big boys’.

I had been managing a team of five at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO), driving the educational arm of the orchestra, implementing and devising programs to educate our audiences, develop our young artists, professional learning and resource support for teachers, programming schools’ concerts, developing new community access opportunities to support our regional and international touring. I had been working in the Australian Curriculum Creative Arts writing team and undertaking some research for Symphony Services International on best practice in conductor training around the world.

Kim Waldock

I was not sure of the specifics of my new role, other than overseeing the operational, compliance and HR issues created by a team about nine times larger than my current one, spread over two geographical locations. Nor was I planning to replicate the sort of educational work I had been doing for the SSO in terms of writing for and training teachers. After 22 years in classrooms, then reinventing myself as Arts Administrator for an additional seven, I was at a stage in my career where I was thinking ‘what next?’ This was the Royal Opera House!! My chance to develop a new suite of skills in opera and ballet while living in one of the world’s cultural capitals!

Three months later I approached the Covent Garden stage door for the first time. Responsible for an enormous (by Australian standards) budget and initiating change management strategies for a large number of programs delivered by a team of 43 spread across two geographical sites, I was apprehensive. But I was sharing a building with the world’s great ballet and opera companies, and the guy in the lift looked suspiciously like Bryn Terfel!

The Board had recently approved a new strategy for Learning and Participation (L&P). The ROH has a mandate to provide across-UK access to our performances, which we do via our cinema and live streaming. L&P had to refocus beyond greater London to meet a new set of aspirational national targets by 2020. So beyond the operational needs of our team, my role was to implement effective change management along those lines and help turn the boat around.

The arts education climate here is grim, and fallout from the new English Baccalaureate has been significant. Daily, schools cut music provision and staff because of funding and pressures from standardised testing. Sadly, school leaders here do appreciate the value of arts-based-learning, but feel too pressured by standardised testing and league tables to do anything meaningful with it.

L&P’s new philosophy is to ‘deepen impact and widen learning for all through access to excellence in ballet, opera and theatre craft’. The team has four subgroups: education teams at Covent Garden and Thurrock [outer London], the archivists and an Arts Council funded Bridge team. Bridges build relationships that connect arts and educational organisations in meaningful partnerships. All teams work to provide meaningful engagement opportunities for people of all ages with our art forms. L&P offerings include a four year ballet program for children in areas of cultural deprivation; a Youth Opera Company; two non-auditioned community choruses; community engagement team; a digital firsts team which is devising new ways of unpacking our repertoire for a worldwide, online audience; ballet for the blind; an Insights program team engaging in adult learning and pre-concert work; teacher training; an arts rejuvenation program in Thurrock, and a number of festivals throughout the season. And now we have targets and an obligation to address the dire circumstances of arts education across the country.

So we launched National Nutcracker, a creative dance challenge for primary schools, training teachers in the choreography basics required to devise a dance with their class. The winning class attends The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Opera House, the others see it in a local cinema. Most Aussie teachers I know would baulk if asked to undertake a ballet program in their classrooms, partly because of a lack of training in dance, and general preconceptions about the elitism and therefore inaccessibility of ballet. I came to England believing there would be a more open approach to the arts in schools and I was right. Here, the participating teachers, though nervous and in a number of cases conscripted by their department heads, danced and choreographed and delivered. All the pilot schools sent us a video! Whilst not quite the standard of the Royal Ballet, students used movement to creatively tell a story. Dressed in their finest Christmas attire, participating students watched the Royal Ballet’s performance and they loved it.

Teachers training for National Nutcracker

Thus our digital, in-school initiatives were born, an access point to those disadvantaged by geographical isolation across the U.K. Learning from my own false perceptions, I am also asking Australian teachers to trial these new resources.

Underpinning all ROH educational initiatives is the notion we must play to our strengths and focus on dramatic singing, ballet or theatre craft. We do not create general music or dance materials – because there are already thousands of those of variable quality on the internet. Our work features ROH artists and distinct brand of quality and excellence associated with the main stage work. We equip teachers with the skills to deliver effective singing and dance programs in their school, brokering partnerships with local education providers to ensure ongoing support and recruitment. Our first online learning course for adults was created in partnership with the Victoria and Albert museum and London University. We are learning from the marketing strategy of the This Girl Can campaign encouraging women to do regular physical activity. Who would have thought doing Nutcracker would be a means for schools to access the government’s sugar tax money grants? And the key to school uptake of these long-term quality programs is to create non-prescriptive, flexible classroom modules. This learning I will definitely be taking home with me.

Two years on, I have trained over 500 teachers and am considered almost revolutionary in my style of workshop because I talk about transferable pedagogy, going beyond the actual lesson materials shared. That surprised me and shook my earlier ‘grass-is-greener’ perceptions about arts education in the UK. Many programs are high in entertainment but low in learning, leave a memory not a legacy, and have teachers asking ‘but what is the next step?’ Answering this is my next challenge.

I know from my experience with Australian arts education that our networks and programs are strong, punching above our weight in many aspects of what we do. But if we want to make a difference we cannot do it alone. As I learn about the value of partnerships and the potential that lies in unlikely pairings, I plan to encourage organisations to look beyond their siloed practices and consider the possibilities of aspiring together. I am convinced about the potential of digital learning, and user needs which will inform new creative projects. Sure, working with a brand name that opens doors and a budget that would buy a small settlement in regional NSW may have made me a tad starry-eyed, but I do think the fundamental principles, once I can figure out a convincing strategic proposal, may be the greatest legacy of my time here to share with my colleagues on my return.

Kim Waldock, © 2017

All photos courtesy of the Royal Opera House

The magic of the pit at a school matinee.

Baston Primary – National Nutcracker winning school attend a performance at the ROH with dancer David Pickering


A house full of school kids waiting the matinee to start