Sending the elevator back down – Reflections on ART Conference 2015

“If you’re lucky enough to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down”

Kevin Spacey

This concept will not be a surprise to any bellringer – indeed it is arguably one of the core beliefs in the Exercise. A good percentage of the ringers round my way regularly support practice nights other than their own, and whilst many do it to advance their own skills, the majority of the more advanced ringers do it to provide support to others.

However the challenges to our traditional model of teaching seem to be increasing – the almost organic development of a ringer from teenage learner to keen peal ringer and conductor to mature tower captain with a wealth of experience to bring to their band, and teaching skills learned over years by observing others, is not nearly as common as we would like to see. If you live in an area where every single tower captain has been ringing over 20 years, and can teach and conduct with ease, then you are very lucky indeed.

The great success of ART has been to design the best teaching schemes they know how to, for use by people who range from experienced teachers, right through to those who are learning very fast on the job, and who in an ideal world would still be novice members of an expert band, not leaders in their own right.

One of the training sessions offered to delegates at the ART Conference 2015 was conducting. The syllabus ran from the basics of where to put the bobs in to create a 120 of Plain Bob Doubles, through to how to put people right in a 720 of Plain Bob Minor by using coursing orders. The 8 trainees ranged from reasonably experienced bob callers to a couple of us who had barely called a single touch. So to cover so much ground over 2×90 minute sessions was a huge challenge and it is a tribute to the quality of teaching skills the ART tutors possess that the whole group made good progress with their understanding of conducting (not just bob calling) and went away enthusiastic and equipped to put in the necessary hundreds of hours of practice we will need to actually become competent.

The AGM section of the Conference (which was too brief to ever feel dull, thanks to Pip Penney’s energetic pace) provided much food for thought. Finances are a priority as the Association draws closer to the Ringing Foundation’s planned withdrawal of support in 2020. Raising the membership fee (currently £5 a year) is an obvious strategy but the management team is keen to broaden membership and experienced ringers (who are needed as mentors to the trainees) might still be firmly of the belief that every aspect of ringing should be priced in pence, not pounds. So the meeting voted to maintain it at £5 but those who really value the fact that membership of ART gives us access to excellent training and networks of people who can really help our home bands, are offered the chance to become “friends”. At £5 per month (still just beer money), a modest 150 of these would completely finance the ART Admin costs.

The short AGM was followed by a double act of Clare McArdle (who leads the Birmingham School of Bellringing) and Tim Sunter who joined as a learner in March having seen it mentioned on Twitter that the shortage of ringers in Birmingham was causing some towers to be silent on Sundays.It was really interesting to hear about the philosophy and management of the school and then immediately hear from a very happy customer. He is cheerfully paying £20 a month for his lessons (“it really isn’t much”) and is very happy to get rewards at each Level (for example Steve Coleman’s book the Method Ringers Companion for those who achieve Level 3) – and Claire explained that the fees enable the school not just to buy trainees books at the right moment, but to give generous donations to the 4 towers who lend their bells to the school every Saturday, and plough back funds into ART each time someone completes Level 5.

It was encouraging to see a sustainable financial model that the customers feel is good value – the school does not seem vulnerable to running out of money and is able to produce really good resources (a lovely brochure, good coffee etc) and give the trainees a positive experience as they start ringing.

Does it work? The 75% retention rate looks very promising. Ringers are already being planted into towers which desperately need them. The first cohort is steadily working its way up the ladder of Levels in the Learning the Ropes scheme.And the trainees get a real kick out of being taught by a team of ringers who include members of Birmingham’s National 12 bell championship band. (If you are new to ringing, this is like David Beckham helping with the 5-a-side club at your local sports centre).

One of the seminars during the Conference was about creating a welcoming belfry (Alison Hodge). It would seem that in Birmingham this is preaching to the converted. In all of 5 towers I rang in, the floors were clean and tidy, the peal boards artfully arranged, and not a single yellowing copy of the Ringing World to be seen…. just useful, tidy collections of books and comfortable places to sit. I know some ringers are very sceptical about such touches but Alison is passionate about the importance of these details, alongside of course good teaching and a friendly welcome.

Alison also gave one of the keynote talks – What does education have to offer us as ringing teachers? About 30% of the audience were in the teaching profession and therefore familiar in passing with some of her content, but it was useful to reflect on our teaching approaches…. do we honestly tailor our style to each learner and actively seek the best ways for them to learn? Do we clearly understand what motivates people and, conversely, what might demotivate them so much they would give up ringing?

Balancing the time available between seminars, breaks (aka networking opportunities) and ringing must be a tough challenge for the Conference organisers but the availability of a not-too-extortionate hotel a mile from the venue enabled some of us who had come from afar to stay through from Friday to Sunday. Friday night’s ringing mostly hit the “uncomplicated but well struck” note with Pip and others having their first taste of Grandsire Minor (Oh! That was fun!) and an opportunity (sadly rare for some of us) to ring a plain course of Cambridge Major with a stander-behind of the David Beckham variety.

The breaks on Saturday were a chance to chat to several senior members of the Central Council and one Ringing Foundation Director – good to see cross-fertilisation of ideas going on, and on-going good relationships between these national bodies.

The sole tower grab on Saturday (a pre-dinner treat) was the lovely 10 at Northfield right behind our conference centre. The sun was streaming into the ground floor ring and we went through in batches of 10 to ring Grandsire Caters and Call Changes. Again a reminder of the eclectic nature of ART’s Membership – some top level ringers, others yet to get ropesight on 10, but all mutually supportive and keen to see teach and learn.

The Saturday Night dinner was brilliant – order pub grub and sit where you like. We circulated, networked and munched and hatched grand plans…. somewhere along the line my plan to have a lazy breakfast on Sunday morphed into an early start to get to Birmingham Cathedral for an eye popping 8.30 start….. and ringing so lovely I would have happily sat on the grass outside and listened but no, ropes were provided for us to join in the call changes with a black zone band containing familiar faces from the ART Conference!

We joined the band for coffee and discussion of the challenges being experienced at intermediate levels in Birmingham. The top end is reaching great heights, winning championships, composing ever more beautiful peals, and those starting their ringing lives are well served by the ringing school. But the stages in between are still work in progress. “We send down the elevator but we have to send it more and more floors before anyone is there”. Sounds familiar?

Next stop was St Martin in the Fields, and for us visitors a touch of Grandsire Caters. I was definitely from a lot of floors down but it is a tremendous inspiration that, after slogging away for several years to get experience of 10 bell ringing, I can actually take part in ringing with such a band…. sitting listening to the service touch of Grandsire Cinques was just as pleasurable but with zero stress!

After the second session of the conducting course and a pub lunch, back home to ponder the ideas hatched from a weekend spent with ART, and with members of the blank zone, and what can be achieved when there is a significant overlap between the two.

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