Schools, Squirrels, and Some Sort of Success

A collage of words and the face of a black dog

Epic Fail was a starting point. It was the first time Common Wealth worked with Glan-Yr-Afon Primary School in Llanrumney, a school known for campaigning to prevent its closure in 2018. It set out to explore failure; to consider the pressures, mistakes, and disappointments that can so easily bring us down. More specifically, it was about how year 5 pupils at Glan-Yr-Afon felt about failure. But it was also about bridges. And interruptions. And squirrels.

The project was created by Ed Patrick, aka Kid Carpet, in primary schools in Bristol before it was toured to four schools in Peterborough, Cardiff, Wigan and Stoke. The first time I went to Glan-Yr-Afon was to see the performance on 16 June. I arrived early and was given a quick tour, along with a glimpse of the final rehearsal. It was a seemingly deliberate chaos of games, directions, overlapping conversations, final run throughs, and last minute edits, ending in a high-energy game of duck duck goose, where empty chairs became a source of mild peril, as speed and the desire to return first to the circle took over. Moments later these obstacles were filled. Parents, siblings, friends, teachers, pupils from year 2 and 3 who sat cross-legged on the floor, gazed out in anticipation.

The play began with Kid Carpet putting on a record. As the introduction of Starland Vocal Band’s hit Afternoon Delight played, he strolled across the hall, monologuing about bridges, both literally and metaphorically, from a log over a stream, to water under the bridge, and an obstacle to overcome. This was interrupted each time the vocals kicked in, as he dashed back to reset it, holding us in the instrumental for as long as possible. This repetitive action established him as our guide, someone who is simultaneously in control, and an agent of silliness. Someone with authority, but also someone one to be laughed at, questioned, and possibly dismissed. Behind him the pupils sat in groups, dressed in wigs and lab coats, in ears and tails, in black and gold, in baseball jackets and caps. Inventors, squirrels, dancers, and bounce crew with basket balls. Patiently waiting for their moments.

We were then taken through a series of stories. These detailed different bridges that could be seen as failures in some way; like the squirrel bridge in The Hague that allowed the animals to cross a road safely, but was only used 5 times in the first year; or the Tacoma Bridge in the state of Washington, which opened and collapsed in 1940; or the Millennium Footbridge (Wobbly Bridge) in London, which was quickly closed and not reopened until two years later. Told by Kid Carpet, these stories were constantly interrupted by singing, questioning, advert breaks, dancing, origami and a stream of nonsensical inventions. Whether it was the invention of fizzy milk that was inflicted on parents and teachers, a timed challenge for pupils dressed as squirrels to make origami squirrels without any instructions, or video clips advertising peanut escalators, magnetic gloves, rubber duck bikes, and candy floss safes; these were the moments for the pupils to bring their personalities, concerns and humour into the show. Mixing affirmations with jokes, they shared ways of looking after themselves and others, from giving someone a hug to having a big kebab.

The whole performance created an energy, an infectious excitement that felt like a celebration. When it was over someone said it was the best school play they had ever seen, that it was much better than any of the ones their own children had been in. Someone else said that it was more untidy than the previous day’s performance, but that it was better, had better energy. It was clear that it meant a lot to Glan-Yr-Afon, as teachers reflected in the moment on the change in certain pupils, how some had grown in confidence and had become excited to come to school. They also said that this activity was something that they could not have done without the external support and expertise that the project brought in.

While Epic Fail sought to change attitudes to failure – to celebrate when you try your best, and feel okay when things go wrong – the tendency to frame things as either a success or failure emerged immediately in conversations after the performance; simplifying the project into a success. It was “soo fun”, “amazing”, “the best”. These kinds of comments get exhaled like a sigh of relief. A sigh that acknowledges the time, work, and energy so many put in, and celebrates all they’ve achieved. But things are not either successes or failures, they can be both. They can be complex webs of perspectives, expectations, and outcomes, meeting some people’s intentions while falling short of others. When Glen-Yr-Afon was threatened with closure the community was successful in keeping it open; however, for Cardiff council this same outcome meant they failed to create a more efficient school system. With so many involved in Epic Fail, from pupils, teachers, artists, facilitators, producers, funders, organisations and institutions, it is a messy constellation of different priorities and agendas, with countless moving parts and incidental impacts.

I don’t believe any project can leave everyone entirely satisfied, without a single note or critical reflection. Especially one that is actively encouraging conversations around failure. All projects are subject to limitations; usually this comes down to time, money, resources, or individual capacity. Epic Fail was in some way limited by its ambition. Touring four schools in the space of 8 months with two weeks in each place to play, experiment and generate ideas, and another two weeks to rehearse and perform. While the creative teams were refreshed in each location, every iteration relied on the energy of the lead artist to instigate and build relationships, to repeat the creative process, and to lead the pupils in the final performances. In the last song in Epic Fail, a video compilation played behind Glan-Yr-Afon pupils, cutting to other groups in different schools, so that they all seemingly came together to sing the infectious earworm Do What You Can.

This uniformity affectively united the schools in the moment, showing the scale of the project and linking Glan-Yr-Afon and Llanrumney to Peterborough, Stoke, and Wigan. But it also raised questions. As a project conceived as a piece of co-creation, how much did each production vary from school to school? What was taken into account and what was left out? And how much was decided before setting foot in each location?

The production at Glan-Yr-Afon was the only time Epic Fail came to Wales. This is significant in many ways, but particularly because our education has been radically redesigned by the new curriculum. Starting this September for pupils up to year 6, it aims to modernise approaches to learning, adding digital literacy to its core aims, building resilience in pupils, making them adaptable to shifts in life and the world, focusing more on skills and purpose, rather than specific content and information. This means teachers can respond to their local context and individual pupils, moving from an output-focused system to one that celebrates process and progression. In other words, moving away from the binaries of success and failure, into the more ambiguous murky reality that better reflects living.

For teachers at Glan-Yr-Afon, Epic Fail acted as an early activation of this, a source of inspiration for what can be done in their classrooms, and a glimpse at what increased freedom can mean for specific pupils. In a mirror of the curriculum, the subject of failure didn’t feel like the important part of the project. It was the process, the act of participating, and how this transformed pupils that felt meaningful. This makes failure feel like it is part of another conversation. A conversation away from Glan-Yr-Afon, taking place between arts organisations, academics and artists, who are creating their programmes, research and artworks with it in mind. While this makes it feel somewhat detached, failure was the spark that communicated the project to others before it took place; it helped to form the framework, and enabled the process, participation, interactions, and unanticipated outcomes to emerge.
Like I said at the beginning, Epic Fail was a starting point. It didn’t end with the final bows, or with feedback hastily collected between sips of juice and bites of biscuits, as the chairs got stacked away; it continued. Led by local facilitator Justin Cliffe, the team remained. They continued to work with the pupils, to ask silly questions, to make drawings, to invent things, to create cardboard towns, and most importantly, to continue the process, rather than the subject.

I returned to Glen-Yr-Afon on 11 August to get a glimpse of this first hand. Through my notes and initial drafts, I had been critically considering my perspective as yet another person outside the local context, whose task was to share something that I did not participate in. Aware of this inbuilt failure, I devised a workshop, an invitation for pupils to select, edit, reconstruct, and reject my words, and to create something new. Inspired by the cut-up poems created by Dada artists in the 20th Century, I provided packs of my notes, pick-and-mix bags, and scissors so that pupils could cut up my words, place them in the bag, and pick out at random, forming nonsense collages that reassembled what I had written. It also included their own words, alongside text and images from the magazine Your Dog, which was found in the art room that morning.

I had hoped that this activity would be a way for me to lose ownership of my words, to hand them over to those who participated. I thought that these pieces could exist in place of this text, showing something that met my definition of co-creation rather than explaining it. In keeping with the spirit of Epic Fail, the reality didn’t quite meet this aim. It was clear afterwards that, just like the new curriculum, the physical outcome wasn’t the most important part. It was the process.

This text is illustrated with cut up poems by year 5 pupils, made from a combination of Sophie’s notes and ‘Your Dog’ magazine, created in a Dada poetry workshop on 11 August 2022.