Written by Mica Jayne Coleman Jones
On Thursday 27th April 2023, I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet HRH Princess Anne, accompanied by Shahida Aslam. My partner and sister also attended with me.
I was fortunate to receive the Festival of Learning Patron’s Award for 2022 thanks to Shahida’s nomination during my third year of Master’s study at Edge Hill University. Admittedly, when I first learnt of this, I did not realise that Shahida’s application had been read and selected by Princess Anne herself as Patron of Learning and Work Institute.
I began to experience the feelings I had when I received the Helena Kennedy Foundation Award in 2009. As a Trustee of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, I am familiar with reading and scoring applications for bursaries and I am painfully aware of the challenging circumstances so many face to access education. Awarding bursaries is easy; it is easy to tell someone that they have been successful. The difficult part is saying no. Not because it isn’t deserved, but simply because there are currently more applications than bursaries available. For me, I have lived my story and normalised my experiences. It can feel unusual when others find my journey an extraordinary accomplishment.
Unfortunately, Princess Anne was unable to attend the awards ceremony but I was pleased to have met Maggie Galliers CBE, President of the Learning and Work Institute and strong advocate of access and progression to higher education, who presented the award on HRH’s behalf. I did not expect to be given another opportunity to meet HRH despite being told by Maggie and others that it would likely happen. I was proved wrong when an invitation to attend an ‘Art for the People’ reception at City Lit College arrived.
Closer to the event came the programme and protocol with guidance for greeting HRH. I felt worried. I knew how to talk about barriers in education, but felt less confident in conversation about the ‘arts’. My misguided preconception of the arts meant that I believed I had nothing to offer in this area.
The day came, and we were told to wait in the gallery space for the arrival of HRH as this would be where she would be introduced to a number of guests including myself. The gallery space hosted Stephen Iliffe’s ‘Deaf Mosaic’ exhibition, and we were surrounded by beautiful portraits and stories of a diverse community proving that ‘with the right support, deaf people can do anything.’ Viewers were prompted to engage in thought-provoking conversations about how the arts facilitate communication and expression. I was reminded of many wonderful pupils I have had the privilege to teach in specialist and mainstream schools and the ways they applied their imagination and creativity in daily life.
Flashing blue lights outside of the building, and a sudden coming together of key staff standing in straight lines, indicated the arrival of HRH. This was my first time seeing a Royal in person and I was not sure what to expect despite the assurances given to me. After an introduction as HRH’s Patron Award winner, I held out my hand and told HRH it was nice to meet her. To my surprise, we quickly engaged in a conversation about education and social care; how the two areas could work more closely together for the
benefit of everyone. I also spoke of my ambition to open a neurodiverse-inclusive school; a school which starts with universal design for everyone. I felt sure that HRH must have experienced hundreds of similar conversations, but I was comforted by her desire to engage in our discussion nevertheless before moving on to greet my guests and ask them about their careers.
Eventually, we moved into the theatre as Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute welcomed everyone with a reliably engaging introduction to the day’s programme. Following Stephen, HRH gave a speech and presented me with my award. After, we enjoyed a Q&A session with Will Gompertz, former BBC Arts Editor and
Director of Arts and Learning at the Barbican, Dame Evelyn Glennie, world’s premier solo percussionist, and Mark Malcolmson CBE, Principal and Chief Executive of City Lit College.
The Q&A became a powerful debate about inclusion in education and the power of the arts in transforming lives. Thanks to the panel of speakers, I came to realise the ‘arts’ as more than a phrase used with panache; it is a tool for exploring who we are, how we experience the world around us, and finding ways to express those feelings. I learnt that engaging in the arts can encourage experimentation, boost confidence and facilitate restorative thinking. It is all around us and lends itself to the study of science more than first realised.
Meeting HRH was certainly a lifetime highlight, but attending the Art for the People event became a personal trigger point for action. As a consultant and trainer working in education, I am sometimes a witness to unequal access to creativity and culture for children and young people, and the
uneven distribution of information and resources to promote creative and cultural education.
With enormous thanks to the staff at Learning and Work Institute, Festival of Learning, and City Lit College for hosting the Art for the People event and collectively promoting a kinder world where differences are celebrated and encouraged, I feel encouraged to pursue my ambition to set up a school for neurodivergent children and young people. The Lilya Lighthouse Education Trust was created in memory of my autistic sister who also had a passion for music and art, and I feel duty-bound to ensure that the arts become a vital part of our educational ethos.
I also want to thank Shahida and her personal mission to inspire individual growth, particularly in
HKF students like myself. Shahida’s unwavering
confidence in others to achieve and do well has had a rippling effect on the wider community. I only hope I can do for others what Shahida has done for me.