‘I wouldn’t last very long here’

On the stroke of 9am on a crisp autumn morning, Jacqueline Bruton-Simmonds, headmistress of Jubilee Primary School in Hackney, stands in the playground and rings a big old-fashioned bell. More than 400 children, the majority black and brown, form themselves into orderly lines while mothers – some in burkas and others almost children themselves – bid them farewell.

A child tugs at the head’s sleeve. “Miss, the moon is still out.” He points at the sky. Sweetly, she agrees that it is.

Beside her in the playground, looking outlandish on account of his great height, stands Sandy Nairne, director of London’s National Portrait Gallery for the past decade. He is here for the day as part of a “job swap” initiative organised by the Cultural Learning Alliance, set up to ensure that children have more culture in their lives. The idea is that senior people working in arts and education spend a day shadowing each other, getting to know how they work and finding new ways of introducing the young to culture.

I am shadowing this pair on a mission of my own, trying to find out which job is harder: looking after 450 young children or tending to 10,000 priceless yet lifeless adults in frames.

Both jobs, it seems, involve bell-ringing. Nairne declares that there are bells where he works too, only they are rung at the end of the day to persuade people to go home. This is the first of various parallels between the humble school and the mighty gallery. The budgets of both are similar (both get about £3m a year in public money), both are answerable to statutory boards of governors (though Nairne has the deputy prime minister on his). And both work 11-hour days.

Though the school day is just beginning, the headmistress has been hard at it for some time. “Headteachers have two jobs,” she says. “We are managers and we teach children. We have to squeeze it in. It’s frustrating.”

The first meeting of that day was at 8am, when the senior staff – five women and one man – gather in a cramped room adorned with a washbasin, packet of ginger nuts and a portrait of the headmistress, drawn with a confident hand in magic marker. Out of her head rises a scribble of steam. The artist, it appears, was about six.

Bruton-Simmonds leads the meeting with a gentle sense of purpose. Three-quarters of the children don’t have English as a first language, and the school has more than its share of special needs – but it also has a growing number of affluent white middle class children from groovy Stoke Newington nearby. In the 18 years she has been running it, Jubilee has gone from sink school to somewhere posh parents fight for places.

Today talk moves briskly through teacher training to the endless need for appraisal – of the school, the children and each other. It’s hard for outsiders to follow because of the alphabet soup of education acronyms – NQTs, SATs, SLDs WSAs and so on. Easier to grasp is the discussion about heating: if they can spend less money heating the flimsy 1970s building, there is more to be spent on the children.

Next door in the head’s office – a cramped room in which her tiny desk is jammed into a corner to make room for two others – a phone rings. “That’ll be an angry parent,” she says, sighing. Only it turns out it isn’t and the meeting continues. The next item on the agenda is a new member of support staff, sent from an agency, who pitched up five minutes late. “Has anyone spoken to him about that?” the headmistress asks. “We need to explain that we don’t do lateness.” The tone is soft but if I were him I wouldn’t be late again. Ever.

After the meeting she leads the way around the school, past classes where older children are silently doing tests, and younger ones are playing with little bits of spaghetti in shallow trays of water. It is colourful, orderly, happy. I feel a strange urge to sit down on the carpet cross-legged myself and start shouting out odd and even numbers with the six-year-olds.

Instead I inspect a washing line on which paper shirts are hung, each bearing the word of an emotion: “curious”, “envious”, “tired”, “energetic”. Each child has attached their names peg to the feeling that best suits them that day. That way the teacher knows if any of the 30 need particular attention. A scheme I suggest that Nairne could adopt with his staff too. He agrees.

“Beautiful sitting!” she tells a group of five-year-olds as she passes.

She leads us past an “ecology garden” to a new building where some older pupils have been at work on the new school logo. The resulting design – in which the word “Jubilee” is written with fireworks going off around the “i” – is at least as good as the sort of thing the private sector pays millions for, while the explanation offered by one 10-year-old pupil, that the logo had to be “exciting, creative and energetic”, is a paragon of clarity, given the pretentious tosh that most adults talk about logos.

“I’m so excited I’d give you a kiss, but it would embarrass you,” the head says.

It is Black History Week and a visitor in African dress is telling a class about tigers, while reggae plays. On the wall is a display, which has as its centrepiece a postcard that catches Nairne’s eye. “It’s Diallo!”

The picture, “Ayuba Suleiman Diallo”, painted in 1733 by William Hoare of Bath, is the earliest known portrait of a freed slave. It is also one the National Portrait Gallery lost a protracted battle to buy last year, though it now has the picture on loan. I think the west African man with the Koran hung around his neck looks a little surprised to find himself on the wall of an east London school right next to a photo of the pouting black singer Ms Dynamite.

On every other wall is art done by the children themselves. The head explains why this sort of thing matters: “By getting people in touch with creativity, you give them a rock. It’s a way of touching their inner spirit,” she says. One colourful display has been done in the manner of British sculptor Tony Cragg. “I gave him his first exhibition,” Nairne remarks.

We enter another classroom where older children are learning about Charles Darwin. Nairne holds up a reproduction of a portrait of the scientist that hangs in his gallery and asks the class to describe it. A forest of arms go up and the children point out that Darwin is old (“Yes”, says the gallery director), that he has a long beard (“He does”), that he is sad because he is dead (“Hmm, ye-ess”), that he is disappointed because his daughter died (“Possibly”), that he has put his coat on because he’s off to Madagascar (“Could be”).

Nairne then focuses their attention on Darwin’s hat and coat, and tells the children how Darwin did his thinking walking around his garden, and in the portrait looks as if he had been interrupted on one of his walks. Every child in the class is listening, saucer-eyed.

Back in the meeting room, the gallery director concludes that there is an important difference between his job and that of the headmistress. In the school everything is done in public – in front of children, parents, governors – whereas most of his work is done behind closed doors, in a private dress rehearsal. “I wouldn’t last very long here,” he says.

It is taking its toll on the headmistress too. “I feel more stressed every year,” she says. “I’m terrified of not doing a good enough job. If I didn’t change someone’s life today, I beat myself up.”

Two weeks earlier, arriving at the offices of the National Portrait Gallery behind Trafalgar Square, Bruton-Simmonds has different anxieties. “I’m not in this world,” she tells me later. “This is about famous people. I work in a different environment.”

One look at Nairne’s office reveals that most of us work in a different environment, too. Above the fireplace, a large oil portrait by Thomas Lawrence bears down, and between the two square-paned windows hangs an Ida Kar photograph of an artist looking dreamily out to sea. The room is neither especially big nor especially smart, but contains a jumble of things of great beauty.

The director is explaining how the previous day, just as he was arriving at the press conference to announce next year’s Lucian Freud exhibition, the lender of one of the most important paintings in the show pulled out. “We’re hoping this person can be turned back around.” he says, not looking especially bothered. Evidently this sort of thing happens all the time.

He scoops up a pile of papers and leads the way, up and down the stairs in the rabbit warren of offices behind the gallery, his long legs taking him at a pace so swift that we trot to keep up. In an attic boardroom, around a mahogany table, a dozen of his most senior staff wait. Nairne settles himself at one end and starts to rattle through the agenda: “Equality and diversity training – was that good? Yes? Excellent! Nick, anything on internal audit? Nope?”

Nairne is the son of Sir Patrick Nairne, a senior civil servant, and has inherited the mandarin manner: he is intelligent, brisk, patrician. Next to him sits Jacob Simon, chief curator for 30 years, who appears able to throw in incisive remarks while at the same time leafing at speed through a stack of catalogues.

The director tells the team how good visitor numbers were over the summer – the BP award show attracted 336,500 visitors, 10 per cent more than the year before. “It’s great – but we don’t quite know why. Was it word of mouth?” Or maybe, he adds, it was the picture of the nudist beach which inspired one member of the public to strip off in front of it.

They discuss whether the gallery should collaborate with Google in its Art Project. They discuss the LED lighting, and how it makes some of the pictures look blue. They talk about plans to have different levels of humidity in different rooms.

A member of staff then mentions, in an oddly matter-of-fact way, that there was a small fire at the gallery the previous weekend in which a water heater ignited in a kitchen. The systems all worked; the blaze was discovered at once and extinguished. Nairne asks for all staff to be congratulated and inquiries into the blaze are ordered.

During the meeting everyone says something but nobody feels moved to speak irrelevantly or unnecessarily. I’m reminded of the meeting in the school: in both places the staff are an intelligent, committed group of people who have been there for a long time, who know what they are doing and appear to like each other.

After lunch Nairne returns to his office for a meeting with a pair of television producers who have come to try to get the gallery’s backing for a reality TV show. He and his deputy listen carefully to what strikes me as a rather appealing mixture of low-brow and high-brow, involving celebrities, competitions and some real art.

“We are devoted to more people doing portraits,” Nairne says, sounding cautiously encouraging, but pointing out that it can be uphill work to get famous people to sit for portraits. The National Portrait Gallery commissions four portraits a year and it took 14 years to get VS Naipaul to sit. Judi Dench was so busy she could only sit once and so the artist had to work from 350 photos.

It occurs to me that running the National Portrait Gallery is much like running anything else – only the decor is better. There is the internal audit, external audit, the investment committee and the corporate risk register. Nairne says, “My job is providing a clear story for the gallery, and that story is about inspiration. This is an institution about people. Portraiture is a museum of people.”

Actually, the job is a lot more than that. It’s also about detail and meetings and travelling – and talking lenders around, not to mention trying to restructure the gallery into a trust to give it more autonomy over its funding. To get it all done, Nairne starts work at 6.30 that morning and, when we leave at 5pm, he still has another four hours to go.

“Don’t you ever get stressed?” the headteacher asks him. “Most of the time I don’t,” he says. “Yesterday went wrong but I wasn’t stressed as there is only so much to do. The management team run the place. All of them are really good.”

Bruton-Simmonds has a theory about why he is calmer than she is, and it is nothing to do with their respective jobs. “It’s upbringing,” she says. “Sandy was always destined to be a great person. I’m a Hackney girl. My parents are from Russia and Poland, Jews on the run. I wasn’t allowed to go to university. I wasn’t meant to make it.”

We have found a seat under a portrait of John Major, who looks on forgivingly as she tells me that she is not tempted to exchange the former prime minister and the other 9,999 other portraits for her children. There are, however, a few things about Nairne’s job that she is envious of. “He’s got a secretary,” she says, as if this were the most extraordinary thing she’d ever heard. “And today I had the first lunch break I’ve ever had! How amazing is that?”

‘ImagineNation: the Case for Cultural Learning’ (Cultural Learning Alliance) was published on Thursday and is available at www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk

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