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$1m award-winning teacher brings high-profile artists and cultural figures into deprived London schools

Andria Zafirakou’s Artists in Residence campaign launches as creative arts are squeezed in UK classrooms

The AIR launch. From left: the author Melvyn Bragg, artist Mark Wallinger, Andria Zafirakou and broadcaster Simon Schama Gareth Harris

The winner of a $1m prize for teaching says she is starting an “arts crusade to fix the problem of arts education in the UK”. Andria Zafirakou, who was named the winner of the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize earlier this year in Dubai, will bring artists, cultural figures and arts organisations into schools located in deprived London boroughs for her Artists in Residence (AIR) initiative.

Zafirakou works as an art and textiles teacher at the Alperton Community School in Brent, an area where over a third of children live in poverty, there are high levels of gang violence, and the murder rate is the second highest in the country.

Her campaign comes at a time of increasing pressure on the teaching of arts in schools throughout England and Wales. The English Baccalaureate qualification requires pupils to study a minimum of seven GCSEs, including maths and a language, but the options do not include any arts subjects. Schools are subsequently forced to concentrate on these core subjects, with arts options increasingly excluded, say campaigners.

At a press briefing held today, Zafirakou called on an “army, artists of all disciplines and backgrounds, to sign up to AIR”. Volunteer artists and creative figures will work with schools for a fixed period, organising talks and bespoke educational events; AIR hopes to sign up “major stars through to grass roots projects”. Zafirakou will use funds from the $1m received for winning the Global Teacher Prize to establish and run the new scheme, but she is also looking for sponsors.

An initial pilot involving 30 London schools will run through the autumn term with the full programme to be launched January 2019. “We expect the initiative to spread throughout the UK in September 2019,” says a statement on the AIR website.

The artist Mark Wallinger and the broadcaster Simon Schama have pledged support for AIR. “It is a fantastic initiative,” Wallinger says. “There is a fairly open discussion about the kind of events I’ll help organise.” In an impassioned speech, Schama said that “the arts are not an add on. The future is about creativity. That is what is left of us when all the functional rubbish falls away. We will stop this philistine rot.” Other backers include the author Melvyn Bragg, the Turner prize winner Jeremy Deller and the actress Meredith Ostrom.