Cheltenham Festivals play on!

Ali Mawle, director of learning and public engagement at Cheltenham Festivals

Ali Mawle, director of learning and public engagement at Cheltenham Festivals - Credit: Phil Stevens

Our beloved Cheltenham Festivals have been put on hold during the coronavirus crisis – but they’re as busy as ever! Their creative education work has been providing solace for young and old alike during lockdown. July is traditionally Cheltenham Music Festival month: Katie Jarvis spoke with Ali Mawle, the festivals’ director of learning and public engagement, about how we can all benefit from their work

Primary school children enjoying Cheltenham Literature Festival. Photo: Phil Stevens

Primary school children enjoying Cheltenham Literature Festival. Photo: Phil Stevens - Credit: Archant

Ali, tell us about your education programmes and why you decided to release them to a wider audience.

Our education programmes always respond to a specific local or national need within the industries we work in – music, literature and science. Although much of our work is with children and schools, we know the creative arts can be brilliant for the well-being of people of any age – and promoting well-being has become more important than ever during lockdown. So this crisis has given us the opportunity to make our programmes – such as our workshops – more widely available.


Amahla - Credit: Archant

More detail, please!

Caleb Parkin is writer-in-residence on our Beyond Words programme for teenagers who are unable to attend school through mental or physical illness. He had already been making digital content for children too sick to leave their homes, so we were easily able to adapt his creative writing workshops to suit a broader audience – anyone, anywhere of any age. We have been putting them out for free on our YouTube channel [link below] as part of our Well-Being Wednesdays.

We also have Musicate Mondays, where we’ve produced digital bite-size pieces introducing a specific instrument or instrument family, or a particular aspect of music – pulse, rhythm or harmony, for example. They’re also freely available online.

Primary school children exploring the MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival. Photo: Phil Stevens

Primary school children exploring the MakerShack at Cheltenham Science Festival. Photo: Phil Stevens - Credit: Archant

Your education programmes aren’t just a welcome curriculum extra: they change children’s lives…

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We’ve seen that time and again – and we’ve dramatic examples. We have a Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils scheme, where a panel of experts choose five books a year, which we put into teachers’ hands for free. Children who read for pleasure do better in life – and that becomes a social justice issue when they don’t have reading role-models at home; in that situation, their teachers are their gateway to success.

One child on our reading programme had a parent in jail, and really struggled with anger. He discovered that reading enabled him to put words to feelings; to step outside the immediate situation. He told us, “When I read, I feel calm.”

As I’ve mentioned, our Beyond Words programme works with a group of teenagers too sick to go to school. By the age of 14, 60 percent of those not at school are off because of mental health. We had one teenager recover from an anxiety-induced coma, who has now just got into university – a wonderful and extraordinary example.

And then there’s our music education, where we see children who start the year saying “I hate music!” positively grow to love it. They change from being completely switched off, to fizzing excitement.

There’s a terrible irony here: we’re proving in lockdown that creative arts are essential to our mental health; yet creative arts are under threat as never before.

It is a challenge and we’re doing what we can. For example, at the digital jazz festival, we continued to promote emerging artists, such as Rosie Tee and Amahla. We’re still going to run our Composer Academy – a place for emerging composers to workshop their new compositions – but it’s postponed until later in the year: it’s such an important opportunity for them.

We’ve always been big believers in partnership and collaboration, and the current situation has only served to highlight the importance of this. Our latest partnership is with Create Gloucestershire [a county arts network] and Strike A Light [a Gloucester arts organisation]: we’ve put a pot of money together that Gloucestershire artists, who want to make work in response to Covid, can apply to.

How can the public best help artists and cultural organisations?

Arts organisations are under incredible financial stress – it does feel as if we’re fighting for our organisational lives. One of our key messages is that we, in Cheltenham, are 36 days of incredible festivals, and 180 days of year-round activity supporting people who wouldn’t necessarily find the festivals for themselves. We don’t want that to stop. Fundraising is essential to us. We understand that some people can give a lot and some can only give a little – but even a little really helps. The festivals are about community, and I guess this is the time for communities to come together and support the things they care about. Also, we’d love as many people as possible to join us online and respond: encourage us by showing how much you value us!

Cheltenham Festivals have put out some brilliant digital content this year, especially for June’s science festival. The music festival – particularly in terms of musicians performing together – must be more limited in its online options…

Classical music is more difficult because of the challenges of capturing that live experience. But we will be sharing audio-visual content on our website, when the festival would have taken place. That way, people can still celebrate the music festival, even if they can’t be there in person.

You’re clearly a creative person. How have you spent free time in lockdown?

I’ve started learning the guitar. (I’m talking real beginner stuff, just with chords!) I’ve been running for the first time – in fact, I did my first 10k last weekend. And I’ve been reading a lot, particularly as we’ve been choosing the books for our ‘Reading Teachers’ programme – I must have read around 20 children’s books in the past five weeks!

Creativity is all about the imagination. And now, more than ever, we need our imagination to empower us to think differently.


Ali’s recommendations:

Children’s novel: Asha and the Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan

Adult novel: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Classical music: The Swan by Saint-Saëns (on the Musicate playlist)

Jazz: Anything by GoGo Penguin.


To enjoy Cheltenham Festivals’ digital workshops and other content, visit

For up-to-date festival information, go to