A New Direction's Action Learning – Thinking about Arts Award

11 July 2013

Since taking part in A New Direction's Action Learning Sets, I've had the opportunity to discuss ideas with peers working in cultural learning across the whole wider 'cultural footprint' – not just the museum, gallery and visual arts educators with whom I most frequently set the world to rights.

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One of the topics that have come up in discussion has been Arts Award, and how best to make it work. With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to throw out a few notes about how and when Arts Award has worked well for us.

We've been using it here at Orleans House Gallery for over five years, with a wide variety of learners including young parents, NEET young people, home-schooled young people, young people with additional needs, Looked After Children, even our creative apprentice. We've used it in contexts focusing on contemporary visual art, cross-arts, heritage and a mixture of the above. This summer, we'll be trying it out in the realm of literature and creative writing.

I like Arts Award. I like it because, given the right set of conditions, young people like it too. It inspires them and makes them proud of what they've achieved and encourages them to set themselves challenges and reflect on what they've done and share their skills and show off and discover and all manner of good things. The most frequent response we get when telling young people they have achieved their Bronze award is, 'When can we do our Silver?'

So, for what it's worth, here are my words of wisdom:

  • Arts Award works well when you integrate it into project planning right from the start. This is not the same as building the whole project around achieving the award, but structuring the award into the project so it is integral and not an add-on.
  • It also works well when you are engaging with young people in a sustained way – weekly clubs and programmes, for example. In these cases, working towards the award need not dominate, but can be factored into planning as part of and alongside other activities. Achieving the award can provide a valuable marker for young people in their own progression, celebrating their achievement and giving a logical next step to structure long-term engagement.
  • Funders, partners and parents like Arts Award. Not just Arts Council England, but non-sector funders such as youth commissioners and those who commission community learning and services for young people with disabilities. This is not a cynical point. If we want to continue to provide high quality, relevant creative learning experiences for young people, we need resources to do so. Beyond that, if we have any faith in the system, we need to acknowledge that if these funders believe accredited outcomes are important for young people facing the challenges of today's society, they are probably are.

Arts Award is not a silver bullet to quality. It is not always the right thing to do, and half the battle is understanding when it is the right thing and when it isn't. In the days approaching moderation it can be a little all-engulfing – but on the day, when I see the young people feeling proud of their achievements, having earnest conversations with the moderator about the next steps in their creative journeys, I remember why I like it, and why they do too.

If anyone has any questions or suggestions about the nuts and bolts of making best use of Arts Award, in museum settings or otherwise, get in touch via email.

You can also follow me on Twitter @MirandaStearn and @Orleanshg