Place-based working & partnership investment – what we've learned

As we look ahead to the penultimate year of Challenge London, Senior Partnerships Manager, Corinne Bass, shares some reflections & lessons from the programme so far

16 December 2020

A New Direction has recently shared news about new investments being made through Challenge London, our partnership investment programme. We’re delighted to be working with five new partnerships and to be extending work with three more.

Challenge London is two and a half years into its four-year journey – supporting ‘place-based’ strategic partnership work to benefit children and young people and cultural learning in London. For every £1 we invest a partner investor brings at least another £1 to the initiative, meaning that our funds often support less than half of the overall cost. With the new investments we’ll be working with 17 partnerships across 16 London boroughs. We’re pleased to have been able to continue to make new investments over a difficult period this year, due to continued support from Arts Council England.

As we come to the end of a tumultuous 2020 and look forward to the penultimate year of Challenge London in 2021, I wanted to share some reflections from my involvement with the programme. Below I’ve expanded a bit on what we mean when we talk about ‘place-based’ working, and then introduced six reflections about next steps. Everything here draws on generous conversations and learning with partners over the past 18 months – including reflections and learning brought together by our programme evaluator, Hannah Wilmot. They also connect with documents and findings that pre-date Challenge London and have emerged from prior learning from place-based partnership working.

‘Place-based’ working

All the partnerships in which we’re investing through Challenge London take a place-based' and strategic approach to addressing key factors affecting a young person’s capacity to be creative and shape culture in London. When we talk about place-based work we mean focussing in a particular locality in order to start from the lived experience of young people, and the multiple overlapping factors that affect this.

Partnerships involved with Challenge London sit as part of a patchwork of place-based initiatives in arts, culture, creativity, education and learning in London, both nationally and internationally. In London this includes music education hubs, Creative People and Places programmes, Creative Enterprise Zones and Great Places initiatives.

As IVAR writes in an essay for Lankelly Chase, quoted in an excellent report about place-based approaches written for A New Direction by Sarah B Davies last year, we can see ‘in most cases, [place-based working] is more than just a term to describe the target location of funding; it also describes a style and philosophy of approach which seeks to achieve “joined-up" systems change.’ Place-based work can have different starting points, different characteristics and different motivations – and has a long history. Sarah documents some of this journey in her report which I’d thoroughly recommend. For A New Direction, Challenge London is part of our work with ‘places’ which has grown and developed since 2012.

For the local partnerships we’re working with, this year the ‘place-based’ nature of their focus and their work connecting a range of partners together, often across education, culture, local government and private sector has enabled them to take a local role in catalysing conversations about shifting priorities and creative approaches in this time of extreme change. The programmes newly receiving investment over the past month have all emerged in the context of the shifting sands of 2020. I’m excited to work with these programmes as they develop alongside those who we’ve been working with for a longer time, and to continue to explore the role of place-based approaches in a post-Covid landscape.


1. The importance of spending time situating place-based work

In 2016, A New Direction and local partnership leads in London worked with Convey to identify the characteristics shown by successful partnerships. The resulting framework the basis for our Powerful Partnerships Resource Library identifies 13 elements. A couple of these ‘Address Local and User Need’ and ‘Attend to individual Partner Priorities’ speak to the idea of spending time on situating place-based work. The first suggests exploration of the existing local situation; initiatives already underway, consultation and creation of a collective case for change. The second, to spending time with partners to understand and surface individual motivations. This can be invaluable for a trusting partnership.

These things take time. They need to be iterative and not only done at the start, particularly in a time of such significant change as this. We have seen incredible community momentum this year, and as we move into 2021, it’ll be important to take time to situate local work in amongst these established and emerging local systems.

As part of her work as Action Researcher with the London Cultural Education Challenge, Dawn Langley suggested using ‘Mess Maps’ to visualise your local challenges. All partnerships receiving investment through Challenge London also co-create a theory of change, bringing a range of perspectives on the local context together and shaping a shared vision.

2. ‘Growing anything requires patience and care’

This quote comes from the lovely A to Z of partnership working from Creative People and Places. I absolutely love this document and had it pinned to my desk when I was in the office!

The messages here speak to leadership of place-based work. Those driving forward local partnership programmes are asked to do many things – to understand context, navigate differing priorities, hold the evidence for change, hold the connections between partners and sometimes also project manage delivery of programmes.

The idea of ‘care is something also explored by Nick Wilson and Jonathan Gross in Caring for Cultural Freedom. How can we learn from the principles of care Nick and Jonathan discuss: attentiveness, responsiveness, competence and responsibility? What do these attributes mean for us as managers of cultural learning networks, programmes, partnerships and structures?

I think the above quote gives us permission to create space in our timelines and plans for the ‘doing’ of partnership-working.

3. The need for an iterative dialogue with young people

All work developed through Challenge London ultimately shares the ambition of enabling equity of opportunities for children and young people. As such, involving young people in our decision-making and plans is crucial.

As part of Beatfreaks report, Take the temperature, published in May 2020, 92% of young people questioned felt this could be a moment to change society for the better. Particularly at this time, as this report suggests, young people’s voices need to be heard in the creation of solutions.

4. Keep a partnership diary!

This is a personal reflection drawing on advice I once received. Through our Powerful Partnerships Resource Library, we suggest five stages a partnership travels through in its development. However, this process may happen multiple times in a partnerships life – inspiration, testing, negotiating ways forward, trialling approaches, delivering and evaluating, and then reiterating and re-shaping.

Keeping a personal professional diary can help you reflect on this journey, and understand the distance travelled. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re back at the beginning, but usually you’re anything but!

5. Prioritise understanding your impact

Evaluation frameworks for place-based work can have many different strands, possibly looking at impact for local policy and strategy, as well as direct impact for young people locally, teachers and creative and youth professionals. Prioritising understanding impact from the start will help you understand the difference your work is making, and help you prioritise and develop your work moving forward.

Discussions through the pandemic (including through the creation of our Reset Collaboration Plan, led by Karen Birch) have brought to the surface ideas around a dynamic, developmental approach to evaluation. Is there a case now for shorter cycles of doing, learning, iterating, rather than a weightier baseline and evaluation point at the start and the end of a programme?

6. How A New Direction supports place-based work

Through Challenge London, A New Direction is an investor and a partner. We’ve made some changes recently in response to feedback and learning, including clarifying what’s required as part of a grant and what’s optional for partnerships should they wish to take part, and adapting our peer learning structures and how we share examples of practice between partnerships.

We’ve also initiated a two-month ‘set-up’ period after confirmation of a grant to enable partnerships to have some dedicated time to consolidate their plans, consult and build a theory of change with dedicated support from a consultant as part of the A New Direction team.

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We’ve been able to extend the timeline for Challenge London until July 2022, which is the date at which the final programme receiving investment will come to a close. However, for many, the work in which A New Direction is investing is one small part of a much longer ambition and strategy for the benefit of cultural learning in the place they’re working.

As mentioned above, across the programme, Hannah Wilmot is helping us to understand impact against our three aims of supporting outcomes for children and young people, catalysing investment, and driving strong partnership approaches, and I’m looking forward to seeing what learning we’ll capture from here.

We’ll be sharing more as we move through this process, and I’d like to say an enormous thank you to everyone who’s been part of the journey so far.

Where next?

Find out more about Challenge London

More challenge london blogs

Read our 2020 review