What does 'quality' look like?

3 February 2017

Our final cultural sector briefing focussed on how arts and cultural organisations understand and communicate the value of their work

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Picture credit: Lancasterian Primary and The Vale School, photographed by Roger Brown

The last of our three sessions for cultural organisations looking at the current policies and trends affecting creative learning and cultural education focussed on how arts and cultural organisations understand and communicate the value of their work.

The discussion was underpinned by three key questions:

  • What do we mean by ‘quality’ cultural provision and engagement with our work with children and young people?
  • What can the cultural sector learn from other sectors (and vice versa) about children and young people’s voice and measuring quality?
  • What does this mean in practice and what are the challenges?

The session began with a series of short talks from cultural organisations, peer outreach experts and researchers on best practice for co-production, outreach, and evaluation, and ended with a workshop from Researcher and Writer Hannah Wilmot.

Key messages from the session

Quality is contextual and not a one-size-fits-all endeavour

Researcher Catherine Bunting kicked off the discussion with an explanation of her evaluation work with Culture Counts developing standardised quality metrics (such as captivation) to measure the quality of arts organisations work.

Catherine addressed tackling the question ‘is this work any good?’, reminding us that quality is often entirely dependent on audience and context. The issue is not the work or the audience, but the relevance of the work for the audience and the mode of engagement of opportunities.

When we evaluate quality, we’re not really asking ‘is this good or bad’, we’re asking where do audience come from, what is their experience and how can we tailor work to them…

Enjoyment for enjoyment's sake is okay

Dr Louisa Thomson (Head of Impact and Evaluation, at Renaisi) talked about her evaluation of the Cultural Citizens national pilot, arguing that there is a need to look at some aspects of quality as being ‘just about enjoyment’.

Louisa outlined a set of clear recurring messages in her youth sector work:

  • A need to measure fewer outcomes, but make the measurement richer and more in-depth
  • Remembering the intrinsic value of experiences, and making the case for authenticity of experience rather than measuring them through narrow outcomes
  • The youth sector is often tempted to show outcomes to gain funding, which is understandable after cuts to the sector, but it’s also worth measuring enjoyment and experience too

If you need to show real quality and authenticity- Refine your own outcomes via collaborative delivery

Sade Banks-Brown's (Creative Partnerships Manager, The Barbican & Founder, CEO of Sour Lemons Social Enterprise) presentation focussed on large–scale collaborative community work, drawing on her experiences coordinating the Walthamstow Garden Party festival. Sade argued that diversifying funding and knowledge of project work should be part of quality engagement, but acknowledged that these are hard to implement. In addition, work with young people and communities is also sometimes so focussed on ownership that it becomes detrimental. Sade proposed that quality work sometimes doesn’t mean having to let the community lead it completely, and indeed often you will find that they don’t want to.

Sade’s new Social Enterprise, Sour Lemons, is working with young people to tackle the lack of social mobility and diversity in the creative industries. The quality framework for this has been developed exclusively based on the rest of the programme as Sade believes that outcomes should not be imposed on the programme until content and quality have been defined by the young people themselves. They will choose their mentors, content and define their own evaluation.

The arts and cultural sector has much to teach youth work and vice versa

Rebecca Palmer (Education and Youth Team, Greater London Authority) argued that the arts sector is underused as a youth sector resource, and is often misunderstood.

Quality often isn’t talked about in terms of how good work is in the youth sector, rather how engaged the young people are. However, the two go hand in hand. The Peer Outreach Team at City hall are a group of young adults who work with the GLA to deliver events and activities. Quality long term engagement for them is often about measuring both their engagement with activities but also the quality and context of the work they participate in and produce that is relevant to them.

The word at the centre of everything is ‘excellence’

Holly Donagh (Partnerships Director, A New Direction) spoke about working on the Creative People and Places evaluation, where all partners were asked to define ‘excellence‘ in their own terms.

All 21 Creative People and Places areas were different in their approach and scope. Most places came up with frameworks on what excellence meant to them – all were similar but with crucial differences, a lot of the time this was around language, and there were specific difficulties in defining what ‘excellent arts and culture’ actually is.

Holly concluded that evaluation is more useful in the process than in its product. Processes can be transformative, however, products are what they are and stay static.

What does high quality look like and how is it manifested in our work?

Hannah Wilmot (Evaluator and Researcher) ended the day with a workshop on Arts Council England’s Quality Principles to explore how cultural organisations working with children and young people can use the principles as a guide for measuring quality, and draw out the core aspects of quality work without being too prescriptive, nor too broad.

A key caveat she was keen to emphasise is that principles are there as a guide to be embedded into work - they are not a prescriptive entity.

The room was split into groups and each was invited to feedback on their definitions of each principle. The exercise concluded with the groups feeling that all quality principles have, in their practical mapping against delivery, a significant amount of overlap. It was recommended that a few core principles should be brought to the fore and these will naturally vary depending on the organisation and its characteristics.

Lastly, groups mapped the quality principles onto a hypothetical ‘pledge’ to a youth group at a cultural venue.

Attendees pledged to:

  • Aim high
  • Believe in the young people involved
  • Listen openly and honestly
  • Be transparent
  • Be ambitious, thought-provoking, challenging and relevant
  • Be supportive
  • Be welcoming
  • Run what young people want to run
  • Value their input/feedback and bring about action
  • Be flexible
  • Play to individual strengths
  • Celebrate success
  • Be open-minded and accountable

For more information on any of the items covered or speakers, including feedback you may have for future events, please contact Louise Barnell, Programmes Manager at A New Direction.