Whose art, whose city?

6 May 2015

The London of Big Ben, the Thames, world class galleries and opulent shopping streets is, in many cases, not the city young people who live here identify with. The majority of children and young people live in Outer London, and even those in inner London often feel alienated from the city that adults take for granted.

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(Image credit: Simon Way for A New Direction)

A New Direction is a London charity that has been around for over ten years. Our mission is to connect children and young people with the best of arts and culture in the city and in particular to tackle the persistent issue of inequality. We know that factors such as family income, geography and to some extent luck still have a significant impact on whether or not as a child or young person you are able to have a creative childhood.

A New Direction’s own research into cultural engagement amongst young Londoners reinforced the idea of a divide between the notion of glamorous creative city and the lived experience of many young people (and adults!). In our survey nearly 50% of young Londoners had never been to a theatre performance, gallery or music event in the previous year.

When asked about why they don’t go to cultural venues young people cite accessibility and the ‘familiarity of an area’ as key barriers to engagement. ‘Not feeling that a place is ‘part of who I am’ appears to have the most significant impact on young people’s willingness to spend time at cultural venues. This is the strongest barrier to young people engaging with cultural spaces and is part of a worrying trend that suggest young do not feel welcome in certain places and do not see the world of ‘culture’ as relevant to their lives.

Much of our research with young people shows that in general they don’t identify with what might be seen as traditional arts categories. They associate culture with ideas of identity, origin, ethnicity, food and don’t use the word ‘arts’. In general, Arts and Culture’ is not a term that resonates with young people and is not one that they use to describe the activities that they engage with.

‘Stop calling it ‘the arts’ for a start, it makes people think in a hierarchical way and creates a not-for-me attitude’ (18 year old in My Culture, My London workshop)

Our My Culture, My London work shows that young people are extremely creative, and they express themselves and develop a sense of identity through different kinds of creative activity almost without knowing-it, but the world of ‘the arts’ does not seem to them to be part of this. They want opportunities to really be part of something, leading and decision making as well as simply watching, they want more free experiences ‘that you just come across’, they want to be able to find out about what is happening more easily and get the tailored support they need to develop their talents, they also want to see more arts in schools.

Opportunities like Takeover Day run by Kids in Museums which puts young people in charge of major cultural venues for one day a year, gives young people a chance to make decisions and to go behind the scenes. This not only gives them an opportunity to influence but it demystifies the institution and shows that young people are welcome. It also introduces young people to career paths that they might never have known about.

Cultural venues as the ‘third space’ for young people

We know that increasing numbers of young people are living in crampt conditions at home as a result of the rising cost of housing. For young people on Free Schools Meals ‘having a safe space to spend time’ and ‘spending time out of the house’ are both important reasons for them to take part in out of school hours clubs.

As the squeeze on youth clubs and out of school hours provision continues it is likely that more and more young people will need a ‘third space’ where they can do homework, be safe and connect with others. At A New Direction we would like to see a network of cultural institutions staying open late a few nights a week to provide this kind of drop-in support, this could be libraries, museums, art galleries etc. It might be possible to also provide mentoring advice, tuition etc. Not only would this fill a clear need but it would make young people feel like these places were theirs, part of their lives not a different world.

Cultural guarantee and cultural capital

It is still the case that the most telling signifiers of adult cultural engagement are educational status (i.e. the more qualifications you have to the more likely you are to engage with the arts) and income (the wealthier you are the more likely you are to engage with the arts). Children from more well off families are likely to report that their parents and carers first took them to an arts and culture experience, whereas for lower income children this is more likely to be done through school. Similarly, children in lower income families are less likely to be red to on a regular basis than their peers and this has been shown to have a significant impact on the development of language skills.

In a city like London with one of the largest and most diverse creative sectors in the world there is no reason why wealth and privilege should determine cultural engagement. Not only does this potentially skew who is able to benefit from the considerable public investment that goes into London’s cultural institutions but arguably the skills and habits that engagement with culture as a child engenders (discipline, motor-skills, confidence etc) can have a real impact on the future prospects of young people. In this sense not enabling all young people to have a creative childhood reinforces inequity and holds back children from low income households through no fault of their own.

Economically disadvantaged young people are the least likely to report spending time at arts centres and a museum/gallery. 37% of economically disadvantaged young people report that they are ‘not at all likely’ to spend time at arts centres and 33% say they are ‘not at all likely’ to spend time at museums and galleries.

A Cultural Guarantee would ensure that schools, cultural organisations and other partners worked together to provide a minimum standard of culture for all young people – this would include going to the theatre, visiting the Thames, having the chance to create a work of art etc. We know that in a fantastic minority of schools this kind of thinking is the norm, but sadly this is not the case across all schools and the way that schools are judged does not encourage this kind of initiative.

It is possible to make this kind of joined-up cultural work

In Kuopio in Finland education is built around a notion of ‘Cultural Paths’ with all young people spending time in the cultural institutions of the city as part of their general schooling. They all experience a drama path year, a film path year a dance year etc. This form of education is promoted and organising through Kuopio town Hall and has been shown to contribute to the students doing extremely well against traditional measures of education as well as against concepts of well being.

In Dallas, USA, the city has invested in an organisation called Big Thought Arts Partners which coordinates cultural education across the City. Schools are able to view cultural offers through the Big Thought Arts Partners portal and use this to book cultural experiences for their young people. The programme is specifically targeted at parts of the city where there is considerable poverty.

Mocca in Amsterdam also supports schools to provide a minimum level of cultural engagement for their pupils through a City wide programme of training, online offers and discounts for schools on cultural experiences as well as advice and guidance for teachers.

Whilst these models do require investment, they are less about large scale new funding and more about the intelligent coordination of existing provision and the capacity to match-up schools, teachers and quality provision. The Mayor could play a key role in making the Cultural guarantee a reality for all London pupil.

London schools currently have access to £450m a year in funding through the Pupil Premium, and whilst this must support a range of needs for lower income pupils it could also fund cultural activity when it is clear that it helps in the development of those young people.

All schools in the city allocating 10 per cent of Pupil Premium for cultural provision would help break the link between family income and cultural engagement and be one way of funding the delivery of a citywide Guarantee.

Expansion of London Curriculum and area based curricula

The notion of a London Curriculum is also a fantastic way of engaging more schools in the business of connecting pupils with the cultural assets of London. The current London Curriculum provide a rich and varied curriculum across a number of mainstream subjects for Key Stage Three pupils. It is a vehicle that enables teachers to utilise cultural assets in their teaching. The London Curriculum idea should be expanded across the Key Stages, particular to KS2, and cultural organisations should be encouraged to provide tailored offers for schools to support the London Curriculum with clear pupil outcomes.

The World Heritage Organisations in Greenwich (The National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, Old Royal Naval College etc) have over the last year created a curriculum for Greenwich schools based on the amazing heritage and assets of that locality and those institutions. This is a way of connecting schools and pupils to their place and their institutions breaking down barriers between building audiences of the future.

The Mayor has a real opportunity to advocate for local curricula and the London Curriculum as a way of knitting places together through shared learning and appreciation of heritage and culture.