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Can the cultural sector commit to responding strategically and collaboratively to meet the needs of young people in their schools and communities?

In our series of blogs reflecting on our Manifesto Asks, Rachael Woodhead, Curator: Families, Schools, and Young People at Tate St Ives, reflects on how the cultural sector needs to think differently to better support schools and learning colleagues in delivering an arts-rich education for every child. 

Witness the moment a young person engages in the expressive arts on their own terms, and watch something fundamental change for them; see their self-esteem, aspirations and life chances grow. All of us in the cultural learning sector believe that access to the expressive arts during school years has a profound and positive impact on children and young people. CLA champions the growth of evidence-based case-making for the social, personal, and economic benefits of young people’s access to the arts.

You get it: it’s why we set up workshops in a cold studio; support complex funding grants; champion young people through our practice; or care about access and inclusion. But after so many years of hard work, exemplary projects, and evidence-based research, the cultural sector still struggles to support schools and young people in a sustained way.

The CLA Manifesto Asks calls for a ‘change in education policy to help schools deliver an arts-rich curriculum’ and for a ‘commitment to ensuring that the cultural sector is better resourced specifically to support this work.’ Sounds good – but what does a better-resourced cultural sector look like? How do arts organisations increase, and improve, support for young people to access the arts in their schools,
communities and cultural spaces, when we are already working beyond our means? We might have the will to help schools, but it can be hard to find the way.

That’s not to dismiss the excellent work that is already happening across the UK. But how — in difficult times and under pressure — can we support schools better? The CLA Manifesto Asks must generate honest and inclusive conversations with all stakeholders that shift policy in our favour. We need to think longer term, and stop siloing the solutions into overstretched learning and participation teams. 

While schools and arts organisations both have funding challenges, its not only about money. Models and distribution also matter. Funders, and cultural and education policy makers could work more closely together and listen more. Funding models need to speak directly to educational and cultural partners, and make time for research and partnership building. We must go beyond the project peaks and troughs, so knowledge and partnerships aren’t built up only to be lost – draining time, resources and motivation from busy teachers and practitioners.

When funding exists to support schools, arts organisations could take time to spend it more wisely, not only from learning budgets, but across all departments. Learning practitioners can’t endlessly produce and deliver content. Organisations that have a core offer of performances, exhibitions, or resources that resonate with children and young people will attract all audiences looking for an engaging experience. Teachers don’t have time to navigate impenetrable websites, and children with complex needs should always be able to access our spaces and programmes. The stories we tell must be clear and engaging, even when there isn’t a learning practitioner to hand. These aren’t new ideas, but we are still not employing them consistently across the sector. Under financial pressure, we must be careful not to pit income against access. A strategic approach as a sector can ensure an arts-rich curriculum isn’t an add-on, only for the good times, but a consistent, organisation-wide responsibility.

Onto policy: education and cultural policies should be integral and equal; learning from and supporting each other at all levels. The CLA Manifesto Asks state that schools should have arts leads on their senior leadership teams and governing bodies, and we need equivalent education specialists supporting every arts organisation. We have the knowledge in our sector to help co-construct a new expressive arts curriculum, but we need the platforms to share this knowledge and expertise.

If education policy is being asked to better support teachers’ professional development within the arts, then cultural policy needs to better support the arts education workforce. Learning and participation colleagues need time, resources, and training to develop stronger pedagogy, more robust frameworks, and better project management skills. We need a shared language with schools. Building more recognised sector qualifications and increasing confidence, knowledge, and skills would help arts organisations to collaborate more effectively. It would raise the status of arts educators and the value of the arts in the eyes of school leaders, policy makers and wider society.

We also need to let people know what we are already doing. If arts organisations don’t really understand the work of their learning and participation colleagues, why would parents or politicians? Finding a more accessible language to communicate internally, and with those outside of our sector, would help to influence change. Representation in our organisations is key. The CLA Manifesto Asks state that ‘unless representation is addressed within the cultural sector, arts organisations will be unable to support  schools in their pursuit of representation, breadth and relevance.’ A lot of meaningful work is happening, but more needs to be done. We know that many young people cannot afford to pursue a career in our sector and still don’t see themselves represented in our programmes and workforce. If they do get a foot in the door, they need support to effect real change. A lot of great practice in creative careers is out there, but it needs more strategic and national support: clear pathways that are accessible and understood by children, young people, teachers, and parents outside of the cultural sector.

Youth collectives have great potential to influence arts practice within schools. For young people, they are different from school, often supporting those who may find school challenging, are in alternative provision or who have complex needs. There has been a huge drop-off in teacher training provision in the expressive arts, but schools could access more of our expertise in this area if both sectors were resourced to share skills.

There isn’t a quick fix. Underpinning everything is the need for policy and resources that enable long-term change. Learning values are now embedded in our visions and missions, but learning teams, or individual arts educators, can be left to act on them alone, sometimes competing with other  organisational priorities. 

We have innovation and excellence across the education and cultural sectors. We make a difference in children and young people’s lives: but if we agree that an arts-rich curriculum is what we want for them, we need to work together to change some fundamentals too.  

I work for Tate, but my views are my own.