The Arts Backpack from Action for Children's Arts (ACA)
The Arts Backpack UK is a simple scheme: five quality arts and cultural experiences every year for every child.
It gives children creative and well-being opportunities – helping to expand their self-awareness and self-expression.
It supports teachers in delivering a programme of work that meets these needs, removing access barriers so that every child can benefit.
It prioritises working with local arts and cultural providers: reconnecting communities after the disconnect of the pandemic.
The idea of a ‘Backpack’ is not a new one. There are already successful schemes in Germany, Norway, Denmark and Israel. In 2018 we commissioned a Feasibility Study, investigating whether a Backpack model could work in the UK. The Study examined these international models, as well as pilots of similar ideas in the UK such as the Cambridge Culture Card and 11x11 (Islington Council). It came back with the following recommendations:
- Focus on primary school age children. The Study found there is a gap in strategic thinking and arts and cultural provision for primary-aged children.
- Focus on a geographic area where there is a particular need for enhanced access to arts and cultural provision.
- Prioritise the intrinsic value of the arts alongside extrinsic outcomes such as well-being.
- Build The Arts Backpack UK through local partnerships.
How does The Arts Backpack UK work?
The Arts Backpack UK is a collection point for children’s arts and cultural experiences over the course of an academic year. Participants can either store their experiences and reflections online in the secure digital delivery platform, or physically in their Arts Backpack workbooks.
At the start of The Arts Backpack UK each participating class elects an Arts Backpack Council. This Council is responsible for choosing activities that reflect the interests and cultural diversity of their classmates, utilising the library of experiences on our digital delivery platform. Experiences are drawn from three sources: ACA members; local arts and cultural organisations and practitioners; and national institutions. The experiences offered by ACA members and national institutions will mainly be designed for digital delivery, but the local arts and cultural offer (about 50% of the library) includes opportunities for trips and visiting practitioners.
The idea at the heart of The Arts Backpack UK is quality cultural engagement. By quality, we mean an experience that goes deeper than passive observation. Following each experience students will be invited to reflect: what did I learn?; what new things did I experience?; how did it make me feel? It is the combination of these experiences and reflections that build up a child’s Backpack: the cultural capital that they will take with them through life.
Children will collect experiences over the course of the year, with an Arts Backpack Access Fund available to support those who cannot meet costs involved. They will upload their experiences and reflections to the digital delivery platform, or write about them in their Arts Backpack workbooks, ready to share their learning with people in their communities.
We have designed The Arts Backpack UK to be as flexible as possible, with the potential to work alongside existing local schemes of cultural delivery. The Backpack can simply act as a collection point – a digital or physical space where children can store and reflect on their arts and cultural experiences. Or it can be a portal, with the digital library connecting schools, children and families to the arts and culture outside their front doors.
The Preliminary Pilot
In late 2019 we began planning pilots to take place across the UK from autumn 2020. In the midst of our planning, Covid-19 struck and the world ground to a halt.
Thanks to the generous support of Fife Council and the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers we were able to continue with one of our pilots in Fife, Scotland as planned. This was designed as a preliminary pilot, which will inform second-phase pilots starting in autumn 2021. The pilot took place in the Fife Coalfields area, which ranks high on the Scottish Index for Multiple Deprivation.
The preliminary pilot ran from October 2020 – March 2021. As the pilot was just getting off its feet we were faced with a long and unexpected winter lockdown, which only allowed children to return to in-school education for the few final weeks of the pilot. This demanded adaption and innovation, not least as there were strict rules in Fife about delivering education online. Despite the challenges this presented, we were able to successfully run a digital version of The Arts Backpack UK in five primary schools. Our key learnings from the preliminary pilot were as follows:
- The Arts Backpack UK can successfully foster arts and culture in areas where children may experience barriers to provision.
- The Arts Backpack UK has a clear value for the teacher and their professional development and confidence.
- The Arts Backpack UK can be presented as being about the art-forms, or as a way of engaging with curriculum topics, or a well-being agenda.
- Local partners (teachers and cultural organisations) can help co-design the contents and influence its make-up according to each location.
You can read the full report from the preliminary pilot. Our findings from this pilot have shaped how we are looking at our second-phase of pilots in two significant ways:
- The preliminary pilot highlighted the importance of teachers in facilitating arts and cultural delivery. We are designing a programme of Continuing Professional Development to be delivered at the start of The Arts Backpack UK pilots, with the aim of building teacher confidence in designing and delivering their own programmes of creative education. There was a clear appetite for this from the teachers participating in the preliminary pilot.
- As we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the focus of The Arts Backpack UK will shift in some communities from cultural entitlement to well-being and resilience building. We believe that The Arts Backpack UK is the perfect vehicle to deliver this work, giving children the tools to reflect on and respond to their experiences of the last year. It will show them different ways of being creative and give them agency over how they express themselves, alongside the proven benefits that the arts and culture bring for mental health, emotional development and educational attainment.
We are now fundraising to deliver second-phase pilots across the UK in the 21/22 academic year, with regions and partners are to be announced in the coming months.
Our ambition for The Arts Backpack UK is to see it adopted in all four UK nations. It is a simple model that could be quickly implemented by local, regional and national governments, securing the right for every child across the UK to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
Mimi Doulton, Development Officer, Action for Children's Arts