The Great Debate – Universal or Targeted Provision?

04 September 2011

Over the summer the Cultural Learning Alliance has been meeting in schools, cultural organisations, halls and classrooms to talk about the big issues facing cultural learning practice in the coming years. We have been working to put together a strategy for cultural learning that will help all our members to build on the best of their current practice and to innovate to create new and exciting work for children and young people.

This is a challenging brief in the current climate of cuts and shrinking resources, but all across the country we have met with inspiring and inspired teachers, artists, cultural professionals, youth workers and policy makers who are committed to making this happen.

As we pull together all our notes and submissions from our consultations it is clear that there are a number of critical questions preoccupying the sector, including this one:

In a time of reduced funding, capacity and resources, should we still be trying to provide cultural learning to every child and young person in the country, or would it be more effective to target what we have to those who need it most?

There are passionate supporters on each side of this debate, and we want to know where you stand. Below, we set out the case for targeting and the case against:

Why we should target our offer to those who need it most:

  • There is a great deal of current evidence and policy which suggests that children and families experiencing the greatest need and the greatest disadvantage should be the focus of public spending, resources and priorities. For example, this is a theme and argument that is discussed in the government’s new Supporting Families in the Foundation Years policy document, and in the Reviews contributing to it – notably Frank Field’s Review of Life Chances and Poverty, and Graham Allen’s Review of Early Intervention.
  • The recent evaluation of the CCE-led Find Your Talent programme also came to the conclusion that provision should be targeted to those families and children unable to access cultural learning independently. Findings show that many children already access a good baseline of cultural learning through their home and school environments, but we know that provision generally is not getting to a hard-core of the hardest to reach and hear, or those unable to access the arts independently. Evidence shows that if we increase the supply of arts and cultural learning, the same families and young people will just access more provision.
  • Over the last ten years we have channelled a great deal of investment into the idea of a universal offer and we were not successful in providing one. Now that we have so much less to invest, we should change our approach to one that might be more effective.
  • Many public-sector funding streams are being focussed on a targeted agenda, from Community Budgets to the Early Intervention Grant. Cultural learning organisations stand the best chance of financial viability by aligning their priorities to the available funding sources for cultural learning.

Why we should still be aiming for a universal offer:

  • Every child and young person has the right to participate freely in cultural life and the arts, a right that is protected by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As a sector we therefore have a right to create a cultural learning offer that can be accessed by everyone.
  • The cultural and learning landscape has changed rapidly over the last year. As yet, we have no idea how this will truly affect young people’s participation in cultural learning. The changes to curriculum and introduction of the E-Bacc, coupled with cuts to local authority funding, mean that we can no longer be sure that the majority of young people will access a good baseline of cultural learning through school and parental engagement. Recent evidence shows that parental subsidy of after-school activity has been cut by a third due to tightened family budgets.
  • We need to continue to provide a universal offer, in order to collect data which allow us to understand who is not accessing our services. We cannot target without this data. Similarly, a free, accessible, universal offer has to remain to ensure that there is a progression route for all families and young people once they have engaged with targeted cultural learning. Offering only targeted provision leads to a stigmatising effect for families accessing these services.
  • Cultural learning priorities should be led by artistic vision and values, rather than social or educational ones. (Alliance members who put forward this argument believed that social and education outcomes were important, but should be a secondary driver in planning and shaping cultural learning work).

Where do you stand?

As we draft our strategy we want to know what you think is the best plan for the children and young people and families you work with. Is this a question your organisation is asking itself? If so, what are the discussions that are taking place?

At one of our consultation roundtables, the idea was floated that schools should be responsible for providing a universal baseline cultural learning offer, whilst cultural organisations should target their work. Is that something that makes sense to you?

Get in touch by filling in the comments box below, or e-mail us at We will collate your responses and share them in next month’s e-bulletin – as well as using them to inform our strategy.