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Deborah Bull explains what the cultural enquiry into arts policy and young people learnt by looking back over the last 60 years.

A young boy with a micro violin
It is thought likely that providing arts engagement for very young children has a significant impact on engagement in later life.

Juhan Sonin (CC BY 2.0)

Our cultural enquiry Step by Step: Arts Policy and Young People 1944-2014 into access to the arts for young people was inspired by a pair of speeches in June last year that effectively book-ended a weekend: on the Friday Sajid Javid called for arts organisations to do more to increase access, especially for young people, and then on the following Monday Harriet Harman launched a Labour Party consultation on young people and the arts. While both announcements were welcome as statements of commitment, to longstanding observers of the cultural sector it all felt rather familiar.

Culture at King’s decided to look at what we have learnt in the 50 years since Jennie Lee launched the UK Government’s first ever arts policy ‘A Policy for the Arts: the First Steps’, in the hope that a look backwards might help to inform the future. Our approach was three-pronged: review published literature; listen to individual testimonies; and research through the archives. There turned out to be relatively little published material on the subject and so we held a ‘witness seminar’ – a format successfully used in other contexts by the Institute of Contemporary History at King’s College London – to capture the testimonies of key individuals working on young people’s arts policy development in the 1970s and '80s. They were Irene MacDonald (first ever Arts Council Education Liaison Officer), Sue Robertson (her successor, who oversaw the first ever Arts Council education policy), Pauline Tambling (first ever Education Officer at the Royal Opera House) and Paul Roberts (Director of Education, Nottingham in the 1980s and author of Nurturing Creativity in Young People).

What we found was a generation of pioneers, from the 1970s onwards, who advocated passionately on behalf of young people, despite battling entrenched cultures that reflected wider social attitudes to children (and to what constituted good art). They also had to struggle against early resistance to the Arts Council having any involvement whatsoever with education. Roy Shaw, Secretary-General of the Arts Council from 1975–83, was firmly advised that education was a ‘no go area’. It was the Gulbenkian Foundation, time and time again, that stepped up to make the difference, funding the first ever Arts Council education post and commissioning reviews (from Ken Robinson among others) whose legacy is still palpable today.

Successive governments have prioritised young people’s access to the arts but there is still a significant engagement gap

From time to time there was a distinct sense of groundhog day. The archives, for instance, contain a 1987 letter from the National Campaign for the Arts to Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education, lobbying for parity for the arts with sciences in the core curriculum. Or take the following quote: “Very recently, the Conservative minister with responsibility for higher and further education, urged educators to steer young people away from the arts, which he dismissed as ‘softer options’. Instead, they should be guided, he said, ‘towards the sort of subjects needed to underpin economic recovery.” This is Roy Shaw writing in the 1982 Arts Council Annual Report, but it could just as well be a comment from November 2014.

The familiar debate about the purpose of arts policy weaves its way through the seven decades we explored. Should policy be directed towards improving understanding and knowledge of the arts? Building audiences for the future? Inculcating civility in preparation for adulthood? Or should it be about fostering young people’s innate creativity?

Perhaps today we finally understand that it is about all those things. We have come a long way since Jennie Lee. Thanks to the persistence of those key champions, there is a general consensus in the sector and in government of the value to young people of engagement with the arts. It is no longer a question of whether, but it is still a question of how. Successive governments have prioritised young people’s access to the arts but there is still a significant engagement gap, with education and affluence the major factors influencing likelihood and levels of engagement.

We learned some important lessons from our enquiry:

  • The first may sound obvious. Government departments (particularly Education and the DCMS) and funding bodies such as the arts councils should evaluate historical precedents when formulating new policy in the area of arts engagement by children and young people. This means auditing the historical record and incorporating insights into the policy development process.
  • Institutional knowledge is undervalued as a resource. The cost of organisational restructures is higher than simply the financial burden of severances and recruitment. Policy and funding bodies should pay greater attention to information management, particularly in the lead up to any restructuring.
  • There needs to be a strong, longitudinal evaluation framework in place before devising policies and interventions, to allow the relative efficacy of initiatives to be assessed. Our initial intention for this cultural enquiry was to evaluate historical policy interventions by their own articulated measures of success. It quickly became clear that this would not be possible. For the most part, we failed to find either the objectives that set out success criteria or the data that could be used to judge them.
  • The Arts Council England archive is a valuable resource. The organisation should work with scholars in cultural policy to support a programme of cataloguing, digitisation, research and publication of archive material that would produce accessible histories of arts policy and inform contemporary policy making.

However, it was the elements missing from the story that provided the most valuable learning. The importance of early intervention in shaping outcomes in later life is now widely understood. Graham Allen’s 2011 report, Early Years Intervention: the Next Steps, describes the foundation years (from birth to 5) as the time in which children acquire the “emotional and social bedrock that allows them to reach their full potential and to engage happily with others and with society”. Given the evidence around early years intervention, it is highly likely that providing arts engagement for very young children would have a significant impact on their engagement in later life.

There are excellent examples ongoing in the sector: Birmingham Rep has just marked the first decade of free theatre for children born at two hospitals in the West Midlands in 2004. But we uncovered very little evidence in our research of policy directed at early years, or towards supporting arts engagement outside the school system, despite what is known about the role of family and social life in shaping identity and later experience. SureStart centres provide a ready-made infrastructure through which early years and family engagement schemes might be delivered.

We also found it curious that there is not more international transfer of best practice, given that we share some of the same policy challenges with different cultures around the world. In Harmony, based on the Venezuelan El Sistema, seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

Given what is known about what works in other parts of government, intervention in these areas alongside engagement via schools might help to address the persistent disparity in arts engagement between those that have high levels of education and affluence, and those that do not. It may even increase the diversity and range of arts audiences and participants in a way that other initiatives are failing to do.

Step by Step is not the last word on the subject. Our aim was to kick-start debate in a significant year when political parties will be setting out their manifestos and policy observers will be remembering Jennie Lee. We invite readers to contribute to the debate on our blog page, and below are some of the responses we have already received on the site.

Deborah Bull is Director of Cultural Partnerships, King’s College London.

Responses from arts industry figures


Marcus Davey, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, Roundhouse:
“Over the decades there have been great and eminent politicians, arts policymakers and at times artists who have didactically made decisions about what would be good for young people. It is becoming less rare but it is so often the case that the voices of young people are not considered or heard when developing arts policy. In the past there has been too much policy-making about what will be done for young people and not enough about what can be done with and by young people.

I hope that in all future policy-making about young people that young people shall be involved. It goes without saying that it is crucial for decision-making to be set in the context and this is a great reminder for us all to look at what we do and how it builds on the past, rather than running in parallel to it.”

Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, Chief Executive, The Place:
“This report and its recommendations serve several important needs. Firstly, the need for a historical record of arts policy in relation to young people's access to the arts, but secondly, and of equal import, the need to maintain a clear perspective on developments in this field over a longer period, to strengthen the sense of shared history and to safeguard against collective amnesia in relation to sometimes even recent events.

That need was made all too clear to me when members of the current government in 2012 responded to recommendations within The Henley Review of Cultural Education. The Department for Education and the Department for Culture Media and Sport proudly announced the launch of the ‘first’ National Youth Dance Company’, oblivious it would seem that a previous incarnation existed with the exact same title, and with great success, for 18 years, led by the late John Chesworth OBE. The first National Youth Dance Company had only ceased to exist in 2004, less than 10 years before the heralding of a new venture. It hadn’t been forgotten in the dance sector; many dance professionals still working in the sector cut their teeth in that company and its enormous success was something for which John Chesworth was rightly honoured for his services to dance. Yet how quickly others seemed to forget.

Whilst I wholeheartedly applaud the reinstating of our National Youth Dance Company, which is once again thriving, I was dismayed at the time at the collective amnesia of government which, through Arts Council England, funded the original venture, and which, for their own credibility if nothing else, should have been better informed about the very recent history.

This report and its recommendations are timely, relevant and an important marker from which I hope we can all learn.”

Dana Segal, WhatNext? Generation:
“It’s about time that policy-making for children and young people is impactful, and the only way this can be done is through longitudinal implementation and evaluation, and as Marcus Davey recommends, with the involvement of young people at the heart of the entire process.

We support and agree with many of the policy recommendations that are part of this insightful paper. Ahead of the general election in May we have written a manifesto and a series of pledges, all of which relate very strongly to the final recommendation of the paper: that policy should be implemented so that arts activity is encouraged outside the school system.

The family and social life of young people play a crucial role in forming their identity and impacting on their later life. As I highlighted in my conclusion at the launch, if it was not for my father’s passion for music, and my drama teacher’s support to take the subject and experience live theatre, I would not be the person I identify myself as today: a voter, an employee, a student, etc.

Up until this point, it was due to specific people: but hopefully following this paper, it can be due to specific policies implemented to ensure all young people can access arts and culture."

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Photo of Deborah Bull