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An Action for Children’s Arts study recommends that every child at primary school should have five quality arts experiences in the school year. Chris Jarvis explains how the Arts Backpack project is working to make this a reality.

Photo of a blue backpack

The Arts Backpack UK offers every primary school child access to at least five quality arts experiences a year. These experiences are collected in a digital backpack that serves as a reflection point for the student throughout the school year.

A key finding was that the current campaigning focus is on secondary arts education, and consequently the cultural provision for primary-aged schoolchildren is neglected

The idea of an Arts Backpack is not new. There's a Cultural Rucksack scheme for children in Norway and in Nuremberg, Germany, while Israel offers children a Cultural Breadbasket. Here in the UK there have been local trials of similar ideas such as the Cambridgeshire Culture Card and the Thurrock Trailblazer, but there has never been a programme that aspires to democratise arts education across the UK.

Report findings

In September last year, Action for Children’s Arts (ACA) commissioned a feasibility study to research whether an Arts Backpack was possible or indeed necessary in the UK. The report looked at case studies from the UK and abroad, explored the evidence of the benefits of arts participation, and discussed how an Arts Backpack could be funded.

A key finding was that the current campaigning focus is on secondary arts education, and consequently the cultural provision for primary-aged schoolchildren is neglected. This is due in part to the outrage at the EBacc and the falling uptake in arts subjects at GCSE, but also partly due to the blurred lines drawn between cultural and creative education.

Real artistic activity

Primary school education is frequently creative. Students might learn their times tables with a song or draw a poster about the Battle of Hastings. However at ACA we uphold the belief that this creativity must not be seen as a substitute for quality cultural experiences such as singing in a choir or engaging with a Monet painting.

The first recommendation of the report is to create a scheme that promotes the intrinsic value of culture as opposed to its educational, health or employability benefits. Art for art’s sake, as the old saying goes. Recent Arts Council England research shows 78% of young people engage with arts activities for fun, and 22% use the arts as a means of socialising. These values should be reflected in the curriculum.

Another recommendation was that any pilot needs to be locally led and regionally funded. Consequently each pilot project will be co-designed by children, families, teachers and local cultural partners – all parties who will have a stronger understanding of the local cultural need than we ever could. We are currently working with students at Chickenshed in north London to make the pilot feedback process more child-friendly.

Regional pilots

What is profoundly clear from the report is that access to culture is extremely unequal across UK schools. As an organisation we are passionate about targeting those children who do not currently access arts and culture, and hope that the Arts Backpack will be a means of levelling an unequal cultural playing field.

In light of this we are running pilots across a number of regions to reflect the varying needs of urban and rural communities, as well as the different curriculums in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are keen not to reinvent the wheel and so we are working closely with organisations such as Arts Award and the Bridge organisations to understand the excellent programmes they already offer children, and to locate the children that they are unable to reach.

We currently have pilots in the pipeline in Fife, East Anglia and the north east and south west of England, and hope to run one in Northern Ireland at a later date. The aims are to:

  • discover and overcome the challenges of different areas, such as transport costs, lack of pupil or parent engagement and under-staffed schools
  • create an Arts Backpack that does not add to teachers’ workloads
  • equip teachers with the skills and confidence to teach arts subjects, expanding on the currently limited opportunities in teacher training
  • explore the idea of a Children's Arts Council in every school
  • finesse a safe digital platform where children can store their experiences and share them with their teachers and families
  • look at different funding models across the UK and work out what is most effective and sustainable.

The backpack already has backing from a number of our patrons, peers in the House of Lords and cultural organisations. We hope this support will grow as the pilots are rolled out and that an Arts Backpack for all will be a true possibility.

Chris Jarvis is a BBC presenter and a trustee of Action for Children's Arts.
Tw @childrensarts

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Photo of Chris Jarvis