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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Creative and Cultural Skills

The cultural sector has become a self-endorsing closed shop and it’s high time for a shake-up. Simon Dancey throws down the gauntlet and commits to leading the charge.

Photo of a girl learning on a craft apprenticeship

© Briony Campbell

With my background in sociology, I’m fascinated by the way middle-class values and structures dominate the cultural landscape of the UK. Recent reports, particularly the Panic! 2018 research, have exposed the profile of the workforce, the continual replication of certain values, and the ‘closed shop’ nature of the cultural sector. This is the myth of meritocracy: people do not get to work in the sector based on ability.

We need to look beyond tokenistic programmes and instead look to bold and radical change

The picture now is of a middle-class sector reinforcing its own values in an echo chamber that compounds the structural inequalities of the UK. This self-endorsing closed shop is never going to shift persisting inequalities and will continue to exclude a large section of our community, its values and potential. This is morally unacceptable, economically stupid and socially disgraceful.

Our institutions are often hierarchical structures of inequality, with its leaders drawn from a frighteningly heterogeneous background (often Oxbridge). We in the cultural sector (and I include my own organisation here) need to look beyond tokenistic programmes and instead look to bold and radical change. What then does this look like?

Bold approaches

First, we must acknowledge we don’t have all the answers. Education and skills can really make a difference. Leaving school at fifteen with no qualifications to work on a building site in bleak Barry in midwinter, I attended a trade union access course for marginalised individuals. It changed my life.

The landscape may have changed since then, but we need to be bold in our approaches and adopt flexible recruitment practices and opportunities.

Research matters. We need high-quality research to understand the challenges facing those seeking to enter the cultural sector, and what the sector wants and needs. This should be in partnership with academic and higher education institutions, further education colleges, and the sector. We also need to build this capacity within our organisation. We need to bring together the practical and the academic, and while respecting the experience and hands-on knowledge of our teams, to not be afraid of research that suggests radical ways forward.

Language matters. We need to be clearer about the three dimensions of culture: economic, symbolic and social. The collision of these three creates the context in which we work and it is important that we become more open to different representations of culture and not to mistake the ‘creative industries’ as representing the entire cultural sector.

Leadership matters. I was once told that I was the token working-class Welsh man in the established cultural organisation I was then working in. A similar pattern emerges when looking at the background and values of others who work in our sector. So we need to empower a diversity of voices, thinkers and actors, enabling them to reach positions in which they can effect change. Rather than attempting to co-opt them into existing structures, we need to open the door to what individuals see and want to change.

Changing recruitment practices is not the whole solution. We need to challenge fundamental organisational values that mitigate against advancement for those who are not from elite backgrounds.

No place to hide

Since Creative & Cultural Skills became a sector skills council, the mechanisms, goals and government departments that inform those helping to develop workers’ skills has been modified time and again.

Although this can be hard to reconcile, it also acts as a positive catalyst for much needed progress, and we are on a mission to change ourselves and the sector we work to serve.

A large-scale evaluation of our work has enabled us to better understand where we’re having an impact and where the sector wants us to focus our efforts. Our reputation for helping employers embrace apprenticeships is well established, but too few people know about the rest of our work or understand our wider mission and purpose – working with industry and education to give young people opportunities to work and learn in the creative industries.`

It’s clear now that fully embedding apprenticeships across the sector, creating industry-led learning opportunities for students and tutors, and helping organisations better understand best-practice recruitment are all key priorities if we are to help the sector address its entrenched social inequalities.

Having refreshed our labour market information, we have access to regional and national workforce data that tells us how the sector is made up, the key skills gaps and shortages across the cultural sector, including new digital and emerging skills demands, our fiscal contribution, and how we compare to other sectors.

The data is revealing. It has led to some unexpected discoveries that we’ll be sharing at the formal launch of this research on 12 February. With new and realistic benchmarks available, there will be no place to hide for policy-makers or for employers needing to shift their own recruitment cultures and improve their workforce diversity.

New operating model

CCSkills will be leading the charge. We’re establishing a new operating model that will maximise our current resources and expertise, enabling us to support even more employers to create this change. We will be shouting more loudly about the sector’s need to improve recruitment patterns and we’ll ensure we have clear support and guidance in place to help employers do this.

We will further grow our support around apprenticeships. Already the backbone of our work, we’ll be doing more to help employers understand the value of apprentices and mobilise the diverse pool of talent. And we’ll make sure the sector understands how it can work with us to address the skills gaps and shortages we face.

In particular, this will include closer working with the Creative Industries Federation, Screen Skills and the country’s arts councils and cultural institutions to explore, shape and implement interdisciplinary policy approaches. We are a UK-wide organisation, with exciting work in Wales, Northern Ireland and England, but we also need to strengthen our work and offer in Scotland.

Most of all, we will make sure we work in partnership at local, regional, national and international levels, to drive social transformation and put the cultural sector at the very heart of this.

We welcome ideas, collaboration and shared endeavour across the UK and beyond. If we all fix our eyes on the goal, then 2019 could turn out to be a very exciting year.

Dr ST Dancey is CEO of Creative & Cultural Skills.

This article, sponsored and contributed by Creative & Cultural Skills, is part of a series promoting apprenticeships and challenging entrenched social inequalities, to create a more diverse workforce.

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Photo of Dr Simon T Dancey