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Young people are often excluded from conversations and decision making in the arts. Jacqui O’Hanlon shares an initiative which aims to ensure their voices are heard.

Connected - Associate schools symposium

Sam Allard Fisher Studios/RSC

This week the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Youth Advisory Board hosts its first Young Creatives’ Convention: Time to be Heard (YCC) in collaboration with the BRIT school, Intermission Youth, Silhouette Youth Theatre and TikTok. 

The convention brings together over 400 young people and focuses on access and inclusion in the arts via a mix of workshops and panel discussions. Topics include safeguarding mental health, creating fairer access, career opportunities and progression routes, and how to centre young people in decision making. 

There will also be a session on the Cultural Education Plan with colleagues from the Department for Education (DoE) and contributions from young people from the Roundhouse, Tramshed, Arts Emergency and Prime Theatre.

"We have learnt differently; we experience the world differently to those before us; it’s important to listen to us." Youth Advisory Board member 

Decline in creative subjects

It feels a timely moment. The excellent Arts in Schools: Foundations for the Future report reminds us that over 40 years there has been limited progress in achieving equitable access to high quality arts experiences for all children and young people. 

Last month, the government released provisional data on entries to GCSE and A’ level exams for 2023 which showed the continued decline in take-up of arts and creative subjects in schools. 

At the same time, the British Academy reported a decade long decline in undergraduates opting for English Literature, English Language and Creative Writing at university. In England, uptake fell by 29% between 2012 and 2021 in stark contrast to an increase of 12% in the same period across the border in Scotland. 

Time to listen

The YCC was born out of a growing frustration among our Youth Advisory Board, and other young people we work with, that their voices aren’t being heard.  Before the pandemic, the RSC, Tate and Nottingham University carried out the most comprehensive study of its kind in the UK: Time to Listen

It analysed 6,000 responses from young people aged 14 – 18 over three years about the place and value of arts subjects and experiences in school and in their lives. The responses were startling in their synergy. 

"Postcode, ethnicity, gender, income and education shouldn't dictate how your life plays out." Youth Advisory Board member 

Young people told us that arts subjects and experiences mattered deeply to them. They said that arts experiences enhance their lives now and prepare them for life after school.

They told us that arts and creative subjects were the only spaces where they had permission to try out new ideas, get things wrong, appreciate and respect difference, articulate new ideas and problem solve. 

They also told us that they see arts subjects as a release valve, a way to preserve well-being and mental health. However, they also told us that despite the personal value they place on the arts, they feel society values them less and so, by default, they become less valuable to them. 

Photo: Sam Allard Fisher Studios/RSC

Everyone can benefit

Research collated by the Cultural Learning Alliance tells us that children from low-income backgrounds who experience an arts-rich education are more likely to do better at school, perform better in exams, more likely to get a job and keep it, and more likely to report good health. 

The young people who developed the YCC believe everyone can benefit in some way from the arts and creativity. Their innate sense of social justice can’t make sense of a world in which access to creative arts experiences is unequal.

The convention comes at an interesting time. The DoE and DCMS are developing a joint Cultural Education Plan – the first of its kind. They will be running one of many listening exercises at the convention. 

Change can happen

Both the recently released Creative Industries Sector Vision and the Culture Minister herself have publicly waved the flag not just for the creative industries but for the value of the arts and culture as vehicles for social change and nourishing civic life. 

And opposition leader Keir Starmer announced his fifth mission for education which puts creative arts at the heart of education and values the skills and attributes we know arts-rich learning provides from early years upwards. 

In the final session of the YCC, participants will be asked to make a pledge for a change they commit to making. We can sometimes lose heart and think that inequity is baked in.

But I think there will be a lot of hope from these future leaders of our sector. Hopefully for these young people and for future generations, it is finally time to be heard.

"Change can happen when we work together." Youth Advisory Board member

Jacqui O’Hanlon is Director of Learning and National Partnerships at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
 @theRSC | @RSC_Learning | @jacquiohanlon

Link to Author(s): 
Jacqui O'Hanlon