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There has been a massive decline in arts for young people over the last 15 years. So much so that Joe Hallgarten thinks we need a dedicated national organisation to repair the damage. The current review of ACE might provide an opportunity.

Teenagers in an art class
Entries to GCSE arts exams have declined by over 50% in the last decade


While rarely a vote-winner, let alone a doorstep issue, institution-building is a fundamental part of our political processes. Every new government has to make its mark, show its ideological colours and create a platform for change and legacy through its approach to institutions. 

Think of the creation of the Open University, an independent Bank of England and, of course, the Arts Council itself. Or think of the 2010 ‘bonfire of the quangos’ when a new government asserted its anti-austerity agenda through the removal of many institutions.

I think after more than a decade of decimation in arts learning for young people, we need a new institution that focuses solely on this mission - a Youth Arts Trust. 

Decline of arts education

But first, let me paint a quick picture of what that decimation looks like. Declines of nearly 50% in GCSE arts entries, and nearly 30% at A level; fewer children and young people participating in cultural activities out of school, both before and since the pandemic; a 23% drop in arts teachers; and fewer hours of arts taught in primary schools. 

Social class and geographical inequalities have widened across all this data, including in the rising number of schools that have stopped offering certain arts GCSEs altogether. 

The worst is yet to come. In secondary schools in particular, we have a vicious cycle: fewer people choosing arts qualifications leading to reduced arts departments; a consequent weakening of arts teaching at Key Stage Three; and even more young people giving up arts learning at the tender and terrifying age of 13-14. As exam pressures grow, any time for an arts hinterland beyond school becomes less feasible. 

Millions of young people are of course still consuming and making art – it will take more than a sceptical government agenda to stop them. But it takes a particular kind of willpower, often steered by supportive parents, to keep overcoming the growing structural and attitudinal barriers.

Cultural Education Plan unlikely to be a game changer

Opposition parties have made good noises about arts for young people but, as with all their policies, have been deliberately ambiguous. Prioritising one thing always risks offending more people than it pleases. 

The Cultural Learning Alliance does brilliant work to marshal evidence and advocacy – everyone should read their draft manifesto. But its resources are tiny, and getting traction with the education sector - in the face of competing priorities, an accountability system stacked against the arts, and overall post-pandemic teacher exhaustion - is challenging. 

Despite the efforts of Baroness Deborah Bull and other panel members, I don’t hold much hope for the forthcoming (and already three months late) Cultural Education Plan. Its terms of reference make disappointment seem inevitable, stating: “The National Curriculum and exams, Ofsted’s inspection framework and performance measures such as the EBacc and Progress 8 are out of scope” - as is additional funding. So the proposed “framework to amplify, extend and signpost cultural education” is unlikely to be a game changer. 

Youth Sports Trust offers a model

How might a new national body for youth arts become that game-changer? While not perfect, the Youth Sports Trust (YST) is a model to learn from. It is a charity, not a non-departmental public body (NDPB), so it has no statutory responsibilities. 

But, with both support and space from Sports England, it plays a powerful, blended role in running large scale programmes, supporting research and policy development, and unifying advocacy efforts. In January, I watched with envy as sports stars launched the YST’s new manifesto, branded Mo’s mission (yes, that Mo). 

It would, hopefully, run some large scale ringfence-funded programmes – ideally with corporate and foundation funding rather than just government support (although I’d also propose that we heavily tax any mark-ups put on basic prices of cultural/sporting events - VIP packages etc - and direct revenues to such a trust). 

A trust could become a clearing house for robust research – especially on arts pedagogies, to inform practices - and a driver for innovations that can create new evidence. 

'Wide awakeness to the world' 

It should focus on embedding improvements in arts learning and teaching, with the focus on standard school provision and how the cultural sector can add value rather than become a fig leaf for school-level inactivity. It should encourage long term, locally-led transformations to arts learning, such as Talent 25 in Leicester and the ARK academy chain’s work, supported by the Clore Duffield Foundation. 

It will need to sustain and cohere advocacy efforts, which too often are dissipated by artform-specific interests. The (comparatively well-resourced) music education sector in particular might need to relegate their own particular interests to rally behind bigger cultural cause. 

It will also need the discipline to avoid distraction or diffusion – for instance, focusing on the arts rather any broader creativity agenda, and not get too stuck on bigger questions about the purposes of education. It should ensure that arts learning is not always the servant to other agendas – from literacy to wellbeing.  

It can of course contribute to these outcomes but can also offer so much more – what UNESCO describes as building imagination, judgment and possibility, or what the American educational philosopher Maxine Greene calls a “wide-awakeness to the world”.

Between impotent and complicit

Just like the Youth Sports Trust’s relationship with Sport England, a Youth Arts Trust could only ever be successful if Arts Council England (ACE) gave it genuine space and independence – fully and permanently devolving responsibilities and programmes (including Artsmark, Arts Awards and Music Hubs) to give the new organisation a clear mandate and legitimacy. 

ACE is still vital in this space, in particular for encouraging and helping its NPOs improve the volume and quality of their engagement with young people. It may, of course, have fought the fight behind closed doors (and it’s hard to lobby hard, when you’re an NDPB).  

But, from the outside, despite the warm words of many strategy documents and the Durham Commission and some micro-interventions such as Creativity Collaboratives,  it looks as if ACE has largely been somewhere between impotent and complicit in the decline in arts learning. 

In its defence, it has been in constant rearguard action, fighting for culture on so many apparently more urgent fronts. I believe only a separate organisation can give arts learning the strategic focus young people so desperately need. The current review of ACE is an ideal moment to consider a change in this element of its role.

Creating a new institution can be a struggle: from dealing with egos to governance complexities – just ask Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown or ACE’s own creator-in-chief John Maynard Keynes. But a youth arts trust could be a timely, strategic intervention, one with potentially more system-changing sustainability than quick-fix funding, or even arts education-friendly policy change.

Joe Hallgarten is a primary school teacher and education researcher and consultant. He was formerly CEO of the Centre for Education and Youth.

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Nothing has replaced the Bridge organisations who were funded by ACE for ten years to focus on cultural learning from Early Years upwards. They levered resources against their investment funds. I think it’s important to think of this from Early Years up and to be very ambitious for cultural education in the U.K.

Some interesting ideas. Wonder about myth re Brexit and the like that autonomy gives agency and power. The arts and creative education so splintered re tiny companies and individuals shouting into the wind. ACE (like the EU) needs to evolve to be fit for purpose but its size/financial heft does minimally give influence re Dep for Ed and DCMS. Youth Sports Trust a minnow in sports with £10m turnover and no real voice re the federations. Hub budget alone over £100m. Surely its about functionality/capabilities of arts ed department within ACE rather than inventing another weaker duplicate elsewhere.