Children and young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to take part in cultural activities and to use words such as ‘drama’ and ‘concerts’ without guidance, research suggests (1). So why is equality in gaining access to the arts such an issue? And what is being done to tackle the problem? Katie-Anna Martin reports on how Derby’s Cultural Education Partnership is working to close the gap of social inequality.
In today’s society, young people from low income backgrounds are still less likely to take part in every category of cultural activity, particularly visiting exhibitions, music activities and heritage visits, than their peers (2).
They are also less likely to participate in extra-curricular clubs – only 35% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds take part, compared to 47% of those from affluent families (3).
According to research by Cultural Capital (4), the barriers are social, physical and economic, coupled with low awareness of available opportunities.
Art making a difference
Yet there is plenty of evidence to suggest that participatory arts activities with children improves their cognitive, linguistic, social and emotional development (5).
“We know that children and young people who have access to cultural and arts activities at a young age – usually middle class people who have more money to spend on this type of thing – have better life chances,” says Caroline Barth, Creative Learning Director at Derby Theatre.
“Engaging in the arts provides children with a series of key life skills such as confidence, communication and resilience. There’s so much pressure for children at school to get them across the line with exams and tests that they’re not used to being given that space to play, try new things, and to fail.
“So, if we know this, then why aren’t we providing those opportunities for free to the children who can’t afford them?”
Offering a choice
The first step in getting children to engage with the arts is finding out what they want to do and then giving them choice, says Ruchita Shaikh, Executive Director and artist at Artcore, a visual arts charity in Derby.
“I strongly believe contemporary art and creativity are central to the development of people and places but, to ensure the arts are inclusive and more people are engaged from a young age, you cannot force it upon them; you have to give them choice about what they would like to do.
“It is very important that young people are involved in those decision-making processes to really feel that their voices are being heard.”
This is echoed by Caroline, who says: “There can be an expectation that young people who are interested will easily find arts projects or groups, but it takes a particular kind of confidence to get involved. With our projects, we can reach new young people and create relationships through regular contact where they are. Then those young people will really feel like they belong to something.
“We can help them start to see a possible progression for themselves in the arts, even into creative careers.”
Working together across the city
In 2016, Derby was identified as one of 12 Opportunity Areas – an area where the Department for Education is prioritising resources, and bringing local and national partners together, to address challenges of social mobility and ensure all children can reach their full potential (6).
As part of the Opportunity Area, last year, Derby’s Cultural Education Partnership, which brings together nine cultural organisations across the city including Derby Theatre and QUAD, launched ‘This is Derby – Derby’s Essential Life Skills Project’.
The scheme targets children from vulnerable groups, with the aim of creating life experiences and activities that use arts, culture, sport and leisure to help develop skills such as resilience, perseverance and teamwork.
“We are working really hard together as a city to provide partnerships across arts and sport that enable people to try new activities and introduce children to new opportunities,” says Caroline.
“Through the scheme, families have told us that the extra-curricular activities have been just what they need, and really help everyone come together as a community, which is what the project is all about.”
Positively engaging children
Derby Theatre, a unique ‘Learning Theatre’ owned by the University of Derby, works tirelessly to provide outreach programmes for underprivileged children, such as Plus One – which, along with partners, delivers free arts workshops to care leavers and young people in care.
Derby has also recently been chosen as one of five cities to be awarded funding as part of a £5m scheme to set up a Youth Performance Partnership Fund. This is designed to help disadvantaged children learn about all aspects of theatre making, including designing sets, lighting and sound, as well as developing work to perform in local communities and the city centre.
“The programmes we deliver are really innovative, where children are creative consultants on pieces of professional theatre, enabling the director to gain real-life relatability and insight into that world,” Caroline explains.
“We know if the children are positively engaging with something outside of school, then they’re more likely to engage with their education. Alongside this, our programmes provide endless wellbeing benefits and a sense of achievement through social interaction.”
A key project from the University’s College of Arts is the Social Higher Education Depot – otherwise known as S.H.E.D. The project is led by Dr Rhiannon Jones, Creative and Arts Researcher at the University and the University’s Digital and Material Artistic Research Centre.
The project uses an old garden shed that is being transformed into a mobile arts commissioning venue and public space, which aims to support the co-creation of creative arts practice and invest in real issues that people, including children, want to discuss.
S.H.E.D is already booked up at multiple venues across the Midlands, and is making its debut outing at Derby Theatre in July for In Good Company’s summer festival, Departure Lounge.
Rhiannon says: “At the heart of this project is a real determination to bring people together, to have a shared space to meet, to talk and to create. At the same time, S.H.E.D is developing a new model for arts research, engaging design theory and arts practice for the generation of social engagement.
“S.H.E.D is a three-year project, working with a team of fantastic colleagues at the University, students from a range of subjects, and industry and cultural partners – putting both Derby, and the project, onto a global platform.”
Accessing cultural activity
QUAD, an international centre for engagement in contemporary art and film, is working with the University to transform lives through active participation in arts and film including exhibitions, films and wide-ranging education and creative activities.
Chief Executive Adam Buss says the whole city needs to come together to tackle social disparity and, while it is making strides, there is still room for improvement.
“The arts have previously been seen as the playground for the ‘elite’, meaning that generations were excluded. Fortunately, that is now changing, but there is still a lot of work to be done.
“Through incredible projects across the city, we are building confidence, increasing teamwork, developing creative thinking and upskilling, while also learning ourselves from working with brilliant young people.
“At QUAD, we pride ourselves on working to make art, film and digital media accessible to all and although ambitious, we have made significant advances to achieve this since we opened over ten years ago.
“The best way to approach the challenge is by finding ways to engage communities wherever they are from and whatever their previous level of engagement with the arts.
“We all believe in the power of the arts to change people’s lives for the better and that is why projects like ‘This is Derby’ exist. The arts and cultural scene in Derby has never been more vibrant or inclusive, and with support and confidence we can do even more.”