The CYP quality conversation has moved to a new home…

The CYP Quality Conversation has a new home over on the Arts Council’s new blog pages at http://blog.artscouncil.org.uk/category/cyp-quality-conversation

The conversation is already in full flow so please join us there!

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Can we afford to put quality over quantity? by Sharon Paulger

When asked to contribute to this blog I was asked on the basis that I run a small community arts organisation. So when thinking about quality I wondered what the difference the size of the organisation would make. My conclusion is that it means I can’t escape from the reality of what we do. We work with young people who have a range of different issues to deal with in their lives. Because it is a small organisation I meet these young people, their parents, their siblings, their support workers. I hear their stories and hear about the challenges they face in their everyday lives.  They come to us not only to do art but also to escape, to feel good about themselves, to make friends. I see first hand what a difference being involved in our projects makes to them. I also see that what they like and I have discovered what they think is good art is often different from what I think is good art.

I am disappointed to say that I fell for the Arts Council quality argument for years. I agreed that the young people I worked with deserved to work with the best artists and have access to the best resources. I thought this mainly out of a feeling of injustice, having seen large sums of money being spent in galleries and theatres on elitist works. But I find that I am no longer able to defend this. I have realised this is not what the people I work with want. Dare I say this, but actually what they want is quantity. They need opportunities. Often what they need is something which is safe, comfortable and easy because their lives are already full of challenges.  And when we give them opportunities it is the young people that give us the quality. On the whole they do not want us to spend lots of money of them, and I feel uncomfortable spending lots of money when many of the families may well be struggling to pay for the very basics. I believe art is good for us but, especially in the current financial situation, we need to be frugal. And that is one of the great things about art, it can be cheap because it is about creativity.

The Arts Council ambition of Great Art for Everyone is a wonderful aspiration but not if ends up being Great Art for Some and No Art for the Rest. Sadly, as I see long established Community Arts organisations losing Arts Council funding I fear that is where we are heading.

I have learnt never to make a judgement on a community project unless I heard first hand from someone who had taken part. That has to be the only of knowing how good/ great/high quality the work is. It would be lovely if once in a while the Arts Council made the effort to meet with the people we  work with but I can’t see that happening because, after all, people have been suggesting this for over ten years now and it still doesn’t seem to be happening.  And is that really possible or feasible? Without this I can’t imagine there is ever going to be a satisfactory answer to the quality question and we should accept that and move on. What we need to do is to trust that the people we work with know what they want and will let us know when we get it wrong, if only by not turning up.

I know the Arts Council needs to make decisions on funding but they could do this on the basis of measurable things including value of money, good practice in terms of safeguarding, level of attendance and through ensuring there is a certain level of provision per capita. There may be some things that get funded that are not quite as good as the others but, given a wider range of experiences, our participants will have choices and become increasingly discerning.

Sharon Paulger was until very recently the director of Inter-Action MK, a community arts charity serving the people of Milton Keynes
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How do we encourage artists to make extraordinary work for young people? by Michael Judge

How do we encourage artists to make extraordinary work for young people? How we encourage artists to aspire to magic? These were some of the questions debated by Mike Kenny, Lyn Gardner, Tony Reekie, Kate Cross and Vicky Ireland at the recent Small Steps symposium at The Point in Eastleigh. This event initiated by Jenny Roberts and Sarah Brigham, aimed to lay the foundations for creating and touring high quality work for children and young people in the South East region. Mike Kenny, who has been writing plays for young people for a while began with a few provocations;

  • “A traditional tale is not a guarantee of quality”
  • “I’m not asked to take enough risks.”
  • “Programmers, I need you to be really picky.”

How do we balance this against the commercial pressures of getting bums on seats that a traditional tale appears to guarantee? How to replicate the phenomenon of White produced by Catherine Wheels? Not a traditional tale, not well-known title but a global success.

How do we encourage those excellent artists who may not think that children’s theatre is for them to make their most ambitious work for children? Inspector Sands are making their first piece of work for children. Their idea recently won the Southern region’s Sprout commission with Rock Pool, a participative semi-underwater performance described by the company as “a crustacean version of Waiting For Godot. For children.”   Fresh eyes, innovation are good; but so too is experience. How do we share the learning and knowledge of those who have been working in children’s theatre for all their lives? And yet keep an open mind and not be bound by a sense of ‘this is the way it is done?’

It is important to keep asking the questions and challenging funders, programmers and artists to aspire to make extraordinary work for young people.

The best piece of work for young people I have seen recently was Pondlife McGurk written by Rob Evans and performed by Andy Manley. What made it so good? There was very little set, just finely crafted, humorous storytelling by a hugely engaging performer.  A reminder of Peter Brook’s words.” A man walks across an empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed…”

The Arts council’s recently announced successful strategic touring applications are dominated by work for children.  The Small steps symposium has brought together companies, artists and programmers in the South east to continue to advocate for authentic artistic ambition. It is great to hear about a network in the South west; it is an opportunity for shared learning. Imaginate in Scotland sets the bar high for a strong network. It includes a career infrastructure and an international outlook that attracts more professionals to the sector. Apart from financial resource, what do we need to make the networks flourish in England?

Michael Judge has been involved in making theatre for, by and with young people for over twenty years; he is currently Learning at Arts Council England, these are his views and not necessarily those of his employer.
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Insight into the Industry – by Vicki Hargreaves

As the artistic director of a young company (Commotion Dance) I am constantly questioning my practice: What will people think? What are others doing? How will I get my work seen? Am I doing enough? I have found over the last two years that as an emerging company you not only have to have the skills, dedication and passion to make work but you must also be business minded and have an understanding of the industry you are in.

I believe great work can be found through collaboration and, possibly, the most important collaboration and partnership work in terms of quality is between a company and a venue. As an associate artist of The Point, Eastleigh, I have been given the time to ask questions and understand the industry. The Associate Artists’ Scheme offers not only rehearsal and office space but also a space to develop, challenge and embrace the role of and relationship between programmer and artist.

As a company making work for young audiences, I feel programmers need to see the work being made, not just as an end product but also throughout the process of creation. The Associate Artists’ Scheme allows this to happen. Companies are given the space and time to create while programmers are invited to observe and offer support; generating what I believe is a pretty good recipe for the making of quality work.

Models such as the Associate Artists’ Scheme offer an exceptional example of good practice which, in my opinion, can only lead to a better quality of work being created for audiences. This is surely the overall outcome that both artist and venue want; creating high quality, engaging, risk-taking work that will inspire and engage the audiences and makers of the future.

To make quality work, yes, we need great artistic values but we also need to work hard on how the industry develops. Perhaps if Programmer and Company worked together more, we would understand as a sector what quality work actually is and how we can continue making it.

Vicki Hargreaves is the Artistic Director of Commotion Dance and is an Associate Artist at The Point, in Eastleigh.
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It only takes a moment to comment; how do you think artists can be supported to develop their industry and business understanding, and is it important?

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A new quality network in the SW – by Eloise Malone and Deborah Aguirre Jones

One of the most exciting aspects of working in a field of practice which is still developing, is the opportunity to combine new practice with continual enquiry into what makes the work valuable and meaningful to the whole range of people involved: participants, artists, arts organisations, commissioners, setting-staff, audiences, and families…

In the South West we and a self-selecting group of organisations and individuals have recently come together to develop an action-research process, which will respond to multiple needs identified as crucial in supporting the development of quality practice:

The need to better inspire, inform and support commissioners of opportunities for children and young people through art, so that work is “set up” to be the best it can be from the beginning

  • The need to support early and established artists/organisations who have a good grounding in arts practice with young people but lack opportunities, challenge and inspiration to take the work to “the next level”
  • The deep desire we have ourselves to go further and deeper in designing and developing extraordinary arts experiences with, by and for children and young people
  • The need to transfer innovative practice across art forms and practitioners, and to find out which methods of knowledge transfer are most suitable in our field

It’s early days yet, and we’re still consulting, debating, and designing the model; but over the next year we’re going to be initiating a process through which we will challenge, support, and research one another‘s practice in making good quality work with and for children and young people, whilst supporting other practitioners and arts organisations, and stimulating the markets for children and young people’s arts practice.

Some of the common values we have identified so far are:

  • Expecting excellence from children and young people, and designing processes which support them to generate the best and most authentic work they can make
  • Ensuring young people’s work is visible, championed, and showcased appropriately
  • Supporting children and young people’s developing criticality, as well as artform-specific skills
  • Fostering a wider climate in which participatory work is viewed as an autonomous and highly-skilled practice, rather than as second best or a “stepping stone” towards something else
  • Using transdisciplinary knowledge and practices from, for example, social psychology, community development, marketing and communications, and health fields to inform and enhance our arts practice
  • Focusing, beyond structures and core conditions, on the processes and practices which are indicators of quality outputs and outcomes
  • Working through practices and processes to understand the core systems by which this work happens, and through that understanding create blueprints by which these systems may be shared and further developed.
  • Working in partnership with purchasers of work, to develop their aspirations and knowledge of what’s possible, and to develop our own understanding of their needs and values to create bespoke offers

As we go along, we’ll be blogging what we’re doing – and why and how – so that we can share our learning with our contemporaries. We’re just at the beginning now, but it’s an exciting time and we’re all relieved and excited that this field of practice is finally getting the attention it has long desired.

Get in touch with us to find out more.  Members of our group so far include:

Theatre Royal Plymouth – Victoria Allen; Attik Dance – Ben Dunks; Daisi – Liz Hill; Effervescent – Eloise Malone; Cirque Bijou – Billy Alwen; B Creative – Stuart Wood; Deborah Aguirre Jones – artist; Sarah Cobley – arts consultant; Helen Davies – arts consultant

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View from the Bridge – by Holly Donagh, A New Direction (Bridge org for London)

‘Quality’ is a loaded word – it manages to be both bland and snobbish – but there is no question it cuts to the heart of how we contest and fight for what we believe is important when working with children and young people. Without some notion that our work is good, we slip very quickly into a kind of basket weaving for the under 20’s.

Despite this I have a lot of sympathy with contributors to the blog who stress that debating quality within the sector must never be a substitute for actually generating and promoting work. Stuart from Theatre Is suggests our first question should be ‘how do we secure the conditions for more opportunities for children and young people’s work’.  After all we are in a period where the very existence of art as a subject worth studying at school is being seriously challenged – there are real battles that need to be won and whilst we debate quality the young people we are talking about literally get older. We all only get one chance at a creative childhood.

The new Bridge initiative has a real opportunity to both intervene helpfully into debates on quality and ensure that we maintain a sense of urgency about the bigger picture. We – Bridges – occupy an interesting position between the mainstream education sector and the publicly funded arts and cultural world. I see our role as providing a resource to arts organisations in terms of advice, guidance and networking but – because we start from the position of what is best for the young person – we can also maintain a critical distance and where necessary provide some challenge.

A New Direction is the lead Bridge for London and we work closely with four other arts organisations that have incredible skills and expertise in working with children young people – Apples and Snakes, Sadler’s Wells, The Roundhouse, and The Lyric Hammersmith. Our experience at A New Direction comes from nine years delivering Creative Partnerships – running innovative creative projects with schools across the capital. Working in a school setting it is imperative to ensure young people have tangible learning outcomes from their work which they can use to move forward in their education and development (the Arts Award is really useful in this context). Through Creative Partnerships we developed effective and light touch methods of evaluation that were helpful for practitioners, the school, the funder and the young person. For more on this see http://tinyurl.com/7mhz3oh

I believe Bridges can help bring arts organisations together and consider where we have challenges and shared concerns regarding the definitions and measurement of quality and ongoing evaluation and monitoring. We can use our strategic position to devise research programmes that engage a range of partners and which might otherwise be too complex for a single organisation to take-on. We can also take a more long term approach thinking about really tracking the impact of engagement in culture/arts in the lives of young people over a period of years, we can fill interesting gaps.

Having a concern for quality at heart is not necessarily the same as having a consistent evaluation framework, and it is more important to sustain a culture of engagement with issues of quality and an awareness of the different needs of different parts of the triangle (partners, artists, young person) than to lock down any kind of single assessment model.

Holly Donagh
Partnerships Director, A New Direction
Tw: @HollyDonagh E: holly.donagh@anewdirection.org.uk

It only takes a moment to comment; what do you think the role of the Bridge Orgs should be in relation to quality?

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Are we missing something….? by Sam Cairns, Co-ordinator, Cultural Learning Alliance

Measuring the quality of cultural learning programmes for children and young people seems to provoke endless debate in the cultural sector, and almost none in the education sector.  If teachers, who are experts in assessment, feel it should be easy to assess the quality of cultural learning provision I find myself wondering if we have needlessly complicated things?

To me, measuring quality seems complex, not just complicated (take a look at this article on the differences between these). As Anna Cutler, a Cultural Learning Alliance steering group member, points out in her contribution to Creativity Money Love:

If creative learning is the creation of one’s own ideas, or learning to create one’s own ideas – or even understanding that learning is the creation of new ideas – and if every human has the capacity to do this, then we are talking about something very significant and complex.

If we want to measure quality we have to know what we are measuring. In the Cultural Learning Alliance publication The Case for Cultural Learning: Key Research Findings we have brought together what we know about the impact of cultural learning. We can prove it impacts on cognitive skills, on attainment, on voting, on employment.  But they are only some of the instrumental outcomes: what about the intrinsic benefits of cultural learning? If we can’t even track what cultural learning provides, how can we measure if we are delivering quality?

And yet, teachers don’t think measuring impact and quality is a problem, and they are people who are expert at assessing children, who do it on a frequent basis and are assessed themselves frequently. Outside of our sector, experts look at the complex and find ways to render it simple; for example see this three-minute TED presentation by Eric Berlow.

As a sector do we need to be learning more from how the education sector assesses quality? Are there conversations we need to be having with teachers about the intrinsic and instrumental impacts of cultural learning and how they would measure them? Do people feel they are already having these conversations? It will certainly be interesting to see how the upcoming Henley Review of Cultural Education frames these conversations.

I think it would be easy to dismiss the education system’s assessments as not appropriate to cultural learning, and easy to make an argument that the benefits of cultural learning cannot be measured in the same way as school subjects, that our delivery is so different to school teaching you can’t compare it. But I don’t think we can afford to do that.  We need to work hand in hand with the education sector if we want to have any chance of offering a baseline of access to cultural experiences for the children and young people of the UK, and if we are to construct any kind of national narrative about the importance and value of cultural learning that reaches beyond our sector into every home and every life.

Within the Cultural Learning Alliance, about 40% of our 7,000 members are from the education sector. We have worked hard across the cultural and education sectors to agree the principles upon which we work and to draw up practical ways we can be empowered to work better together. All this work points to the fact that we need to work together more, that our practice and delivery will be enriched by closer collaboration and better understanding of each other’s work.

And who knows, maybe together we will come up with a simple unifying way to measure the quality of our work?

Sam Cairns co-ordinates the Cultural Learning Alliance with Lizzie Crump. The Cultural Learning Alliance is a collective voice working to ensure that at a time of social and economic stress all children and young people are able to have an active engagement with the creation and enjoyment of our arts and heritage.

Agree? Disagree?

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