Oliver Sumner reports on the state of the visual arts offer in education for young people living in the South East and finds that despite a tough financial climate a number of arts organisations have developed initiatives and strong new partnerships with local secondary schools.


By the educational standards of the 1970s and 80s, I had a good school education. But it was not until I left to do my A-levels that I encountered an inspiring teacher who unlocked my creative potential: painting confidently, getting me interested in photography and visiting London galleries. Until then nothing had led me to consider there was a possible future in the arts or anything creative. It was just not encouraged. There are many more creative paths for young people today and far less chance of leaving school without visiting an art gallery. In thirty years there has been a step-change in policy, scale and infrastructure in both the arts and education sectors, but an examination of this progress shows we still have a long way to go. In fact, we are only scratching the surface.


The visual arts sector has taken its share of austerity and learning teams have to do more with less. Whilst staffing levels have inevitably contracted as galleries take a hard look at their business plans, the case for learning as a priority is ever more acute. Actively involving children and young people with art and artists transforms lives, and arts organisations have a crucial role to play. This priority is enshrined in Arts Council England policy as one of its five goals, established in 2010 and recently revised in 2013. Goal 5 states this aspiration under the sub-heading: ’Every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts.’


Cultural education can encourage an experimental and open-ended approach to learning through dialogue and questioning, and equip young people to participate in public life. Margate’s Turner Contemporary has shown conviction in this potential by training the staff who lead groups around the exhibitions in a method of enquiry. As well as training adults, known as Navigators, in a philosophically-based approach, the learning team have, since March 2011, trained 167 Youth Navigators from local secondary schools.


Pallant House Gallery


Pupils learn how to ask open questions, to work with the team and to talk confidently about artists’ work. Harley, a Youth Navigator from Hartsdown Academy in Margate, explained: ‘I think that philosophical enquiry would help kids even if they don’t want to paint, or make, or draw. Seeing things from other people’s perspective is useful in all areas of life – it’s kind of a life skill, not just for creative reasons. It has helped me to develop a more open way of thinking. If you think more openly, you can approach things with a different mind, or even a better one’.


Last year I completed a survey and a series of consultation events for the Contemporary Visual Arts Network South East (CVAN South East) on the visual arts opportunities for children and young people across the region (termed the ‘CYP offer’). RADAR (see report at end of article) was funded by Artswork South East Bridge and involved a network of 17 arts organisations. The process gave a picture of the reach and diversity of this offer, from Buckinghamshire to Kent to the Isle of Wight. It found that the 17 organisations represented had worked with over 65,000 children and young people in the preceding year. Also that this audience was not evenly distributed, with just three major galleries accounting for more than half that figure.


Pallant House educational projects


The rich variety of the organisations was striking in both scale and specialisation, with much scope for sharing good practice. I found many examples of innovation amongst specifically focused organisations such as Blast Theory, Stour Valley Arts, and Project Art Works, as well as in the broad-based venues leading the pack such as Turner Contemporary. The organisations worked with children and young people from many different groups and settings, whether young carers or young offenders, with the most frequent type of group being schools. For example, Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, with a high-quality collection of British Modern Art, boasts a successful schools offer for group visits. The themed tours and workshops are very popular, attracting schools from across the region, including support for annual repeat visits via a system of per-head charges and flat fees.


This experience seems to buck the trend reported by non-collection spaces in the region. Despite schools programmes being ubiquitous and a central plank of the region’s CYP offer, actually achieving fruitful and ongoing contacts with schools was a key challenge expressed elsewhere. Difficulties with establishing and maintaining the right partnerships were put down to obstacles such as school bureaucracy, timetabling, staff changes, a lack of resources for transport and teacher cover, or simply not being high on teachers’ agendas. Meanwhile secondary school art and design teachers, who face the status of their subject diminishing nationally if not within their own schools, may not always be in touch with debates around the cultural offer. This was suggested in the State of the Region report published by Artswork South East Bridge in 2013, which found schools not sufficiently aware of arts and cultural opportunities, with a ‘low uptake of partnerships’ of only 28% of schools in our region working with cultural organisations in any art form.


It is hardly surprising that gallery learning managers expressed a clear desire to extend their reach in working with children and young people and maintain a closer dialogue with teachers. But working in isolation, all but a few organisations are small voices hampered by inconsistent funding streams. Co-operation between arts organisations could surely produce a stronger proposition for schools? Artswork, the South East Bridge agency, is making a concerted effort on behalf of Arts Council England to improve the CYP offer, particularly in schools by promoting Artsmark and Arts Award accreditation. The true potential of this strategic work will be wasted if arts organisations are not ready to pick up the baton.


Music producer Ed Blakely at the Creative Cafe, De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill


At a time when creative subjects in schools are under particular external pressure, expert support is needed to raise standards and the profile of art and design. A call to work together for the greater good may not receive an unqualified welcome from arts organisations fighting for even short-term financial stability. Just as developing external arts partnerships may be a low priority for schools that are fixed laser-like on a grid of data and targets. But teachers and gallery learning managers themselves seem to see the benefits of working better together in strategic partnerships. The experience of Andy Somers, Principal at Hartsdown Academy in Margate bears this out: ‘As a result of the Youth Navigator project, we’ve had pupils take up Art at GCSE who wouldn’t have done it before.’


While artist-led workshops and projects can complement course work enormously, other models are being tested in the region such as the Creative Cafés produced with schools and colleges across the South East by the Hastings-based Culture Shift. These dynamic events are co-devised with young people to raise their awareness and understanding of careers in the creative and cultural sector. Meanwhile, in Brighton two arts organisations, Photoworks and Lighthouse, are working together on a two-year project with two local academy schools in collaboration with the Aldridge Foundation. Art At Work is aimed at opening up opportunities for pupils in the creative industries by involving mentors such as artists, cultural practitioners, educators, curators and particularly digital media creatives, to explore the different roles in the sector.


This could be a critical year in the funding and policy cycle. By working strategically and in concert, arts organisations have it within their grasp to build on their various strengths while achieving the scale and credibility needed to broker relationships with schools in greater numbers and geographical reach. Beginning with peer-to-peer professional development for teachers, artists and arts managers, they could form longer-term relationships with schools, iron-out the inconsistencies of one-off projects and better fulfill Arts Council England’s Goal 5 agenda.


I took encouragement from the engage international conference, Extraordinary Change which was held in Birmingham last November: the biggest annual gathering of learning professionals in the visual arts sector. There was a refreshing atmosphere of determination created by delegates, aside from sober recognition of austerity and a positive will to raise our game through practical partnerships. It is infectious: there’s an impatience to get on and not waste time or money. Conference organiser, Sarah Mossop, captured it in the closing words of the conference: ‘We are optimistic people and we invest in the future.’


RADAR report, What we know about arts education in the South East


Artswork South East Bridge, Schools’ Intelligence Report: 2013


Arts Council England, Great art and culture for everyone, October 2013


The Guardian, Culture Professionals, What place should the arts have in today’s curriculum? Karen Eslea introduces the Youth Navigators programme


engage, Extraordinary Change: The 2013 engage International Conference.


Culture Shift, Creative Cafés.


Photoworks, Art At Work.