Putting Children First

Against a background of growing concern about children’s well-being in the UK, negative perceptions of children and a feeling that childhood itself is undervalued, perhaps we should not be surprised that little more than 1% of public funding for the arts is directed towards work for which children are the main audience.

This is what Action for Children’s Arts found to be the case when we sent Freedom of Information requests to twenty of the UK’s major arts organisations, the four national Arts Councils and the British Film Institute.  Their responses are included in a report, Putting Children First, that was presented at a conference at the Unicorn Theatre, London, on 19 June.

We asked the UK’s arts funding bodies what proportion of their grants helped to fund work aimed at children up to 12 years of age.  None of them was able to give a precise answer.  The BFI was unable to identify films made specifically for this age group, only those classified by the British Board of Film Censors as either U, PG or 12A.  Each of the national Arts Councils gave a high priority to ‘children and young people’ but none of them could say exactly how much their clients spent on work aimed at children.

We asked our sample of arts organisations how much of their budget went on productions, performances, exhibitions or broadcasts aimed wholly or mainly at children up to 12 years of age.  It was a relatively small sample, covering all the major art forms, but the degree of consistency between the answers we were given suggests that the results are likely to be representative.  The BBC spends 3% of its budget on programmes for children.  That’s less than it spent three years ago.  On average, the UK’s flagship arts organisations spend just over 2% of their total budget on the performance or exhibition of original work for children.

Since the publication of The Arts in Schools by the Gulbenkian Foundation in 1982, the arts world has generally perceived its relationship to children in the context of education.  Successive governments have funded programmes such as Creative Partnerships to promote links between the arts and education sectors.  Government-commissioned reports, from All Our Futures in 1999 to this year’s Henley Review of Cultural Education, have argued for the central place of the arts in children’s learning.

Most arts organisations today have strong education departments running programmes of high quality.  The irony is that, in most cases, they spend more on these programmes than they do on producing or presenting original work for children.  It is still the case that most theatres do one family show a year – at Christmas – and that most cultural organisations plan their programmes primarily to meet the perceived needs and interests of an adult audience.

Children up to twelve years old make up around 15% of the population.  The arts have a special place in their lives.  Through reading, singing and dancing, watching plays and films, seeing their lives reflected in paintings and sculptures, children’s imaginations are stimulated and they learn to be creative.  The attitudes, values and skills that we learn in childhood stay with us for the rest of our lives.  No one who works in the arts would disagree with that.  So why do we spend so little on children’s arts?

The cynical answer would be that more for children would mean less for grown-ups.  (They asked for more!)

The realistic answer would be that the arts are no different from any other group in a country that came bottom of the league in the 2007 UNICEF report on children’s well-being in 21 industrialised nations.

A better answer would be to make a less rigid distinction between children and grown-ups when it comes to the arts.  The best children’s books can be read and enjoyed by grown-ups too.  The best children’s theatre is a treat for parents and teachers (who have the added enjoyment of seeing the children enjoy themselves).  The best artists think like children.

With our report and our conference as a starting point, Action for Children’s Arts will be campaigning vigorously from now on for an overhaul of practice in the arts world.  We want galleries to put on exhibitions that children will want their parents to see.  We want the production of original work for children to be part of the remit of our flagship cultural organisations.  We want the BBC to start commissioning home-grown programmes for children again. We want the cultural sector as a whole to put children first.

Please read the report and join in the debate.


Putting Children First
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6 thoughts on “Putting Children First

  • 22nd June 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the seminar. Was awestruck by the commitment of so many. My one disappointment was the total lack of ethnic diversity and representation in the proceedings.

  • 25th June 2012 at 3:47 am

    I also thought the conference was excellent, and having the research as the foundation of the discussion was particularly useful.

    I’d be very interested in someone researching how much of the funding that is given to engage ‘hard to reach’ children actually does do that. As the ACE Bridge organisation for the North West, we’ve been doing an audit of the region, which is able to be published on our website. One of the issues raised was that creating more of the excellent quality work (of the type that was so frequently referenced at the conference) leaves us with the danger that the same children will simply access more and more. I’d like to talk about how effectively in practice the sector is actually engaging those children who face barriers and what we can do about this.

    So much funding is given in the name of ‘hard to reach’, yet how do we define who those children are and know which of them are engaging? How many of us are simply satisfied with engaging children we haven’t worked with before in the name of working with the hard to reach? A colleague of mine says that there is no such thing as ‘hard to reach’ children, as we all know where they are – in fact all of us could probably get in the car and drive to where they are right now. It isn’t the children that are hard to reach – it’s us.

    So maybe the question is ‘How do we as providers of arts experiences for children, make ourselves easier to reach?’.

  • 25th June 2012 at 4:59 am

    Very good point. At the egg we find the children that are traditionally categorised as ‘hard to reach’ the easiset to reach because they stand out as being hard to reach. Its the massive swathe of the middle classes that are harder to reach, in my view. Children who attend target-driven, ostensibly successful schools – these are far less likely to take part in the kind of project I outlined at the conference than children from schools in areas which are defined as being ‘hard ot reach’, or in other words, where there is traditionally low take up on cultural activity. Children being groomed for higher eduction are deprived of arts activities, creative and cultural education because they are so busy doing their homework!!

  • 29th June 2012 at 4:53 am

    Totally agree and this highlights for me the absolute need to have a bespoke, targetted approach. People’s access needs are so complex and different, and we’ve just highlighted two here.

    I also remember through our work on Creative Partnerships that a couple of schools were choosing to focus on their gifted and talented children who were experiencing such high expectations from teachers and parents that they developed a significant fear of failure (especially having rarely experienced it) that left them extremely adverse to risk taking and didn’t develop any resilience, so had inadvertantly been set up to have awful experiences when they inevitably made fairly minor mistakes.

    So much has been done to segment adults and how they behave in relation to culture in order to help people target their work, market and communicate more effectively. We think it’s a real shame that this hasn’t happened yet for children and young people, and it’s something we’re considering doing at the moment. It’d be interesting to hear any opinions on this.

  • 26th July 2012 at 6:24 am

    We welcome the opportunity to debate arts funding and how it is apportioned, especially where children and young people are concerned. Our thanks to Action for Children’s Arts for being a catalyst for this debate.

    I was struck, both in ACA’s report and at the conference, by the near-absence of discussion about work done by arts organisations’ education, community, learning and participation departments.

    Ken Robinson’s video address was particularly striking in this respect, insofar as he set up a dichotomy between artistic works for children as audience members and projects that mediate “existing repertory” for children and young people. To my mind, this gives an inaccurate impression of arts organisations’ offer to children. Playwright Mike Kenny spoke at the conference about work “for, with and by” children. With this one exception, however, the day’s discussions were about work “for” rather than “with” and “by”. A huge, important body of work was therefore all but absent from discussions.

    There are a variety of ways of engaging children, young people and families with the arts. Creating work for children is undoubtedly an important means of doing this. Nevertheless, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of dislocating this body of work from arts organisations’ wider work with children, families and school, or, worse, setting the two up in opposition to one another. I see work “for, with and by” children as part of the same continuum or “virtuous circle”. By engaging with arts organisations as creators and performers, children can become a more informed and active audience. Similarly, the experiences children have as audiences of work produced especially for them can inform and enrich what they do as creators and performers.

    There are three further, distinct benefits to considering these areas of work to be interdependent:

    1. A healthy sector
    Now more than ever, we need to present a united front in heralding the value of the arts to children and young people. There is a danger that by isolating the kinds of work we deliver, we fragment and therefore weaken our voice.

    2. Audience development
    As a sector, we could increase the proportion of funding we spend on creating work for 0-12 year olds enormously and still not reach a huge proportion of our target audience. Children and their parents need an appetite for the arts in order to become audiences. We therefore need to develop a variety of means of engaging children and their parents. As Dr Maggie Atkinson so rightly said, we have to “start where children are” in order to be able to engage with them. While we aspire to all children and families having an appetite for the watching performances and visiting exhibitions, this is sadly not yet the starting point for many children and families.

    3. Creativity
    We firmly believe that arts organisations need to programme high quality work for children as audience members. We also need to provide opportunities for children to develop their creativity. In a piece in the Evening Standard relating to the ACA conference, Michael Morpurgo wrote about “channelling the phenomenal energy that young people have in a creative way that will benefit us all.” Watching an opera, or play, or ballet is not necessarily, in and of itself, a creative experience. We need to offer children opportunities to be active creative participants in the arts, alongside opportunities to be audience members.

    Finally, a practical point on the ACA report. The report measures the sums spent on work aimed wholly or mainly at children as a proportion of arts organisations’ overall expenditure. It would be naïve to consider that arts organisation spend 100% of their expenditure on programming. Most arts organisations have venues to maintain or hire, staff and overheads to pay, over above the money spent on programming. We believe wholeheartedly that the artistic work (and therefore programming, including programming for children) should be at the heart of any arts organisation. However, the ACA report would give us a more accurate idea of the current funding situation if spend on programming for 0-12 year olds were expressed as a proportion of overall spend on programming, rather than total expenditure.

    Hannah Griffiths
    Opera Education Manager
    Royal Opera House

  • 15th January 2014 at 10:33 am

    I recently came across news of this conference while researching for the creation of a theatre for young audiences.
    I live in London, Ontario, Canada, and I will do my best to use the information, comments, and the content of the report to inspire funders, and other would-be supporters as they consider my proposals.
    This report along with the manifesto of theatre for young audiences are truly inspirational.

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