Author: Mimi Doulton

Why the Arts Backpack supports mental health

Why the Arts Backpack supports mental health

Why the Arts Backpack supports mental health

Here at Action for Children’s Arts, we have been developing the Arts Backpack since 2018. The project started out with a focus on cultural entitlement, and whilst that is still at the heart of what we are doing, we have also had to re-focus our pilots to reflect a world that looks very different in 2022.

There is little doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has had an effect on the mental health of children and young people. The government’s  COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing surveillance report found that there have been ‘significant increases in probable mental disorders in children and young people’, impacting the lives of around one in six children and young people. The results suggested that primary aged children experienced increases in mental health symptoms during lockdowns, but showed some recovery post-lockdown, however children with special educational needs and from low-income households ‘do not appear to show this post lockdown recovery’. Evidence suggests that the return to school has also worsened symptoms for children suffering with their mental health.

In light of this concerning research, we have incorporated a focus on mental health and wellbeing into our next phase of pilots – the Covid-recovery phase. We are also focussing on delivering in areas where there are high levels of child poverty, as this group has been particularly affected by the pandemic, and hope to work in special educational needs settings later this year.

A range of activities requiring differing levels of engagement and contribution from learners are designed to cater for children who might be anxious about coming back to school. Our Belfast pilot will aim to facilitate play, as a Child in the City report has found that participation in social play has dropped dramatically from 58.9 per cent to just five per cent during the pandemic. Children across all pilots will be encouraged to take part in reflective activities, helping them build expressive language and a stronger sense of identity.

Through our Continuing Professional Development programme, teachers will learn how to create their own programmes of resilience and cultural well-being. The appetite for this was strongly evidenced in the evaluation of the Fife preliminary pilot. We will also be encouraging teachers in England and Scotland to do Place2Be’s Mental Health Champions programme. Place2Be were joint winners of the 2021 J.M. Barrie Outstanding Contribution Award.

With evaluation of all pilots due to be released at the end of this year, we look forward to sharing with you how the Arts Backpack supports mental health. Click here to support the Arts Backpack pilots.

The Arts Backpack comes to Northern Ireland

The Arts Backpack comes to Northern Ireland

The Arts Backpack comes to Northern Ireland

We are delighted to announce that the Arts Backpack will be piloting in Belfast from January - June 2022, in partnership with Young at Art

The scheme is modelled on similar programmes in Norway and Germany, and aims to offer primary-age children access to five quality cultural experiences a year. Following a successful pilot in Fife, Scotland, the Arts Backpack will now be delivered in five Belfast primary schools. Experiences on offer to children and their teachers will include trips to Belfast Children’s Festival and the Mac. The aim of the project is to open pupils’ eyes to the amazing array of arts and culture that is available on their doorstep.

Speaking about the Arts Backpack, ACA patron and acclaimed actress Jenny Agutter (Call the Midwife and The Railway Children) said: "The arts may reflect our society, or stir the imagination but unless we can relate to them on a fundamental level they will not become a part of our lives. The Arts Backpack might be the needed bridge."

This project is supported by Arts Council Northern Ireland and the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers. It is part of a nationwide scheme of pilots, the findings of which will be shared with an international audience at Belfast Children’s Festival in 2023. 

Year in Review: 2021

Year in Review: 2021

Year in Review: 2021

A message from our Chair, Vicky Ireland MBE:

Hello Everyone,

In January we made a bold start to the year by holding both ACA membership and Critical Friends consultations. Thank you to everyone who gave up their time to share their ideas!

Then in February we held a virtual Board Away Day to consider all we had learnt and set out thinking for the year ahead, despite an uncertain future. We had a busy and productive year and attended meetings of:

  • The Drama and Theatre Education Alliance, helping to broker three ASSITEJ (the world Association of Theatre and the Performing Arts for Children and Young People) Zooms on Cultural Education
  • Performing Arts for Young Audiences England
  • APPGs (All Party Parliamentary Group) on "Children's Media and the Arts", and "Arts, Craft and Design in Education”
  • FED, looking towards a new curriculum
  • What Next?zooms convened by the Cultural Learning Alliance.

We discussed children and the arts in a zoom meeting with Wes Streeting MP, with regard to his paper, “ten by ten”. Many thanks to ACA Critical Friend, Trevor MacFarlane, Director of Culture Commons, for his time and advice in setting this up.

We added our name to the campaign More than A Score and our Patron Jamila Gavin wrote a wonderful introduction for their recent report.

We held our J.M. Barrie Awards and many thanks to Trustee, Chris Jarvis for helping to produce them. It was wonderful to be able to demonstrate our admiration for Michael Rosen as a remarkable creative, compassionate individual, and to BAFTA Kids and Place2Be for their outstanding work in Primary schools during lockdown.

May I also say, as Chair of ACA, how grateful and proud I am of all that Mimi and the Backpack team have achieved this year, for all the fun and wisdom our Young Voices have shared with us, and the on-going help from the Trustees and Critical Friends who offer their advise and time with such generosity. Plus a big welcome to new team member, Katy.

Although we were very disappointed by the government cuts to the arts in Higher Education and their ongoing negative attitude that the arts are soft subjects, be re-assured ACA remains passionate about campaigning for the need of a broad and balanced curriculum for our children throughout their school life, and that we will continue to champion the huge benefits we believe the arts offer to every child's education and well-being, which help shape their sense of achievement, their sense of pride and their sense of fun.

With thanks and a Happy New Year to you all,


ACA Young Voices

ACA Young Voices

In February 2021 we launched ACA Young Voices - a panel of 13 incredible young people aged between 7 and 17, set up in memory of our late patron Sir Ken Robinson. One of their first projects was to create a video on the theme 'Imagine If' as part of tributes to Sir Ken that took place in March:

We've discussed a whole range of topics with our Young Voices - from the environment to curriculum reform. In May they wrote an open letter to the Catch-Up Tsar Sir Kevan Collins, which you can read here. They have also sent in ideas for the next Children's Laureate and consulted on Wes Streeting's 10 by 10 proposal.

The Arts Backpack

The Arts Backpack

In May 2021 we completed our first pilotof the Arts Backpack in Fife. You can read the final evaluation on our website here. We want to say a huge thank you to all the schools, teachers and pupils who participated, to everyone who contributed their time and ideas to making the project happen, to Fife Council for their financial support, and particularly to the amazing Amanda Glover who was our schools' coordinator in Scotland. We hope to be back in person in 2022!
We would also like to thank everyone who supported our Crowdfunder through the Aviva Community Fund. We are looking forward to bringing the Arts Backpack toLeicester in 2022 with your financial support.

The J.M. Barrie Awards

The J.M. Barrie Awards


This year's J.M. Barrie Lifetime Achievement Award went to the wonderful Michael Rosen! The award recognises a lifetime's achievement in children's arts - congratulations Michael! The Outstanding Contribution Award was presented jointly to BAFTA Kids and Place2Be for their work supporting children's mental health and creativity throughout lockdown.
Missed the J.M. Barrie Awards this year? Not to worry! You can catch up on the virtual awards ceremonies with the videos above and below. We are keeping everything crossed that we can be back celebrating with you in person next year...

BAFTA Kids and Place2Be win the Outstanding Contribution Award 2021

BAFTA Kids and Place2Be win the Outstanding Contribution Award 2021

BAFTA Kids and Place2Be win the Outstanding Contribution Award 2021

We are delighted to announce that we are presenting the ACA Outstanding Contribution to Children’s Arts Award 2021 jointly to BAFTA Kids and Place2Be. This is in recognition of the incredible partnership they have shared since 2017 in promoting mental wellbeing and the importance of creativity in young people’s lives. Activity has been delivered through the BAFTA Kids roadshow with Place2Be, visiting schools in England, Scotland and Wales. The roadshow includes a 'Behind the Scenes Assembly' and a 'Presenting Masterclass' led by special guests from the world of children's television.

During the Covid-19 pandemic the charities launched BAFTA Kids at Home with Place2Be for the many children at home during the pandemic. As part of the project, BAFTA Kids TV presenters including Ashley John-Baptiste, Ben Shires and Arielle Free shared their favourite films, TV shows and characters, alongside activity ideas for families. The charities also delivered a hugely successful campaign to support Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week on the theme of Express Yourself.

On the decision to present the award to these organisations, ACA Chair Vicky Ireland MBE said, “At a time when the mental health of our nation is in crisis, we salute the work of these two marvellous organisations and all they are doing on behalf of children in the UK”.

Catherine Roche, Chief Executive at Place2Be added, “We are absolutely thrilled and honoured to be the joint recipients of this award. Through Place2Be’s partnership with BAFTA Kids, the Roadshow has inspired and boosted the confidence of children in schools across England, Scotland and Wales, with a range of activities led by special guests from children's television.”

The Award will be presented virtually in autumn 2021. We will also be presenting the J.M. Barrie Lifetime Achievement Award to writer Michael Rosen, in recognition of a lifetime spent delighting and inspiring children and young people.

An Open Letter to Sir Kevan Collins

An Open Letter to Sir Kevan Collins

An open letter to Sir Kevan Collins

Dear Sir Kevan,

We are Action for Children’s Arts Young Voices: a group of young people aged 7 to 17 who meet every month to discuss issues concerning children’s arts and education.

Firstly, thank you for taking on the role of Catch-up Tsar along with the huge pressure, expectation and responsibility that it involves. Following a number of Young Voices meetings about summer ‘catch-up’ we wanted to write and share our thoughts and concerns about the summer holidays:

  • We believe that any education offered over the summer holidays should be optional. The last year has been difficult, and children need to be given the opportunity to relax and recover over the summer holidays. We acknowledge that there are some children who have fallen behind in the last year, for whom intervention might be useful and appropriate. When deciding which children qualify for ‘catch-up’ we ask you to take their circumstances into account, for example whether they are struggling with their mental health (in which case the pressure of extra school might do more harm than good).
  • Delivery of summer ‘catch-up’ should be flexible. We believe that the idea of ‘catch-up’ would be more appealing to children and their families if delivery was spread out over the summer holidays. This would still allow for families to organise time away together, and for children to have some much-needed downtime between ‘catch-up’ days in school. For the same reason, it would also be better if catch-up sessions did not last a whole school day.
  • Children at transition points or who are about to take important exams should be prioritised. ‘Catch-up’ delivery should focus on children transitioning into year 7 - particularly those who are starting at new schools - and young people going into year 11 and 13 who have important exams coming up. If there is extra resource, children who went into year 7 in September 2020 should also receive the offer of ‘catch-up’ as they have not had much of a chance to adapt to the transition from primary to secondary school in the last academic year.
  • The ‘catch-up’ curriculum should include extra sport and creative activities. In the spirit of a fun and relaxing summer holiday, any ‘catch-up’ that takes place should be an opportunity to do more enrichment activities. We feel that these are the activities that suffered most during the lockdown, as they are harder to do in isolation. In addition to this, we believe that additional creative and physical education would present a great chance to help young people who are struggling with their mental health, or those at transition points (for example entering year 7) who are concerned about making new friends.
  • Any ‘catch-up’ on offer should be free. We must maintain our right to free education, including the provision of free school meals.
  • Where possible, we should be taught by our teachers. We believe it is important that those who are giving us knowledge and nurturing us are people we know, trust and have a good relationship with. This is particularly vital for children with additional support needs. If we are working with teachers who do not know our learning styles, much of the ‘catch-up’ time will be wasted getting to know each other and trying to communicate what works best for us in the classroom.
  • Our teachers should be properly paid for their contribution to the ‘catch-up’ effort. This has been a really hard year for teachers - we should be focusing on how to support them and improve their working conditions, not asking them to do more work for little or no return.

We look forward to hearing your response to our suggestions and want to thank you again for taking on this very important task.

Yours sincerely,

ACA Young Voices

Arts Backpack UK Fife pilot

Arts Backpack UK Fife pilot

The Arts Backpack UK - Fife pilot

Today marks the release of the final report for The Arts Backpack UK - Fife pilot. This report evaluates our preliminary pilot of The Arts Backpack UK, which we ran in Fife, Scotland from October 2020 - March 2021. Click here to download the report.

The key findings of the report are:

  • The Arts Backpack UK can successfully foster arts and culture in areas where children may experience barriers to provision.
  • The Arts Backpack UK has a clear value for the teacher and their professional development and confidence.
  • The Arts Backpack UK can be presented as being about the art-forms, or as a way of engaging with curriculum topics, or a well-being agenda.
  • Local partners (teachers and cultural organisations) can help co-design the contents and influence its make-up according to each location.

This pilot builds on our 2018 Feasibility Study, testing the recommendations of that study in context. We worked in five schools in the Fife Coalfields area with children in classes P4 to P7 (aged 8-11). At the beginning of the project, our plans did not anticipate the full extent of the second wave of Covid-19 and the new lockdown restrictions which meant that children were being home-schooled from January to March 2021. As a result of this, the pilot was largely redesigned to be delivered online.

The pilot demonstrated the value of The Arts Backpack UK for teachers, as well as their pupils. All of the teachers who engaged with the project noted how their confidence in delivering arts and cultural activities had increased over the course of the project. Their feedback about student response was also positive:

They were able to see pieces of art that they wouldn’t normally get to see, especially during COVID. Children were keen to go and look further on the websites to see other pieces of art. (About a Magic Lantern Art activity)

Children who normally would stay quiet and avoid music tasks were smiling and engaging and the children enjoyed sharing their creations with their peers and the staff. (About Google Chrome Music Lab)

They enjoyed being able to tell a story, that they created, in a different way. Other children liked that they could be more creative than they would in a standard piece of writing and that there were no right or wrong ways to create their comic book. (About V&A Dundee 'Create a Comic Book')

Many thanks to all the teachers and pupils who took part in the project and contributed to this report. Thank you to the young people at Chickenshed Theatre and the readers of First News for their valuable contributions to pilot planning. Our thanks also to the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers and Fife City Council for their generous financial support.

We are currently planning a second-phase of pilots to take place in the 21/22 academic year.

Michael Rosen wins the 2021 J.M. Barrie Award

Michael Rosen wins the 2021 J.M. Barrie Award

Michael Rosen to win the 2021 J.M. Barrie Award

We are delighted to announce that Michael Rosen has been named as the recipient of the 2021 J.M. Barrie Lifetime Achievement Award. This is in recognition of his tremendous work championing the arts for children as well as his achievements as a performer and author.

The winner of the award is selected annually by the Trustees of Action for Children’s Arts. Speaking about this year’s choice of Michael Rosen, Chair Vicky Ireland MBE said:

This award recognises Michael as a hugely talented and popular writer, and also as an outspoken supporter of Action for Children’s Arts and of all we stand for with regard to so many things – especially the need for creativity and expressive arts in schools. After Michael’s battle with Covid-19 last year, we are lucky to still have him with us, and believe this is a brilliant chance to celebrate his achievements and say thank you for his constant courage in speaking publicly for the sector.’

Michael will be presented with the award in an online ceremony in autumn 2021. He will be joining an illustrious list of previous winners that includes Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE, Sir Philip Pullman CBE, and Stuart and Kadie Kanneh-Mason. The Award is given annually to a children’s arts practitioner or organisation in recognition of a lifetime’s achievement in delighting children.

ACA Member discount for the 2021 Children’s Media Conference

ACA Member discount for the 2021 Children’s Media Conference

ACA Member discount for the 2021 Children's Media Conference

Registration for CMC 2021 Online opens Friday 9th April! The CMC Early Bird rate of £115+VAT will be on sale until 10th May and is available for everyone to buy.

CMC 2021 Online will take place 5-9 July 2021 and, as last year, will be a virtual event. The conference will feature your favourite mix of tightly curated webinars, VOD strands, SkillBuilder Workshop and amazing keynotes during the conference week.

With its theme of ‘Together’, CMC 2021 Online will provide a midsummer focus for the kids’ and youth media professions from around the world.

Once the CMC Early Bird period is over, ACA members will still be able to take advantage of the discounted rate of £115+VAT right up until the start of the conference – a saving of £35+VAT on the full rate of £150+VAT. After 10th May please contact Mimi Doulton to get your discount code which you’ll need in order to register for the special offer.

Catch Up: a reflection from ACA Trustee Janna Balham

Catch Up: a reflection from ACA Trustee Janna Balham

With Sir Kevan Collins having been appointed the government’s first Education Recovery Commissioner or ‘Catch Up Tsar’, I’ve been wondering about the term ‘catch up’ when the world has been paused. The term is a problematic one.

Boris Johnson stated in a press release that he was determined that no child would be left behind as a result of the pandemic. That is a good sentiment but my fear is that he thinks we are running a race. We’ve all fallen behind. Trauma, anxiety, depression, mental and physical health are amongst the many casualties. So why not stop to put ourselves back together, rather than pushing children ‘to catch up’ with the formalities of learning on a playing field that was never very even to start with. Perhaps we need to fill in the cracks, or even better – build a new playing field.

I understand the focus on recovery. My hope is that we follow the advice of child psychologists and have the ‘summer of play’ that experts suggested. However, with advisors now looking into longer school days and shorter holidays the emphasis doesn’t seem to be on recovery but on ‘catch up’. As a therapist working in schools, I see first-hand how traumatised children cannot simply ‘catch up’, but need to be creative, play, and use the arts to express themselves and explore their feelings before they can begin to absorb formal learning. This takes time. It is not a race. Children who have lived through war do eventually learn again, but mental health needs to first be acknowledged and treated with care.

After World War 2, the government’s focus was on welfare and community. But as technology and consumerism took over, the education system had to respond to needs associated with industrialisation and childcare rather than child development.

Our politicians finally have a chance to align education with child development, and they can start at the very beginning. Our early school starting age in comparison to other European countries has always been debated. Do children have ‘a head-start in the race?’ Or are they missing out on fundamental time to play, explore and spend time with their primary carers as child development experts have suggested?

Sir Kevan Collins has an unenviable task ahead of him but this is a huge opportunity if we really focus on ‘recovery’ and healing rather than on ‘catching up’.

Janna Balham

Janna is a Trustee of ACA, a registered therapist and child counsellor.