Equality and diversity - do we really know who's engaging?

5 April 2017

Information Manager, Annie Thorpe, reflects on the learnings from the Arts Council commissioned Every Child report

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In their 10-year strategic vision, Great Art and Culture for Everyone, Arts Council England outline five ambitious goals. The first four of these relate to excellence, access, resilience and sustainability of organisations, and diversity and skills in the workforce. The fifth - Goal 5 - relates specifically to children and young people, stating that ‘every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts, museums and libraries.’

Reflecting an ongoing commitment to equality and diversity, in March 2015 ACE commissioned EW Group to undertake a data and evidence review and equality action planning process in relation to Goal 5. Using a mixed-methodologies approach to gather both quantitative and qualitative information, the research sought to identify and analyse broad trends across the English arts and cultural sector in terms of children and young people’s engagement - with a particular focus on protected characteristics including age, gender, disability and race, ethnicity and religion, as well as socio-economic status and educational attainment.

The report Every Child: equality and diversity in arts and culture with, by and for children and young people, brings together key evidence about the barriers and facilitators to children and young people’s engagement. It also provides an overview of the diversity profile of the arts and cultural sector workforce, and collates available data on the demographics of children and young people engaging in ACE funded programmes. Using this evidence, it draws a number of conclusions about the extent to which ACE funded activity and key programmes aimed at children and young people successfully address issues of equity of access to opportunities. It also puts forward a series of recommendations.

In highlighting a wealth of information about what the existing research and evidence tells us about children and young people’s engagement with arts and culture, the report usefully draws attention to many of the challenging realities which, as an organisation focussed on ensuring equity of access to arts and culture for all young Londoners, AND looks to address.

Drawing on a broad range of sources it highlights evidenced patterns of engagement across key characteristics. These include insights from the latest Child Taking Part Survey which shows that arts engagement at the most basic level (defined as at least once in the last year) reduces with age and that girls are more likely than boys to engage in almost all arts activities, both inside and out. It also cites research which indicates that BAME people are less likely to have been taken to arts events while growing up – although it is important to note that there are differences between ethnic groups – and that parents from higher socio-economic groups are significantly more likely to take their children to arts events and to encourage them to participate in arts activities.

Usefully, the report also looks beyond protected characteristics to consider the roles played by schools and parents in influencing cultural engagement. It highlights the key role played by schools in ensuring more equity of access to engagement – something which is born out in our own research into Young Londoner’s patterns of cultural engagement. Furthermore, it draws attention to the limitations of measuring young people’s cultural engagement by highlighting our 2014 Cultural Capital research which demonstrates that young people often have different, broader, definitions of arts and culture than policy makers and funders.

In synthesising such evidence the report acts as an incredibly useful tool for those of us attempting to understand and address the challenges around ensuring all young people are able to access arts, cultural and creative opportunities. It is also an important and interesting read for the sector more broadly!

Beyond this, the report is also of interest for its observations on the evidence base. It points to a number of limitations in the evidence needed to assess the extent to which children and young people with one or more of the protected characteristics have the opportunity to engage with arts and culture. A large part of the challenge, as the report makes clear, is around the collection of research and monitoring data. For example, the report highlights that such data, when it is gathered, often considers young people as a group rather than attempting to look at the diversity within this group – unless a protected characteristic is considered to be a specific focus within the project or research.

The report also highlights a lack of consistency in the gathering of such data. For example, some collection of data is done directly, some by proxy and others by observation. Furthermore, there is a lack of evidence about the particular trends in relation to specific artforms with few research pieces (with the exception of a notable few in music) looking specifically at the diversity of children and young people involved. Not only do these limitations make it tricky to assess the progress ACE funded programmes are making in terms of engaging a broad and diverse audience of children and young people, but they also make it difficult to assess patterns related to access to employment and career paths into the arts and cultural sector. With these observations in mind, the report includes the recommendation that ACE takes steps to radically improve the collection, analysis and use of data about equality and diversity in relation to arts and culture by, with and for children and young people.

We know from our conversations with colleagues from across the cultural education sector that the collection of research and monitoring data is considered increasingly important, yet involves a number of challenging factors. As reported in this research, these include things such as the lack of clarity of reporting frameworks, the varying demands of different funders and limitations of organisational capacity. Despite these challenges, it is clear that if we are to enact real change in terms of broadening and diversifying access then we need to have a clear and reliable picture of who is currently engaging in arts and cultural opportunities.

As the report highlights, there is a recognisable need within the arts and cultural sector for support, expertise and training when it comes to data capturing and analysis. One source of support may be to look to the broader youth sector, where discussions of best practice around monitoring and data and how this contrasts with evidence and impact are salient. The lessons learned and shared by those working in the sector, as well as specialist organisations within it including Project Oracle or The Centre for Youth Impact, constitute key resources for those of us working with children and young people within the cultural sphere.

A New Direction is keen to find out how we can further support this effort, so please let us know by contacting me on annie.thorpe@anewdirection.org.uk.

Image credit: Haringey Shed