Potential and possibility, not problems and containment

Priced Out? Report of roundtable discussion with Stella Creasy MP at the William Morris Gallery (31 October 2013).

19 December 2013

(Image courtesy of Guardian Website)

About the roundtable

London is a dynamic city. Keeping pace with change and understanding what constitutes important and structural shift as opposed to passing trends is a challenge.

At A New Direction we are constantly working to understand how children and young people experience the city and what makes a difference in terms of their engagement with arts and culture. Over the last few months we have been bringing together research on poverty trends in the city to get a sense of what this is doing to children and young people’s access.

On the 31 October 2013 we were very privileged to be joined by colleagues from across the arts in London as well as local councillors and officials, charity and youth policy leaders to debate these questions. Stella Creasy MP for Waltham Forest, known for her campaigning against pay-day loan companies and looking to turn Walthamstow into Awesomestow, kindly agreed to lead our debate and place it in the wider issues for the borough and London.


The theme of the discussion was poverty, its impact on children and young people and its effect on their capacity to take part in art and culture. We located in the debate in Waltham Forest a borough that has seen huge economic and social shifts in the last ten years. The key questions were –

  • Is London facing a crisis in terms of poverty and what does this mean for children and young people?
  • Does it matter if children and young people have less access to arts and culture as a result of economic disadvantage when there are so many other pressing issues to deal with?
  • What would a 'child/young person-centered' approach to cultural engagement across London look like and how might it take account of disadvantage?

Key to the debate is the extent to which there can (or should) be any kind of systemic response to these issues from those who work in arts and culture – as artists, organisations, local authorities, youth groups or teachers.

Mark Rusling, a Labour Councillor in Waltham Forest, started the discussion by reflecting on his experience of economic change in his borough. He talked about Waltham Forest being in the second wave of gentrification, following on from the first wave which occurred in places like Hackney and Stoke Newington in the 1990s, and preceding the third wave which would reach Barking & Dagenham and Ilford in the next few years. This trend brings with it a highly skilled workforce – the proportion of people in the borough with a higher level qualification has gone up from 20% to 40% in two years. But whilst wealth has come into the borough poverty has not gone away and in many ways it has simply created two 'worlds that never meet' living in very close proximity.

Statistics tell us that over the last five years inner London has got richer and outer London poorer. Poverty remains more concentrated in the centre of the city but we can no longer think of Outer London as necessarily better-off. This is mainly driven by house prices.

Mark talked about a 'hollowing-out' of the labour market, 40% of jobs are at the top of end of the income scale, and this is growing and 40% are at the bottom, which is also growing but the middle 20% is shrinking. For Mark this trend is likely to be mirrored in housing very soon, whereby unless you are very highly paid or in social housing 'you will not live in London'. Using current figures the average age for a person on average wages to be able to buy a house in zones 1-4 is 52.

Another distinct trend is towards 'in-work poverty', with 57% of families in London who are classed as being in poverty being in employment – driven by wage stagnation and the rapidly rising cost of living and housing. This a particular issue for London as higher salaries no longer make up for the high cost of housing, pushing families into poverty for the first time.

Faced with this picture many young people feel that they have no access to the high earning 40% and they have little desire to be in the bottom 40% - for Mark 'they have been sold a duff deal'.

As one delegate said, with these negative statistics it is perhaps reasonable that young people ask 'what is a job for' and see crime as a more practical way 'of getting money in your pocket'.

Jane Caldwell from Kids Company reminded the group that many young people live in 'chronically scary places'. A recent piece of research they commissioned showed 50% of the young people they work with had seen a close relative shot or stabbed, 30% were sleeping on someone’s floor 'these children live in survival mode'.

Celia Greenwood from WAC Arts talked about the impact of the 'bedroom-tax' on families. WAC arts are losing a family a week from their Saturday classes because Camden Council is re-housing people out of the borough. This undermines one of the core values of arts work that of establishing places of community.

The consensus of the group was that the current trends on poverty and housing do suggest a move into a new paradigm for London where the rich are even richer and the poor even poorer. The traditional structures of the state that have in the past worked to alleviate the most significant impacts of inequality but these have been weakened by five years of austerity.

But into this difficult picture Stella Creasy MP made a strong plea to the group to not dwell on negative indices because that can create stasis and a sense of not being able to change or make a difference.

Stella talked about pride, about potential and about raising aspiration. "We don’t just want to muddle throughwe want our young people and our communities to be world class’. Stella described going into schools in the borough and telling the students that they will not live the same lives as their parents. For some this is incredibly scary. ‘We need our young people to embrace the risks they will inevitably face if they are going to be part of the positive economic future for the city. As adults we need to inspire the next generation and invest in their ‘future capacity’ so they can thrive in the world."

For Stella the arts and creativity is a crucial part of how we build our economy to provide a future and how we equip our young people to be resilient.

"Kids need the ability to be creative and inventive and we can’t have a successful economy without a creative economy." "We can’t have a successful workforce without the arts" because it builds academic and cognitive skills as well as transferrable skills – confidence and teambuilding etc.

Stella laid down the challenge to see 'potential and possibility not problems and containment' when we talk about young people and not to lower our expectations of what is possible because this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The rights of children and young people to develop their creative talents, play and be involved in arts and culture are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. How do we make this more than just words on paper?

Real briefs, real work experience, real achievement

Running through the discussion was the frustration and disgust at the persistently high levels of unemployment amongst young people in London (a city with one of the largest economies in the world). Most people with direct experience of trying to support young unemployed people through interacting with government schemes were exasperated and despondent about current provision in this area. We 'offer young people crumbs to do meaningless things'; 'young people are very busy – meeting the demands of the job centre'. Without really showing young people that their efforts at schools and in further education are meaningful in the context of useful and fulfilling work we will lose them at an early age.

The group discussed the fact that young people’s individual needs are not understood by the system, they are made to jump through hoops and the whole process is perceived as having little value and being fake.

As Justin O’Shaughnessy from the Shoreditch Trust said – "young people want to do something real they want to produce something. The creative sector should be able to offer real experiences where students at schools can try out their skills in real environments and where FE students can spend time with employers."

There was a strong push for 'alternative' job centres where young people could be engaged in cultural activities and given a chance to take part in the real world of work. This is not about training the next creative workforce necessarily (though it is this in part) but about giving young people the confidence to move forward in their lives.

Mark talked about the model of a 'youth job centre' in Waltham Forest which is working really well. To make this work you have to un-couple the requirement of the benefits system from training and development.

Rosie Ferguson from London Youth described the Talent Match model that they are delivering in London which focusses on effective information, advice and guidance and is separate from benefits processing.

Start with the schools

Chantelle Michaux from the Waltham Forest Arts in Education Network and Alan Adams from Children’s Services talked in different ways about the really positive things schools do to engage young people and families. With concerted strategic support schools can ensure their students have access to a range of activities and opportunities they might not get through home. Alan talked about the difference the local authority is making for children in care through targeted intervention and coordination of services.

But as Justin said schools are under a lot of pressure to be 'exam sausage factories'. Their drivers do not necessarily encourage them to push their students to engage with the creative sector – to gain skills for employment – and far too many schools don’t take their children on visits or view their role as broadening the horizons of their students.

Schools and teachers are critical to the way in which young people from disadvantaged backgrounds engage with their communities, develop their creative talents and develop a sense of a world beyond their direct experience. They can reach young people and families in ways that very few other structures can through their universal coverage.

Who is London for?

Schools and teachers can play a critical role in taking young children out of their immediate areas and giving them a chance to experience the amazing cultural offers available within London. As Anna Mason from the William Morris Gallery said – schools are critical because "they bring the children, who then bring the parents".

But how accessible are London’s cultural assets to young Londoners and to what extent do young people connect with these places?

Hadrian Garrard from Create talked about the surprisingly low percentage of the major London institution's audiences that are young people from London. This is likely to be even lower if you just considered disadvantaged young people.

Should we be calling our venerable cultural organisations to account to ask what they are doing to open themselves up to young Londoners? This is not just about enabling opportunities for visits but about a wider sense of being part of the future for London, part of the story of how to develop and enhance social mobility and ensure everyone feels part of the city.

Steve Moffitt from AND talked about London as a resource for learning and growth but in order to get the most from it you have to understand how to navigate the city – 'you have to know how to live here'.

And the challenge of access is a profound one, as Jane Caldwell said – 'even if it is across the road, it is a long way'. Jane said that Kids Company are helping cultural organisations with their programmes – and subsidizing their programmes because they are not good at getting new and different young people into their activities. They are 'good at deepening but not widening'.

Mark Rusling said that for a person living on a London living wage income the cost of a travelcard to get in to central London would be the equivalent of 20% of their annual wages – 'they are not going to central London'.

It was felt that local cultural offers are critical – and they have to aspire to be excellent – but that large scale and central cultural organisations also had a responsibility to young Londoners from all over the city.

Do we build our services in a child or young-person focused way? Do we understand when things are off putting to young people in subtle ways? Do we listen to young people enough and work with them to co-create services?

Poverty through poetry

There are still too many people who don’t value creative practice for young people and arts & culture. There are still too many schools without art rooms or time for dancing. But as a sector we don’t always help when, as Mark says 'you say you can do away with poverty through poetry' making vast claims with little evidence or understanding of the territory.

Natalie France from the Princes Trust talked about funding arts activity 'by stealth' – we know it has an impact on youth engagement and is very powerful but we can’t put it upfront because it might be perceived as frivolous. We need a solid evidence base which really shows the value of this work.

In the context of poverty there is a lot of attention on how to promote social mobility. There is an anecdotal understanding of the link between cultural knowledge and progression – the idea that if you have a hinterland of experiences and shared cultural reference points with others you are more likely to be able to converse with different people and make useful alliances.

As Celia Greenwood said – Eton provides 1,000 hours of music tuition a week for its students –'not because they are training musicians, because they are training Prime Ministers'.

Surya Turner from Kuumba Youth Music based in Waltham Forest said that partnerships are important to provide for the whole young person and needs to be engaged with imaginatively. For instance Kuumba have partnerships with the Royal Academy of Music as well as with Ford UK which supports young people in getting access to excellent music training whilst also giving them exposure to work opportunities.

Kuumba are committed to this work due to their belief in the power of this work to help young people move forward in their lives.

This is just one area in this field where we need a new and more relevant evidence base.

What has happened to our voice?

Celia asked if the cultural sector has gone quiet on issues of equity and exclusion. Do we no longer think it is fashionable to promote the needs of the less fortunate? Are we uncomfortable at what the mirror shows when we hold it up to our own organisations and practice?

It was felt that if nothing else, this gathering at The William Morris Gallery showed the beginning of a new hunger for a debate about what is happening in the city and how the cultural sector should respond; and also the start of platform for collaboration and campaigning which could make a real difference to lives of young Londoners.

The following is a summary of some of the ideas that came out of the discussion.

Which would you back, which would you oppose?


  • Develop ‘creative Job Centre’ helping young people into work in the sector
  • Campaign to un-couple training and development from benefits
  • Get more cultural/creative employers to offer real work experience for young people as well as developing effective entry routes into the sector
  • Campaign for every cultural worker to be a mentor


  • Campaign for school age young people to have guaranteed access to creative/ cultural opportunities through their childhood
  • Build local level partnerships to deliver high quality cultural experiences working with schools
  • Campaign to stop the erosion of children’s centres and youth clubs, and explore how libraries and other organisations can add capacity
  • Campaign for philanthropists to support more bursaries for young people to take part in culture


  • Engage London institutions in debate about their role in supporting young Londoners and schools/teachers
  • Innovate to find new forms of incentive to get different kinds of children and young people to take-part, as well as investing in channels where they do engage already
  • Look at how venues and libraries could use their assets differently to provide more safe space for young people living in overcrowded conditions
  • Look at models of touring into Outer London – get high quality, world class culture into boroughs like Waltham Forest as well as supporting brilliant local provision


  • Develop a solid evidence base for the impact of cultural engagement on social mobility, effectiveness of creative interventions for low SES students, effectiveness of cultural engagement for work-ready skills

Involvement in decision making

  • Campaign to get cultural organisations to give away more power to children and young people – takeover days, panels
  • Facilitate new ways of listening to young people – especially those form disadvantages backgrounds

About the roundtable


Amanda Smethurst


Steve Moffitt and Holly Donagh, A New Direction




Waltham Forest Children's Services



Kids Company



Oval House



Clore Fellow @NESTA






London Youth



Prince's Trust



Soho Theatre



Weekend Arts College



Children's Society



Museum of London



William Morris Gallery and Vestry House




Cardboard Citizens



Waltham Forest Arts In Education Network



Emergency Exit Arts



Shoreditch Trust



Waltham Forest, Cllr



Kuumba Youth Music