Testing the arts – how to work at scale 

Deputy CEO, Holly Donagh, considers whether the Finnish model for youth arts engagement could provide a useful template for the UK

11 October 2019

A short conversation with a Finnish colleague at the recent International Forum on Children’s Culture (held in Tampere, Finland) really stuck in my mind:

"Why have the word ‘can’ in the sentence ‘Every child can engage in the arts’ rather than ‘must’?", they asked.

"Because", I stuttered, "they should have choice."

"No", she replied, "arts needs to be compulsory – if it is not compulsory how can it be equal? When you introduce choice for children, you introduce barriers. Things like lack of information, lack of confidence, and lack of money can all stop children taking part. Remove choice, and you remove barriers."

"Not very child-centred", I thought.

But then there are many things we don’t allow children to choose - whether or not they go to school being one. Learning English and maths, and taking part in sport – these are pretty much compulsory. And as a society, we largely accept that the trade-off for lack of choice is the fact that every child has the tools they need to function in society. So, perhaps compulsory is the way to go. And, of course, there are elements of the arts that are already embedded in the national curriculum, but is it enough?

Discussion in England has focussed on the presence or otherwise of the arts in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) at secondary school. I have always found this a reductive debate which unhelpfully pits subjects of equal intrinsic merit against each other, privileges arts GCSEs as the best mode for arts learning, and accepts the premise that assessment is the be-all-and-end-all driving every element of school life. It is clearly pragmatic to advocate for the arts within the EBacc as a way of ensuring arts learning for all, but it does not necessarily represent the best we could hope for, or speak to the best practice as seen in many schools across the country who juggle the competing demands of Ebacc, arts, sport, creativity etc. with innovation and dedication.

In Finland, they have a more proscriptive curriculum than in England and invest heavily in a core arts curriculum. They have also just spent two years trialling a programme called Arts Testers, a compulsory programme for all eighth-graders (14-15-year-olds) that gives them two arts visits a year; one to a local institution and one to a national institution. All the visits happen within one day (which can mean flying tired children from Lapland to Helsinki), with all travel expenses and ticket covered. Form teachers lead the visit rather than specialist art teachers and are required to engage the pupils in pre-visit learning and post-visit learning and evaluation.

The scale of Art Testers is impressive, and it is set-up to deliberately test the notion of universality. The programme is not just for pupils who want to go on trips, it is not just for pupils who take parts in the arts and volunteer for activity, it is not just for pupils with the means to pay for trips, it is not just for pupils with a cultural background which understands the codes and norms of the arts, it is not just for pupils without disabilities or those who live in cities. Yes, it’s expensive (€20million for 3 years’ worth of trips), but it is big. Every year there are 60,000 ‘Art Testers’, 5,000 teachers and 160,000 visits to 45 institutions.

One of the most compelling features of the programmes is the data it is producing. There are currently 90,000 Art Testers actively using the feedback website to feedback their views on every aspect of the experiences. This means that there is comparative data on all of the participating institutions which could in time provide very interesting benchmarks on engagement across a wide and diverse range of arts organisations.

The project is managed by 18 regional coordinators and, unsurprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on logistics. The quality of the travel, the lunch, and the welcome is often more important to the overall quality of the experience for the pupils and the teachers than the content of the art.

Art Testers is about what it means to attempt to give all pupils the same capacity to connect with the arts – to provide a minimum standard from which it is hoped further cultural engagement flows. It is not driven by a desire to connect the impact of the arts visit to any other outcome (such as educational engagement), it is simply about creating a kind of floor target for cultural capital, thereby providing some of the ingredients of cultural capability for everyone in the population. The programme treats pupils as cultural consumers and, in the main, tries to create experiences for pupils that are the same as they would be for an adult or mainstream audience.

It remains to be seen what the impact of Art Testers will be. Early findings suggest that it works best when married with strong local cultural education plans (in Finland they have these in every municipality) to provide continuity, strategy and ways of enabling progression for schools and pupils.

I was impressed by the sense of shared endeavour between schools, cultural institutions, government, third sector brokers and charities. A system had been mobilised in order to achieve Art Testers, and this sense of shared endeavour could have far-reaching implications for the development of institutions and schools. It will also be interesting to see if the Arts Testers generation behaves differently to other school cohorts, particularly if it is limited to a three-year trial.

Universality was a key issue for the Forum more generally. Article 31 of the UN Convention states that all children have the right to culture and the arts – but is this ever enacted properly? Are we too quick to let children opt-out of the arts, and do we have any systematic way of understanding who is not engaging, or what the wider factors behind this might mean? Anne Bamford from the City of London spoke at the forum and reminded the audience that not all experience is good experience. Research tells us that a ‘bad’ visit or engagement with the arts can be more detrimental to ongoing engagement than no engagement at all. 'Bad' in this case can mean both a bad experience (welcome, food, travel etc.) and ‘bad art'. This is a reminder that when your offer is universal you also have to scaffold the experience to ensure there is quality.

Figures from The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s 2018/19 Taking Part Survey which show the recent significant decline in theatre-going among school pupils gives pause for thought. Do we think every child should experience the theatre? If so, are we prepared to make it happen and invest in the structures that could achieve this?

A New Direction's work on Steve McQueen Year 3 has made us think a lot about the trade-offs involved in working at scale. Trying to engage every Year 3 student in London has made us acutely aware of how it is much more common to build cultural education experiences for small numbers of pupils and/or schools - where quality can be easily overseen and engagement controlled - than the risky and unpredictable business of working at scale. But how will we reach all of those young people who are further back on the journey to the arts if we stick with little and polished? Perhaps messy and big should be the next move.

Image credit: Ben Stevens for Mayor for London