Cultural Citizens  

Young people lead in a mission to improve arts experiences

Culturalcitizens Credit Rachel Bywater.jpg
Description: Key Stage 3 pupil with both thumbs up, surrounded by other children.
Credit: Rachel Bywater

This case study explores the learning from Cultural Citizens, a project run by Curious Minds that put young people in charge of their own arts and culture consumption. Cultural Citizens enabled 1000 first-time cultural visits by young people in 2017. Written by Curious Minds.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

In 2017 Curious Minds ran a ‘Cultural Citizens’ pilot to help the Department for Digital, Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) find a scalable model to 'increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds having high quality cultural experiences'.

Ten partner schools across Liverpool and Blackpool surveyed their entire Key Stage 3 age groups to identify 200 students aged 11-14 years with low cultural engagement. In cohorts of 10 they accepted a mission to research, plan and choose 5 cultural visits, within a brief. They agreed to provide us with valuable feedback from the perspective of first-time engagers with no specific prior interest in arts and culture. In return, they received a £3000 budget, a ‘culture coach’ and a member of staff to support them. The young people were primarily responsible for all choices, decisions, bookings and logistics.

To ensure they had realistic, repeatable experiences rather than ‘special treatment,’ they were asked to emulate the feeling of a social trip with a group of friends (e.g. use public transport, don’t wear uniform) not a school trip. Our aim was to encourage them to try things they could feasibly do independently in the near future.

Further information and a detailed evaluation report

What worked well

Selecting pupils based on their levels of cultural engagement, rather than other identifiers of ‘disadvantage’ (as stated by DCMS, but unqualified), created extremely diverse groups. These intersected with the usual identifiers of disadvantage, but included those who could easily have been missed. We achieved 97% retention of people who had extremely limited prior engagement with culture and no specific stated interest.

The young people reported increases of:

  • 74% ability to team-work
  • 67% greater confidence
  • 64% better communication

A longitudinal study wasn’t possible within the timeframe, but as groups were divided into consecutive cohorts, we saw sustained effects on the first cohort whilst the second cohorts were running (6 months later). Schools reported many had already revisited favourite venues independently, often taking family and friends. One young person had revisited all 5!

Teachers themselves reported renewed interest in culture from having experiences they wouldn’t have chosen and witnessing their pupil’s reactions. They reported improved relationships with participants previously at risk of disengaging from school. They observed participants had sustained friendships, signed up to after-school clubs, were more active in class and would interact more with staff. Some schools revisited and commissioned organisations they’d been introduced to by pupils. One school increased their arts GCSE provision due to demand from Cultural Citizens participants.

A notable aspect is the focus on young people as audience members. Many engagement projects focus on workshops, which can be too much for first-time engagers. The club format, combined with a strongly emphasised youth leadership ethos, meant that active participation and ownership were still enabled but participants were not asked to do activities that could feel exposing unless they chose to. For many adults, their lifelong relationship with culture is being an audience member, and these experiences have laid firm foundations.

Whilst our given aim was to ‘increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds having high quality cultural experiences,’ we were extremely conscious of avoiding an approach that could feel patronising. Instead, we asked for their help and created a framework with reciprocal agreement, where participants brought something extremely valuable to the table which could improve things for others. This focused their attention on completing the mission for the greater good and to honour our agreement, unlocking their willingness to try things they might not feel initially drawn to.

What was challenging

Some of the adjustments we made were logistical and simple and some were complex and fascinating!

We navigated around difficulties enabling participants to directly spend their budgets by using pre-payment cards. We flexed our agreements when groups made reasonable appeals that it literally wasn’t possible to use public transport when buses stop too early (highlighting accessibility issues).

Giving young people control over visit decisions brought interesting conversations. We were presented with strong and well thought out justifications on why Harry Potter World, for example, IS culture and who gets to decide what counts as culture anyway? Organisations who’d caught wind of Cultural Citizens and wanted to solicit visits were told the participants were in control and all they could do was be appealing and relevant to all young people.

We understood we were asking people with extremely limited cultural capital to enter spaces where they could feel like fish out of water. We equipped supporting adults to pre-empt this, setting the expectation from the outset that “you might not enjoy or ‘get’ some of the things you’ll experience, that’s kind of the point, as we want to understand why.” We explained there were many possible reasons for not liking something, including that it might not be to their taste, or not actually be very good, but there was no circumstance under which it was their fault. The validating effect of this approach was illustrated perfectly by one young person who relished the after-show conversation even though they’d not liked the performance and wrote “I’ve learned tonight that there’s such a thing as bad fun.”

We noticed early reviews were sparse because participants had no frame of reference and nothing to compare to, yet. As experiences built, so did their tastes, opinions and ability to discern and anticipate what they might like. One group had opted to start with the highest of culture they could imagine and see an opera. Then concluded they “would have liked it better without all that singing” deducing a theatre visit should be next… an approach that would never have worked had it been adult-led.

Although our primary focus for the reviews had been creating motivation, we quickly began to realise that 1000 first time accounts of ‘non-engagers’ across a range of experiences brings the kinds of insight that is gold dust for our sector.

What can others learn?

Headlines distilled from the reviews include:

  • Negative experiences during first time visits can have pervasive and permanent effects, perhaps because of assumptions that all experiences will be the same as the first. Rather than connecting a negative experience to this play, or this building, young people can write off the whole artform. Unless their thought process is interrupted, or there is a significant motivation to try again this feeling can endure, making a second engagement unlikely and hard to engineer. Wherever possible, first time visits must be of the highest quality.
  • Young people have a sophisticated sense of fairness and value for money and draw subtle messages from overpricing even when they have the means to pay, e.g. ‘Poor people aren’t welcome here because a can of Coke is £1.50’.
  • A combination of relevance, familiarity and newness are a winning formula. The connections can be quite vague (‘My Grandad likes aeroplanes so I think I’ll like the museum’), (‘I haven’t seen the Lion King film but I’ve heard of it, so I think the play will be good’), but will still help young people feel like they have prior knowledge to base new experience on.
  • Perhaps most importantly, consistently good adult interaction is absolutely key to overall positive experiences, even more than the content of the visit. This includes all adults associated with the experience. One example of, sadly, many came from young people encountering hostility booking tickets on the phone, who then anticipated not liking the performance before they’d set foot in the building. In particular, Front of House and café staff wield enormous power to make or break a visit, as young people don’t see this as separate from the ‘main’ experience.

As a result, Curious Minds has woven this learning into the design of many other programmes, including a new version of Cultural Citizens and a course to help non-specialist staff interact more positively with young people.

More Arts in Schools Case Studies