Continuing the quality conversation

One of Arts Council’s five long term strategic goals is focussed on children and young people. A key priority within this is 'raising the standard work produced by, with and for children and young people'. This is inherently challenging, it raises many issues such as ownership, authenticity, purpose, and who defines ‘excellent’.

To progress this priority, we are working with and though the sector, to tap into the wealth of experience and expertise that abounds, using the Arts Council as a facilitator and convenor. Working with the sector we have developed a 'roadmap' to provide us with key milestones and are taking a number of practical steps including definition of some emerging quality principles.

We began to tease out some quality principles through a national stakeholder conference in Birmingham in December 2011 and you can read about these and more on our Quality update page. From the very outset, we recognised the need to engage in debate with practitioners, partners, and young people. As part of this we are sharing widely the results of our initial research proposing seven ‘quality principles’ and looking for ways to encourage practitioners to experiment with them to find out how they might be put into practice. In case you haven’t seen them, the proposed quality principles are:

  • striving for excellence
  • emphasising authenticity
  • being inspiring, and engaging
  • ensuring a positive child-centred experience
  • actively involving children and young people
  • providing a sense of personal progression
  • developing a sense of ownership and belonging

We have made good progress, with many important questions still to be debated, and are delighted that this week marks the start of the most exciting step on our quality journey so far, with another national event to be held at Sage, Gateshead as part of the city’s wonderful Juice Festival. This quality event has been designed by, led by, and is aimed at, young people and seeks to discover what young people think are the issues and challenges around improving quality.  We see this as the essential counterpart to last December’s event and informing the next phase of development.

This week we are also aiming to re-kindle the quality conversation we began this time last year. Through this blog and any other online spaces where there is interest, we hope to generate ideas about how quality principles can be put into practice to drive improvement and excellence. In the New Year we will hold another national event for practitioners (of all ages) designed to stimulate practitioner-led debates and practical experimentation, using the quality principles as a starting point.

So whatever your interest in the issues around quality of art for, by and with young people – please join the discussion by posting comments, publishing ideas on your own blog or webpage, by joining the conversation using #cypquality on Twitter, and keeping an eye out for our next quality event in the New Year.

Posted by Laura Gander-Howe, Director, Children and young people, Arts Council England on 29 October 2012



I was pretty gutted to miss the conference at Sage Gateshead last week thanks to my need to devote 'quality' time to myself and family on a Friday. Thank goodness for Twitter then eh? I have really enjoyed reading the comments, which have given me an insight into people's thinking, learning and awareness throughout the day (not many young people tweets though - maybe there's something on facebook?).

In particular I love the discussion about how young people take a leading role in evaluating quality and how we give them actual ownership, not a 'sense of' ownership.

I work at Curious Minds, which fulfils the role of Bridge Organisation in the North West, and my job is Bridge Coordinator: Quality. At my interview for the job I think I touched on all the principles outlined by ACE. But there is one that has to happen first (for me) before I can really get my head round my job. And that is: actively involving children and young people.

I am guilty of sometimes getting carried away with my own ideas and planning, or getting hung up on delivery and activity, without actively involving children and young people. And I worked for five years with Save the Children to promote the right for children and young people to be involved in decisions that affect them. It's just that we're so busy and have so many strands of work (and KPIs) to deliver! How can we involve children every step of the way??!!

In fact, I did involve young people in our preparation work for the Bridge Programme, by recruiting five brilliant creative facilitators to ask them directly about what art and culture means to them. This contributed to our State of the Region report, and a 'Curious Stories' film and full report of what children and young people told us (available on our web site But that was then. What are we doing with the information they gave us? What are we doing NOW to follow it up? To not only actively involve, but actively ACT on what young people say?

Just how should we involve young people at every step? It's easy, say some people. It's tokenistic, say others. Well, having spent the first few months of my Quality job focused on Artsmark, I am now turning to the wider quality debate. I put my hand up: I haven't put anything on the Curious Minds web site yet about quality. I haven't put links to existing frameworks, toolkits and guidance documents, and I haven't set up any amazing models of partnerships between NPOs and schools - yet.

I suppose my excuses are: 1) Artsmark has consumed me, and actually, has involved listening to some young people talk about what quality means to them - report coming soon); 2) I want what we make available to be rich, exciting, meaningful, useful. Not dry, recycled adult-led stuff.

So, I was delighted and excited when a wonderful opportunity landed in my lap the other day. My old friend Hannah Peake, who worked with me at Save the Children many moons ago (when she was a young person herself! No she still is, it's just me that's not!) contacted me. Hannah is now Strategic Lead for Children's and Young People's Participation at Lancashire County Council and she is organising 'takeover day' in November. This is when organisations invite young people to take over, help them plan, make decisions and change practice. This is the perfect opportunity to involve young people directly in the debate about quality in the context of what Curious Minds does next.

I have some ideas. My colleagues have plenty of ideas. Partners from our excellent North West NPOs have loads of ideas! But what are young people's ideas about what we do next, and how can we sustain their involvement in the work on quality?

I hope to revisit this site next month to update you. And I am very pleased that this space exists for us to so usefully connect and share our work.

I think there is an interesting question for all organisations in how we translate quality principles into practice. The more complex the specifics of your situation, the more people involved in decision making at all levels, and the more disciplines you cross, it becomes ever more important to describe accurately what a quality learning experience looks like within your context.

At Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) we have embarked on a process to try to untangle this for everyone involved in planning, delivering, managing and thinking about learning. The aim is to create a very specific shared understanding of what the quality we are striving for is, which will of course develop as we become ever more engaged in articulating it. We are trying to define which elements of our good practice most influence quality, and to identify and isolate these factors in such a way that they can be managed and apllied more routinely across the whole service. We are assimilating a lot of the principles around quality which already exist (Learning Outside the Classroom Quality badge, HMIE How Good Is Our School, NFER 2012 quality report etc) and also drawing on how our thinking developed over the last few years running Creative Partnerships in Northumberland, Newcastle Gateshead and leading the NE Renaissance Learning team.

What this will involve in practice is getting very forensic about what is actually going on in each learning situation, and being able to identify what are the markers of high quality museum learning in practice. The next step is then to devise the organisational mechanisms (training, observation, exchange etc) where all those involved in managing learning, who are not necessarily learning specialists, can recognise what to look for and contribute actively to quality development. As a diagnostic tool involving self evaluation and peer review, this system will help us identify where excellent practice already exists and is not as recognised or understood as it should be, and also make visible where there are barriers to quality being achieved, which we can then begin to address.

There is a whole heap of work involved in very specifically describing the difference between something that is almost there and something that actually is – so for example, in looking to see if an activity supports ‘imaginative use of objects’, this may seem to be apparent where learners go and look at an object in a gallery and then go to a learning space to develop a creative response. But in that one situation, there are a whole other set of factors that determine whether that really is an imaginative or unimaginative use of collections in the activity. This is what we are trying to break down, in order to get closer to what really excellent practice looks like. Many of our learning team know and apply these principles intuitively in hundreds of ways each day – articulating them fully is a big challenge, but one that we are up for.

I’d be interested in learning if this has been tackled in other arts / culture sectors, or if there are interesting ways that organisations address this? I am also beginning to appreciate that just when you think ‘what has taken us so long?’, it turns out somebody already answered these big questions somewhere around 1978…so if there are any lost civilizations of quality development for museum learning out there, would you mind pointing us the right way?

I'm interesting in following the development of a process of arriving at a quality consensus from young people's perspective for new and existing 'works of art'. Love the idea of the quality principles, do young people agree with these? How do they pensive the notion of aesthetics?

Great to see this complex issue is continuing to be worked on by ACE. I think the seven quality principles cover important ground but I'd certainly place an emphasis on progression. How we help young people develop their talents through combinations of needs based programming, signposting next or new opportunities and, perhaps most difficult to achieve, an understanding of what new skills and habits of mind have been inculcated as a result of engaing with the Arts is fundemental to the question of a quality learning experience or Arts encounter. If we can't express what better, stronger, deeper looks like in terms of CYP work in the arts then I think big questions will remain about 'quality'.

These 7 principles are helping us a Cultural Hub and Music Education Hub to have conversations as arts partners, schools and delivery organisations around how we join this area of work together. So that we can sign up to a common agreed shared framework around quality and working with children and young people through also using tools such as the OFSTED framework, Artsmark to inform and shape our work with children and young people and our conversations with schools with regards to their cultural offer.


Add new comment