I’m confident that the event on Friday ‘How do we know it’s propa belta?’ would have convinced any cynic of the true value of actively involving children and young people (which is one of the seven 'quality principles' to come out of Arts Council's work on young people, the arts, and quality).
Friday’s event, commissioned by the Arts Council and hosted by Sage Gateshead saw nine ‘Peer Facilitators’ trained by UFA (the University of the First Age) lead a day for 45 young people from all over the country. A challenge was set for them to explore their own experiences of the arts, consider the theme of quality and work as a team to create five recommendations for arts organisations about how to recognise and measure quality in their work for children and young people.
Throughout the day our delegates (aged 15- 20) reflected deeply, their thinking was sophisticated, ideas were grounded in the reality of being a young person and their recommendations ranged from practical solutions to challenges issued to the sector about language and rhetoric – challenges that made most adults in the room mentally hold their hands up.
Here at the UFA we’re continually striving to reach the top two rungs of Hart’s Ladder of youth participation (if you haven’t come across Roger Hart’s ‘Ladder'- check it out, it’s a great starting place for a frank and honest look at how well we truly involve young people in all we do) and our training supports any organisation that works with young people to do the same. We don’t always succeed - but I reckon this event was definitely up there on the top rungs. Whether it stays there depends on what happens next – if the young people’s recommendations aren’t acted on or taken seriously, the event will quickly fall back down onto the rungs of tokenism.
After coming to the Peer Facilitators with a basic brief and framework, they worked with the UFA over eight hours to re-think the questions that needed to be asked, the concepts that needed to be explored and understood, the language we were using and the activities that would engage 50 young people best. Without a shadow of a doubt – the day itself and my own practice was greatly improved by involving this team of Peer Facilitators in the design and facilitation of it. There’s a bit of pride-swallowing here – would an event I designed on my own have been less effective? I’ve taken a long hard look and I really think it would.
The positive impact of involving a team of Peer Facilitators in the process wasn’t just felt by us. One young participant from Oxford said:
'The facilitators helped guide our views but it didn't feel like they were running the day. It was easier to relate to them & they helped us articulate ourselves. Because they were younger, we didn't feel intimidated & felt like we could say what we wanted rather than just say what they wanted to hear. Whatever we said, the facilitators helped reinforce it.'
What’s that? You don’t need to be convinced of the importance of young peoples voice? Thought not.
In which case, if we’re already convinced - lets instead consider a question that Katherine Zeserson (from the Sage) finished the event with on Friday after watching the remarkable recommendations given by six teams of young people –
'Why don’t we listen more and listen better?'
To involve young people well, really well, requires time and money. Maybe more time and money than we’re used to giving or asking for. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we doesn’t listen more and listen better.
We wouldn’t bat an eyelid at an artist devoting a significant amount of time to research and development before an exhibition or a show, in fact we like it when there are pots of money ring-fenced for R and D- we applaud this as a sign that the funders understand where real quality comes from in the artistic process.
So, do we put the same value on involving young people in the development of work we create for them? Do our funders? Do we use it a measure of the quality of the project?
And perhaps most importantly, are we brave enough to admit when we’re not doing enough of it and not always get it right?
So much of this quality debate will go nowhere if we can’t first identify where we’re lacking and where we want to get to. So have a go at using Harts ladder and ask yourself - where does your involvement of young people sit? Which rung? Where would you like it to get? And if aiming for rung 7 or 8 is right for you - are you prepared to put in the time, money and training it takes to do that meaningfully?
I’m with Katherine on the listening issue - more and better please. Starting with a long hard look at our own practice
Caz Brader is National Manager for the University of the First Age and is soon to take up the post of Director of Programmes at Curious Minds, the Bridge Organisation for the North West.