A Grand Tour with a Grand Ambition

Our CEO, Nick Owen MBE, tours the East Midlands arts and cultural organisations and finds the inspiration to rise to The Mighty Creatives'core challenge: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people? Follow #NickOnTour

Posted by: Nick Owen | September 13th, 2016

What happens on tour, stays on tour” is what those wizened rock and rollers might have said back in the day when they were travelling around the music halls of Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln and Leicester. But for me, this blog is quite the opposite: “what happens on tour, leaves the tour” because there’s a lot going on out there that needs sharing.

To say that my ‘grand tour’ of the East Midlands' arts and cultural organisations (#NickOnTour) has been inspirational would be an understatement. From the moments which bring you up short and sharp and disrupt your week ("Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation". thanks Nick at Corby Cube) to witnessing the work of those who proudly proclaim themselves as Community Arts organisations with no caveats, inverted commas or discomfort, and are able to show 40 years of achievement of building communities in Bolsover and beyond (thanks, Junction Arts): it’s been a two month tour of reminiscences, surprises and inspiring hopes for the future, the likes of which I never imagined when I started work on 4 July earlier this summer.

But this isn’t just a trip around the region for old time’s sake, fondly remembering rural touring shows, spotting old faces in new suits or dealing with the vagaries of the region’s transport infrastructure. There’s an urgent question driving these visits which we at The Mighty Creatives have a vital responsibility to address: how can we get better at providing cultural education for children and young people?

Because whatever the sector has collectively achieved in recent years, there is still a long way to go before we can claim to be improving the lot of children and young people in our region’s schools in any systematic manner. The unpleasant fact is that, according to Ofsted, the East Midlands is the worst performing region in the country on a range of key educational indicators. Couple this to the well documented fact that children’s and young people’s engagement in arts and culture is in crisis nationally; and you’re left with the cold hard reality that there’s still a long way to travel to a glorious land where arts and culture are everyone’s entitlement rather than a few people’s enrichment.

Because what we do isn’t just a matter of providing nice stuff for nice kids to do on wet Wednesday afternoons after school: it’s about improving every young person’s life chances – especially for those who already have had a tough enough start, whether this be due to poverty, discrimination or any of the other myriad of social ills which inflict themselves on young peoples’ lives every day.

It’s about knowing - and acting upon the knowledge - that too many children and young people live their lives without access to play, creativity and culture and that these inequalities affect other significant challenges in their lives: low educational achievement, poor health, engrained poverty, social exclusion or limited financial opportunities.

It’s about knowing - and acting upon the knowledge - that if we can radically improve, increase and invest in the engagement of children and young people to arts and cultural practice, we will dramatically contribute to school and educational improvement across the region and ultimately address the inequalities that tarnish too many people’s young lives.

So the place of arts and culture in education is not just timely, it’s urgent. It’s not just a desire, it’s an imperative. There’s no room to mess about in or time to mess about with.

The good news is there’s no messing about going on in the arts and cultural organisations of the East Midlands - from Skegness to Corby, Northampton to Mansfeld . There’s work with national and international intent going on (thanks, Nottingham Contemporary, Soft Touch Arts in Leicester, Royal & Derngate in Northampton and Derby’s Silk Mill Museum); and ground breaking work which is integrating professional and community practice (thanks to Derby Theatre; Baby People in Derby, Viva in Blue Print Sinfonia, Red Earth Theatre and Attenborough Arts Centre) – whose teams all reminded me that music, dance, theatre and design are all naturally integrated by young people - and that it makes little sense to disaggregate them.

There’s some terrific developmental work going on in the heart of both our formal and informal classrooms (thanks to the teams at Ignite!, Spark Arts, Lincolnshire Music Education Hub, Nottingham Music Education Hub and Writing East Midlands) and a tremendous legacy around the region which continues to provide influential and transformative practice which participants have remembered many years after they were involved (thanks to NMPAT, the Music and Performing Arts Service in Northampton; soundLINCS, artsNK, Lincolnshire One Venues and New Perspectives).

There’s some innovative and provocative work coming out of the digital domain (thanks to Threshold Studios; artistry with ambition and aspiration, thanks to New Art Exchange and Leicester’s Curve) and a hugely healthy spirit of innovation and independence which permeates across age, art form and geographical area: (thanks to Phoenix; Magna Vitae; People Dancing and EMJAZZ.)

It's been a tour thinking about progression routes: not just how do I get from here to there with the minimum of train changes, but more importantly how do young people access an art form and then take it further with vocational or professional training? And then develop careers from something which was just a faint glimmer in their eye when they were 8 years old? And how does work start off in independent or community settings and then go on to the bigger stages, wider audiences and communicates with the wider world?

But the most important progression question of all remains: how can how can we improve our cultural education provision for children and young people in a way that opens up opportunities to them which lead to purposeful and productive lives? Questions which no doubt will continue to inform #NickOnTour over the next 3 months as I begin my tour around schools and education agencies: watch this space for some answers but probably a lot more questions.



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