We're working with national campaign groups to design a new policy solution that could see every school aged child access high quality creative and cultural activities.
The Arts Backpack is both a physical and digital backpack that children will be able to take with them through their schooling years and beyond.
Children will be able to use their own individualised backpack to store, reflect on and showcase their own responses to the new creative and cultural activities that the programme will make available to them.
In parallel, the programme will support educators and local cultural stakeholders to engage with children and support their creative development.
The aims of the ‘Arts Backpack’ are to:
Make the arts and culture accessible to all children, regardless of postcode or background
Support schools to provide high quality creative and cultural activities for children
Empower teachers to deliver the existing curriculum in more creative ways
Connect children and educators to the creative and cultural stakeholders in their area
Cultivate the next generation of the creative workforce
Build the audience of the future
The Culture Commons team are currently exploring several models of delivery that could help achieve the objectives set out above.
Tried and tested
Norway's Cultural Rucksack, Nuremberg’s Cultural Rucksack, Israel’s Cultural Basket and Denmark’s Cultural Suitcase projects already see national ‘Backpack’ models in place and working. We have been in communication with the respective policy leads on the design and delivery of each of these models.
Our colleagues at Action for Children’s Arts have already piloted an Arts Backpack program in three places across the UK: Leicester (England), Belfast (Northern Ireland), and Fife (Scotland). They have another pilot programme planned in Wales for 2023/24.
The deployability of the Arts Backpack concept across different nations and regions, with their own creative and cultural variances, clearly demonstrates the place-responsive nature of the model. The Arts Backpack works with the cultural infrastructure of a place, providing the framework and guidance that educators need to co-create programmes with the children in their care.
Schools and communities
One of the beauties of our proposal is that it can be tailored to the policy priorities and assets available to each primary school and each local community. This enables teachers to build a programme of activity that is both place-appropriate and leans into the unique heritage and cultural assets on their own doorstep.
A core principle of the Arts Backpack is that children engage with a minimum number of creative and cultural experiences over the course of a single school year as part of the curriculum. This model therefore requires an explicit about-face on the devaluation of creative and cultural subjects in schools that we've seem in recent years.
Another Arts Backpack principle is to empower teachers. With less than half a day of teacher training each year dedicated to creative subjects in England, the Arts Backpack programme would offer tailored CPD, delivered in partnership with local creative organisations, to help build the confidence of educators to engage with creative and cultural activities.
The Arts Backpack programme can also help cultivate the local freelance artists and smaller arts organisations across the UK by opening up new opportunities for collaborations.
The Arts Backpack is first and foremost about supporting children to access high quality creative and cultural activities, regarding of their postcode of personal circumstances. Nonetheless, the Arts Backpack could also address a series of other policy challenges facing the wider creative and cultural sectors - from regional disparities and inequities in cultural funding, changes in the public's engagement with culture, the development of the creative industries and persistent workforce diversity issues.
For many children, school can be the first and only place they get access to high quality organised arts and cultural activity. This is problematic not least because research shows that participation in the arts can help children to do better in school, be more civically engaged, attend further and higher education, sustain employment and lead happier and healthier lives. Academic teams and independent bodies like the Cultural Learning Alliance have done some excellent work over many years to highlight the power of the arts, culture and creativity to improve the lives of children and young peoples.
There are stark disparities between, but also within regions of the UK, when it comes to children accessing high quality organised arts and cultural activity. In reality, this results in a "postcode lottery" that sees children in more affluent areas getting more opportunities to engage in arts and cultural activities, whilst children growing up in less resourced, or "left behind", areas accessing far fewer. Regional differences in the level of cultural infrastructures (from cultural venues and spaces to programmes) compound the problem further.
The patchy provision is part of the reason why children from working class backgrounds are far less likely to enter the creative and cultural workforce: according to our colleagues at the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, over 250,000 working class people were missing from the UK’s creative industries in 2021 – that’s’ the entire creative industries workforce of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland combined.
Leaning into change
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, people in cities, towns and villages across the UK want to engage with formalised creative and cultural activities much closer to home. Our colleagues at The Audience Agency have been capturing this new reality beautifully in real time through the Cultural Participation Monitor.
Many cultural organisations, creative businesses and individual practitioners have now made a conscientious pivot towards delivering activities for communities in their immediate area. Most importantly for our purposes, this included local artists and creatives delivering online, and where possible, in-person, digital and hybrid cultural activities to help keep children engaged in learning during a particularly disrupted period. Strong bonds have now been forged between our sectors and local children who may not previously have engaged with this kind of work or the cultural sectors more widely.
The instinctive response from the creative and cultural sectors to reconnect with local people has gone some way to helping several Arm’s Length Bodies deliver on much more regionally responsive agendas, for example the Arts Council England’s flagship ‘Let’s Create’ strategy.
Adressing the skills pipeline
Despite being some of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, generating some £116 billion GVA in 2019 and employing some 2 million individuals, the creative and cultural sectors are now facing severe skills and talent pipeline shortages. Though undoubtably compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, these skills challenges pre-date them by some way. In 2020/21, the number of young people starting apprenticeships within the arts and cultural sector fell by nearly 50%, to the lowest level in a decade.
The number of hours of curriculum time teaching on creative and cultural subjects in England has fallen, thanks in part to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. Alongside a systematic devaluing of creative and cultural subjects from central government, unsuitable support mechanisms for the disproportionately large number of freelance, self-employed and atypical workers working in these sectors, some in the workforce are now overworked, undervalued and leaving to other parts of the economy.
We believe that ‘Arts Backpack’ neatly addresses a number of the policy challenges we’ve outlined here simultaneously – cultivating creative and cultural experiences for all children, irrespective of their postcode; supporting educators to maximise their time and embed learning; building audiences and the workforces of the future; and providing local creative and cultural sector workers with opportunities to create more sustainable careers in their own local areas.
Advocacy so far
We've been sharing the Arts Backpack model with parliamentarians in the UK and devolved administration parliaments over recent months. We are pleased to report an increasing cross-party interest and support for the programme.
We continue to develop the programme design, taking an interactive and reflexive approach. We intend to continue working with officers and officials in local, regional and national governments to refine our proposals ready for possible implementation.
We'll update on our progress on the Arts Backpack in a series of blogs over the coming months.
If you or your organisation are interested in exploring our this new model in more detail, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org