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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Creative vision
Animated, Autumn 2001. The greatest poverty faced by children in the UK today is arguably the poverty of aspiration and imagination. Peter Jenkinson OBE, national director of Creative Partnerships, explains how the role of this newly-created initiative aims to address the challenges
'In Science one plus one equals two but in Art it can be three.' (1) Josef Albers

Too many of our children pass from childhood to adulthood with desperately low expectations, narrow experience, limited skills, battered self-confidence and stifled creativity meaning they are ill-equipped ever to realise their full potential either as individuals or as active citizens in their communities.

In Walsall, where I have worked for 12 years, this poverty of aspiration affects the great majority of children and is widely recognised as one of the major factors holding back the development of both themselves and the area they live in. It is a remarkably inward-facing area in which change and outside effects can be viewed as unwelcome, even threatening. Many children rarely venture more than a few miles from their homes and many have never been to, or wish to go to, the nearest big city - Birmingham - which is just nine miles down the road, never mind London, or cities and countries far beyond.

Some children emerging into adulthood at this stage a distinct minority, feel trapped and constrained by this context if desperately low horizons and flee the area, never to return, their talents and creativity lost to the communities that nurtured them.

In the West Midlands region alone one new job in five is in the Creative Industries (in London one new job in four) but in Walsall, a borough of 263,000 people, it is certain that currently few children and young people would recognise or accept that they might possibly have a future working in such new industries, nor would they have the skills or confidence to do so. This is the case in most areas of the United Kingdom where traditional industries are in decline and in rural areas too, where isolation can be extreme.

This is surely a situation that has to change and change fast. These children are regarded as having failed. They often leave school and spend the rest of their lives feeling they have failed. But they have not failed. We are failing them.

I believe that Creative Partnerships provides one very powerful focused, high profile and inspirational tool for change which can genuinely capture the imagination of children, parents and carers, teachers and communities - transforming expectations, provoking loud demands for better and invoking shifts in thinking and doing in the wider education system in the longer term.

Creative Partnerships cannot of course solve all the challenges children and young people face today in the 16 areas chosen to start the programme - and indeed it will be important to be clear from the very beginning about what Creative Partnerships can and will achieve, avoiding hollow promises - but the initiative can have a major catalytic effect, disproportionate to the resources invested, as Josef Albers would have been the first to suggest.

I feel strongly therefore that Creative Partnerships should be seen not as another audience development initiative for arts organisations and cultural agencies but should focus very strictly and positively on the needs, competencies and, most of all, the aspirations of children and young people and of those involved in their early development.

This will require the Partnerships to demonstrate openness, flexibility and the abilities to listen, to consult and to engage the best expertise available in research and in evaluation, as well as providing imaginative, risk-taking and creative leadership. It will mean making partnerships not just with the professionals, crucial though this is, but also giving proper recognition to the needs and demands of parents and carers and of more informal school and children's support arrangements in communities even though these needs and demands may at times conflict with official agendas.

Creative Partnerships must be strongly anchored to their areas, inspiring a strong sense of ownership, loyalty and affection and be immensely responsive to local conditions. As a result of this it is possible that, whilst working to agreed criteria and targets, there could be different approaches in the 16 initial locations of the programme, and such difference should not be regarded as a weakness.

It would be helpful if Creative Partnerships is not promoted as a pilot or an experiment - the children in the current Creative Partnerships areas have been experimented on for far too long - but rather be celebrated as the beginning of a major investment programme in a new future for children and the communities in which they live and ultimately may work: investment which will in time be rolled out nationally. Smart marketing and communication will have to be a core feature of the initiative. It must be noisy and provocative.

Children and all others involved in this first stage should thus be encouraged to believe that they are 'special' or 'privileged' because their areas and their schools and they themselves were the first to be chosen to be involved, rather than them being reminded that they have been selected because they are from 'disadvantaged', 'poor', 'marginal' or 'educationally-failing' areas of the United Kingdom. They get enough reminders of this on a daily basis.

Thus all such 'deficit language' should be expunged from Creative Partnerships debate and presentation - it serves only to demotivate and to suppress ambition - and rather a culture of positive, imaginative, intelligent, excited, sophisticated and energetic dialogue substituted in its place.

As an example, The New Art Gallery Walsall currently runs a Quality Protects-driven Saturday Club for looked after children -The Starfish Group - who are designated by Social Services to be the children most in need in the borough. All are in foster care and have faced multiple challenges, including abuse.

They are given privileged access to certain gallery spaces and resources each Saturday, which are not available to the general public and the very fact that they have something that the others - and especially other children visiting - do not have, makes them for once feel special and inspires confidence, trust, communication and high levels of achievement that astounds their carers. Creative Partnerships must stimulate similar levels of commitment and shifting perceptions of self in children and the people working with them. Old ways of thinking, classification and definition need to be put firmly to one side.

If Creative Partnerships is to work it will also be necessary for all involved to be able to work creatively and to demonstrate creativity continuously. Having recently been involved in a programme of training teachers in Hong Kong in creativity with the British Council for The Hong Kong Government I am more persuaded than ever of the need for the theories and skills of creativity to be more broadly understood and more rigorously employed in educational settings, and not least in our schools.

Creative Partnerships should provoke debate about what is a creative school, a creative classroom, a creative teacher, a creative parent and of course, most importantly, a creative child, with similar questions for the arts organisations enmeshed in the programme.

Support for teachers will be essential if Creative Partnerships is to be a sustainable initiative, not least because of the almost unbearable pressure and initiative overload already faced by teachers and because of the general lack of confidence about using the arts and culture in the classroom.

It may sound fanciful but Creative Partnerships should be aiming to stimulate whole school change and renaissance in the classroom where learning becomes joyful and where change is welcomed rather than being seen as a threat.

Early on there will need to be an agreement on definitions of what creativity is and how it could best be engendered. Practically, all involved in Creative Partnerships should be required to go through the best available creativity training in advance of working on the programme and all should be expected to relish the privilege of working on such a significant initiative displaying a 'can do', anti-bureaucratic attitude, a belief that anything is possible.

A key concern in the early development of Creative Partnerships will also be the establishment of clear criteria, and an agreed strategy, for measuring the benefit to all involved. Rigorous research and evaluation are vital.

All of us working in the arts know, and have witnessed directly, the enormous impact that exposure to 'culture' can have on individuals and on groups. All of us have persuasive stories of someone we know who had an experience of the arts and that only ten or 20 years after this first experience did it begin to manifest an impact or result. But such imprecise and apocryphal information is not useful in the education and learning context, driven as it is by the National Curriculum and obsessed by shorter terns goals.

A critical task will therefore be to engineer a means by which the supposedly immeasurable and uncapturable can be measured and captured so that the benefits are apparent to all and can be communicated widely. Anecdotal evidence will be essential but hard, factual, incontestable evidence will also be required if Creative Partnerships is to move forward after 2004.

This is not to allow the idea that art and culture can only be justified on social, educational or economic grounds. I am passionate too about advocating for the celebration of art and culture in its own right and this celebration should also be a core theme in Creative Partnerships, not least because of the thousands of artists and other creative individuals who will be involved over the next two years, reaching out to a new generation.

Creative Partnerships is potentially one of the most important arts education initiatives in a generation. I am really looking forward to working with people across England, and far beyond, to illuminate the power and sheer magic of culture in the lives of children and young people.

Peter Jenkinson, national director, Creative Partnerships

Creative Partnerships is a new Arts Council of England initiative which will start in April 2002. Its aim will be to create new ways of including young people of school age in the cultural life of their communities. Contact +44(0)207 9736842

I. Albers,Josef, source unknown

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001