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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Striving for the best with young people at risk
Judy Munday of the Thames Valley Partnership describes the importanceof using quality dance artists to bring out the best in young people atrisk
"You won't believe this but D took his coat off today for the first time ever!" So why wouldn't I believe this? Why is this seemingly ordinary act the cause of such excitement?

Thames Valley Partnership is an independent charity that tackles social exclusion and seeks alternative long-term solutions within the criminal justice sector. During the past five years, the Partnership has included an arts strand within its programme, piloting a number of different art forms as a way of engaging, communicating and turning lives around, particularly with young people. Typically, the people we work with have disorganised, disjointed and chaotic lives, living on the edges of society and often perpetuating this state within generations. Some young people can face difficulties engaging with mainstream academic routes, attracting labels such as outsider or failure, and limiting their future horizons of opportunity.

In our work with Pupil Referral Units, (a PRU provides suitable, appropriate education to children of school age who, because of illness, exclusion or otherwise, are unable to attend mainstream school), we sometimes see highly motivated and dedicated staff working in under-resourced conditions, often fuelling the young people's perception of themselves as not worthy of good facilities and chances in life. Attempts at approaching education in the traditional way have often not succeeded with these young people. They are typically kinaesthetic learners who respond better to enquiring, experimenting and doing rather than sitting, listening and reiterating. Bringing in an artist (whether it be a digital artist, a ceramicist or a dancer) can turn learning on its head for these young people by offering unorthodox methods of communication and learning and bringing free expression into a classroom. There is no failing in arts. It is often a question of "oh I wonder why that didn't work - let's learn from that and just try again". There is no right or wrong but instead one continuous learning, growing and enriching process.
Absolutely critical to making this work are the skills of the artist involved. It is important to know your craft inside out, be prepared to be totally flexible yet focussed, throw a lesson plan out of the window for that day if the mood is not right and draw on your all-encompassing skills as an artist - open thinking, flexible yet focussed approach, discipline, self belief, commitment and often collaboration.

Time and time again we observe that it is the art itself which engages these young people - the actual act of making a clay model, beating drums in time with others, making a 30 second piece of dance - which has the power to engage, ignite, inspire, retain and just get them into the building. And for this reason, the delivery has to be of the highest quality; it is the hook which brings them in and keeps them in. These young people deserve to have the best; they deserve to have the bar raised because invariably they rise to the challenge. Expect a lot out of someone and they will deliver. Give them the best and they will produce of their best.

So back to the coat incident... Having run a very successful year of interactive forum theatre workshops, based on scripts dealing with community safety issues in 13 PRUs in the Thames Valley, we decided we wanted to be bold and go to the other extreme - total participation, body and mind, by the young people and what better art form than dance? Dance is a very powerful expressive medium that can facilitate interaction and understanding, build confidence, communication and social skills and engender respect for others. Working creatively within a team also builds skills which develops trust in others and highlights consequences of behaviour. Dance concentrates on teaching young people how to focus, enabling them to perform with concentration and poise and without being distracted. This can lead to an inner sense and outer appearance of confidence which, even if they do not feel it inside, makes people react to them differently. This was a big leap of faith for our partners (the PRUs) but we were lucky enough to have one site who were prepared to link arms as we jumped together, holding our nerve as we went.

With the support and guidance of South East Dance we recruited a skilled dance practitioner who had undergone their Creative Dance Apprenticeship scheme (Dansync) and who had solid experience of working with disengaged, hard to reach young people. We expected the staff to join in the dance sessions as well (quite a big ask for some!) and nerves were rattling for the first few sessions. But it turned out to be the best project the PRU had done - "the transformation over the past 8 months has been unbelievable". And for the first time ever in all the time he had been attending the PRU, D took his coat off, initially for the dance sessions but then for other classroom based activities. The removal of a 'badge', his identity, his safety cloak from the outside world is a small but very meaningful step. Eighteen months later and dance is embedded in their curriculum, the PRU have sourced and funded a local dance artist to continue the work. The key to making this a success story is the skills, expertise and quality of the artist, alongside an enthusiastic partner who is prepared to be brave. Get it wrong and the whole thing can flop badly and the young people feel failures yet again.

The numbers of skilled artists suitable to work with young people at risk is slowly rising, through projects like South East Dance Dansync, Artswork courses, the Effective Practice Unit Award training run jointly by Arts Council England and the Youth Justice Board and the general demand for these skills. Artists and partners can see that this is where they can do some of their best, most innovative and most rewarding work. These young people naturally respond to a creative way of looking at the world and for some engagement in an arts project is the first time that being creative is something positive.

Buoyed up by our success with dance and young people at risk, we became part of the Buckinghamshire-based dance project Urban Beatz and led on its delivery. This project reached out to young people who would not normally choose to dance, through youth clubs and in the community. Again, selecting the appropriate artist was key and we were lucky enough to be able to use Banxy and JonziD, masters in the art of street dance and hip hop. Eight groups of young people completed a series of workshops and performed in front of an audience in excess of 250 in Wycombe Swan Theatre. Over 100 young people achieved something they never thought possible and received a huge boost to their confidence and self esteem, perhaps the first time family and friends had seen them 'succeed' in something. The project also supported a mentee scheme giving five young dancers the chance to work alongside experienced dancers and learn both practical dance skills as well as delivery methods. Now, nearly a year later, ripples of this work continue with more young people dancing, more young people feeling better about themselves and more work opportunities locally for dance artists.

So where now? How many more coats can we remove? It has to be with Dance United, the leaders in the field of contemporary dance within the criminal justice sector and exponents of high standards and high expectations. We are aiming to replicate their Bradford Academy model here in the Thames Valley (contemporary dance training for 12 weeks, 5 days a week, 6 hours a day for young offenders and the NEET group - not in training, education or employment). We have been talking to both Dance United and a whole room full of local partners for over a year now. We ran an initial week of training for potential dance leaders in a very suitable venue at The Courtyard Youth Arts Centre in Bicester and we hope to establish an initial pilot cohort of young people later this year.

We really believe dance works, and we also believe that we must continue to seek alternatives to custody for young people (75% of young men 18 to 20 released from prison were reconvicted within two years and the annual average cost per prisoner is in excess of £40,000(1)) But what we really believe in is that the power to remove coats lies in excellence - we are now part of the continual movement to support, encourage and enable high standards, offering quality delivery in quality settings. In this way, we are able to offer disadvantaged young people the chance to succeed and enjoy life and move away from crime.

contact judy@thamesvalleypartnership.org.uk / visit
www.thamesvalleypartnership.org.uk
www.dance-united.com
www.southeastdance.org

Reference
(1) www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk

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Animated: Spring 2008