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What does it take for a child to thrive?

Date Created: 18th Jul 2019

Kitty Stewart speaking during the conference

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On 28th June, members of the Artswork team attended The Thriving Child conference in Covent Garden, London. Led by Royal Opera House Bridge, the day was delivered in collaboration with Bridge organisations Artswork, A New Direction and Festival Bridge. Parallel conferences were held across the UK, delivered in partnership with Curious Minds, IVE, Culture Bridge North East, The Mighty Creatives, Arts Connect and RIO. The Conference looked at a variety of limiting factors that young people in the UK experience, and how we can tackle them as a sector using the arts as the mechanisms, both to address and overcome these barriers. Programme Assistant Meg Hockley attended the conference and has shared her experiences below.

Arriving at the Royal Opera House was an uplifting start even before I had opened the sky high glass doors to the conference. There was a buzz in Covent Garden (as there tends to be in London), the sun was shining, and it hinted to me that it would be a good day.

I was warmly welcomed and handed my lanyard for the day and pointed towards the Linbury Theatre (where the conference would take place) and most enjoyably, the pastries.

After finding my seat and speaking to other arts and cultural sector workers in attendance, the conference was introduced by Royal Opera House Bridge Chief Executive Alex Beard who thanked everyone for coming and explained the purpose of the following talks- reminding everyone in the room what their collective work is for- supporting young people to thrive.

The host for the day was Kirsty Wark (BBC Broadcaster and journalist- infamous for calling out politicians on their controversies) who pointed out that “safety, physical and emotional security and encouragement” is a necessity for a young person to thrive. We were also informed that a recent study found that “50% of children don’t find enjoyment in reading and writing” and this has been falling since 2014. Looked like we had our work to do!

The first talk was delivered by Dr Kitty Stewart (Associate Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science). Her presentation began with the words ‘why is child poverty rising?’.

To answer this simply, Kitty pointed to potential factors such as the freeze in working-age benefits, the two-child limit on child benefit and the transition to Universal Credit. For disadvantaged families, organising arts and cultural experiences for children are not an achievable priority – if you are struggling to feed your children each week, providing a music lesson or a book is probably not going to be your first concern.

A few statistics which I noted from Kitty’s talk (which I think are worth sharing) are:

There has been a 61% cut to Youth Services, 49% cut to Youth Justice, 41% cut to Art Support and a 36% cut to Road Safety. (Source: NAO (2019) Financial Sustainability of Local Authorities 2018.)

Kitty claimed that to tackle this issue we need to firstly, have the cuts to financial support reversed and to “build buffers to try and insulate children.” Since this conference was in London, which is developing a connotation of knife crime recently, it is worth noting that many social scientists would attribute the rise in knife crime to the closing down of youth services in the last ten years. An increase in knife offences as high as 68% has been recorded across England and Wales between 2014-2018. An article that explains this subject further can be found here.

The next talk was a personal highlight, it was by Darren Chetty who is a teacher, writer and researcher, currently teaching in a primary school in Hackney, London.

His talk centered on the classic piece of children’s literature ‘The Secret Garden’. The Secret Garden was written in 1910 and is about a “foul tempered” young girl named Mary Lennox who migrates from India after an outbreak of Cholera to live in her Uncle’s estate in Yorkshire. Darren described how the book’s narrative seems to be that once Mary leaves India where the people are described as being ill, Mary is able to rejuvenate (emotionally and physically) not only herself, but her cousin Colin; previously spoilt and adamant he was a hunchback.  This book was mainly used as an attention grabbing example to a wider lack of consideration, or as one person put it “imagination” within children’s literature.

The statistics that were used to emphasise this issue were especially shocking, those being; only 1% of UK children’s books have a BAME main character and only 4% have a BAME character at all. Furthermore, when Darren suggested that his class write a short story that uses a protagonist that resembles someone similar to the students themselves, a young Nigerian student said “but books have to be about white people”. In relation to this, 32% of compulsory school age children in the UK were of minority ethnic origin in 2017. There seems to be a lack of cross over here.

This really surprised me. As a white British person, I suppose I never noticed that books didn’t tend to include other ethnic groups, because as Darren points out, the characters are more immediately relatable to a white person, so I wouldn’t have noticed the exclusion personally. Considering how multiculural the UK is, children’s literature needs to reflect this with a diversification of the books on offer to children. How could a young person truly feel inspired to read and lose themselves within a story when they potentially feel they are an outsider, and are not understood by the characters within those texts?

Darren invited us to implement ‘Teacher Ear’ as well as ‘Pupil Voice’.

Next, Sonia Lovingstone (a social psychologist) spoke about inequality within digital inclusion. She pointed out that rates of anxiety and depression have risen by 70% in the last 25 years amongst young people. I knew mental health was a prominent issue but this drastic statistic was definitely a shock . However, contrary to what one might expect, she did not advocate that parents further limit their children’s ‘screen time’ but however become more involved with their usage. For example; asking questions like ‘what are you watching?’, ‘what’s it about?’, ‘what does that app do?’ but in a genuinely interested way rather than accusatory.

The audience was introduced to a graph that showed how different countries in Europe monitor internet usage by young people. The UK is heavily protected by restrictions whereas our socially progressive neighbhours in the Nordic countries ‘supported risky explorers’. Presumably meaning they worked with the young people there who accessed what would be deemed ‘risky’ content. I’m going to guess that this is more effective than just shutting that exploration down, as most know if a young person wants to do something, someone saying ‘no’ doesn’t tend to diminish that curiosity.

We were left with a photograph of young people from the 60’s who were happily playing outside on a large swing. Sonia remarked that this would now be a ‘health and safety hazard’ and whilst it is good that we value people’s welfare, her lesson seemed to be ‘do not completely shut down exploration’. A very valid point since you need to give young people a certain level of autonomy, otherwise (despite best intentions) you risk inhibiting their personal growth.

Fun fact from Sonia: The world wide web is thirty years old this year!

Following an audience discussion and a coffee break, we were welcomed back to a performance from the Palace Young Company from Watford Palace Theatre.

Their performance started with a film containing lots of young people discussing what they felt the most important issues facing them were, as well as how it makes them feel. Some of the issues mentioned were notably mental health, climate change and body image.

The young people (now real, not virtual) sat in a row of chairs, waiting to be called in by the ‘doctors’, just as the last patient was about to be announced, he was told they were too busy and he must come back another time. There was then a dance/acting performance accompanied by two of the actors consecutively reading out marketing campaigns about dieting pills, clothes, apps and all sorts of nonsensical products that we are presented with regularly.

The performance ended with the actors in a chaotic huddle, breathing heavily before a ‘Brexit’ sign was thrust into the air (probably similar to the meetings amongst government ministers at the moment). An audience chuckle ensued.

We were then greeted by Thrive, Young Voices, Gifted Young Generation who are based at The Grand Healthy Living Centre in Gravesend. They are a group of confident young people who discuss issues their generation face on a regular podcast. A great part about this opportunity is that it is free for the young people.

The group of young people from Thrive laughing on stage. One young person holds a sign entitled 'Brexit'.

Copyright: Royal Opera House. Credit: Sim Canetty-Clark.

One thing I noticed was how articulate and confident these young people were (ranging from ages 16-18) when speaking to a large audience about their thoughts on the issues. It’s great that they were since their voices should be the most valued given the context, as they have the best knowledge on the landscape.

They described that they felt the key issues they experienced in UK society were; a lack of understanding, a lack of community and a lack of options.

If you want to access their podcast, go to:

Another audience discussion took place. Two memorable parts came out of this; firstly a teacher directly said to the young people within the podcast that they should not think they (teachers) do not care. She exclaimed that many teachers are fighting relentlessly with their local councils about the lack of opportunity, arts funding and hope for young people. Secondly, a secondary teacher shouted to the young people “you are the future!”. Kirsty remarked that he should run for parliament.

There were then a variety of interesting and relevant speeches; Baroness Kidron (Filmaker and Children’s Rights Campaigner) discussed the notion of whether creativity can be taught and highlighted the need to incorporate creativity into a child’s life from birth. An interesting quote from this speech, courtesy of Brian Cox (whom Baroness Kidron interviewed in the past) was “physics taught us that there was a beginning and there will probably be an end. Arts help us understand how to spend the time in between.” Next, Adam Annand and Dominic Wyse had a debate about the role of communication issues within a child’s ability to thrive. They had embarked on research together involving 100 schools within each project to discover their findings. They found that two thirds of pupils at risk of mental health issues have communication issues and 60% of young people within the criminal justice system have communication issues. Annand pointed out that “how we communicate affects how we feel and how we feel affects how we communicate.” Thirdly, Professor Pat Thomson introduced the idea of how “culture is described as a spider in the web, the spider can’t survive without the web and the web can’t survive without the spider.” All students were described as carrying a ‘cultural school bag’ and teachers should be there to provide resources for the young people to experience and nourish their individual innate culture. However a pitfall was pointed out, as Pat suggests “we have a government that only think their children should be active cultural citizens.”

Finally, I wanted to save the last paragraph for a personal highlight; Akala.

Akala is a rapper, author, poet, political activist and social entrepreneur- he’s a busy guy.

Akala (who is of Afro-Caribbean descent) began by giving the audience a little background on his schooling life growing up in Kentish Town, London. A few facts were thrown at us; he was put in an SEN school at 7 years old (despite being top of his class in Mathematics), he was told his aspirations were too high and he was regularly searched for drugs before the age of 16. He told us that he had about 10 friends, 7 of them were expelled and later ended up in prison. Akala then linked this to the 2 studies undertaken by Warwick University who discovered that the way students score in measured tests differs to how their intelligence is assessed in the classroom. Ethnicity and class background was found to play a big role in this judgement.

Akala emphasised that on paper he was the very pinnacle of British social mobility, however we should not judge a situation by it’s surviving members, especially since 70% of Black UK students do not gain over 5 GCSE’s. Reasonably he discussed how everyone has biases and that to deny them (in order to be politically correct) is unhelpful, whereas we should be aware of them and work past them. This linked to his encouragement to inform the youth of the ‘brutal truth’ in order to allow them to develop expectations that aren’t damaging to their development.

Akala suggested that students read beyond the curriculum.

Akala’s book ‘Natives’ is available for anyone wishing to explore the subject of the Afro-Carribean community within Britain and the suggested myth of meritocracy.

I found the the day to be thought-provoking, informative and most importantly necessary. I am now considering the role Artswork play locally and nationally, more conscious of how this can influence the change the speakers at the conference were calling for.

What do you think it takes for a child to thrive?

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clark


South East Bridge

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