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Arts and minds

An appreciation of the true impact of culture on wellbeing and learning should be embedded at all levels of policy, writes Amy Woodhouse

You may or may not be aware that Scotland has a National Outcome for Culture: “We are creative and our vibrant and diverse cultures are expressed and enjoyed widely.”

The more I think about what this might mean for children and young people, the wider the subject matter becomes. I started by re-reading Call 24 of our #25Calls campaign, where Rhona Matheson of Starcatchers calls for all children to have the opportunity to participate in high-quality, innovative arts experiences from the earliest age.

There is evidence that participatory arts, where professional artists collaborate with children to create original art works, can have all sorts of positive impacts on children’s lives. According to an Inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, this includes improved self-esteem, wellbeing, confidence and coping skills. Participatory arts are also a great way to break down generational barriers between children and older adults.

Ensuring adequate funding for participatory arts in a harsh funding climate, therefore, feels necessary, not just because the arts are good things in and of themselves, but also because of their potential contribution to improving wellbeing in ways that are truly engaging and child-led. See Me’s success with FeelsFM, “the world’s first emoji-powered jukebox for mental health”, highlights the role of listening to music as a self-help strategy for many children and young people. At the more specialist end of mental health support, art therapy can be used to support some of the most vulnerable children and young people to communicate and recover. It is a particularly helpful approach when children have communication needs or don’t speak English.

This work requires skilled professionals and a commitment within statutory services to see art therapy and the wider creative arts as part of holistic mental health provision. With that in mind, the importance of ensuring that the arts feature within the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Taskforce, for example, becomes clear.

Seeing the arts as a valid and realistic career pathway is something that Tony Reekie, former director of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival, talks about in his recent response to Starcatchers’ call. He highlights how music, dance and other arts qualifications are often sidelined within schools in favour of other more traditional academic subjects. Is this something that the emphasis on attainment in Scotland will improve or worsen? Sometimes arts subjects can be viewed as ‘soft’ qualifications – but what about the evidence that participating in the arts can actually improve attainment?

This connection was recently highlighted by the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee in its investigation, along with the Scottish Youth Parliament, into the future of instrumental music tuition in schools. They found variable practice across Scotland and revealed alarming evidence of a drop in participation in music tuition when fees were introduced.

The Committee concluded that all children in receipt of free school meals should be exempt from tuition fees, and that this should ideally extend even further. For me, this might look something like the Finnish model. Their National Youth Work and Youth Policy Programme sets out five objectives, the first of which is that “every child and young person will be given a possibility to engage in at least one free-time hobby of their choice”. Imagine if we had a similar commitment in Scotland which meant that every child could take part in an extracurricular arts activity of their choice, without cost.

Children and young people are an audience for the arts as well as creators. We should celebrate the increase in festivals, programming and events targeted at children and young people that has blossomed in recent years. The Year of Young People 2018 offered fantastic opportunities for young people to engage with arts in a variety of ways and opened up traditionally adult-orientated venues and events for younger ages. For example, the Young and the Wild programme in the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Glasgow International Comedy Festival’s School of Stand-Up Comedy performances, and the ‘Beginnings’ theme of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival.

However, these positive examples are no cause for complacency. One of the main reasons Children in Scotland developed our Heritage Hunters project was that access to the arts and heritage is not equally distributed, and that the socio-economic status of parents is one of the strongest predictors of arts engagement. If you are from a wealthy family, you are much more likely to go to art galleries, museums and theatres than if your family experiences poverty. Children with disabilities, or from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are also less likely to have visited arts venues. There are multiple reasons for this. Cost is obviously a consideration (not just for entry, but to cover transport). But wider accessibility is also important: how friendly and welcoming venues are; where they are located; and whether the focus of exhibitions relate to people’s lives. All these factors can encourage or deter engagement.

Arts organisations can do a lot to make their spaces more welcoming for children and young people, particularly those experiencing additional barriers to access. We were pleased, therefore, that through Heritage Hunters we were able to support Edinburgh Young Carers to co-curate a display for the People’s Story in Edinburgh. Visible representation will hopefully support further inclusion.

The Scottish Government has committed to producing a Culture Strategy, setting out a vision supported by a series of ambitions, aims and actions to deliver the national outcome. The consultation on this took place last year, but it has all gone a bit quiet since then. Perhaps it’s time the children’s sector collectively pushed the government to get on with it?

At Children in Scotland we will work to ensure we recognise how the arts fit within our wider work. So, when we  respond to the consultation on incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), for example, we should think about Article 31 – the right to leisure, play and culture. Or, in our response to what Public Health Scotland’s priorities should be, we should encourage this new body to view itself as a promoter of the arts for health improvement.

We could, legitimately, arts-proof all of our policy work. We could ask ourselves, can we make a case for the arts here? What role could they have? The case feels pretty strong to me. The arts are health-promoting, inspiring, participative, rights-supporting. We’re convinced it’s worth investing in the arts for children and young people – will you join us?  

Amy Woodhouse is Children in Scotland’s Head of Policy, Projects and Participation

To read the full content in our creative arts special edition of Children in Scotland magazine, click here to order a print copy or subscribe to the magazine for a year by contacting

Call 24: Participative arts from an early age

Find out more about Starcatchers call for more participation in high quality arts experiences from the earliest age

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