Article: The arts in youth work: A spectrum of instrumentality?

First Published: 20th July 2017 | Author: Frances Howard | Tags: , , ,

This paper explores what the arts do for / in youth work, reporting on a study into the Arts Award.

Introduction: what the arts do for/in youth work

The current emphasis on structured activities, achievable measurable outputs and providing value for money of both youth and arts projects are situating them in risky terrain. Public-funding and evidence-based policy-making since New Labour has meant that arts and youth work programmes have become increasingly instrumentalised. The arts are frequently referred to in youth work as a ‘tool’, vehicle, medium or means, however we should be highly critical of any relationship between cause and effect that may ignore the often unaccountable complexities within young people’s lives.

The policy-produced instrumental shift in youth work positions young people as ‘problems’ to be solved (Coburn 2011), or victims to be ‘saved’ through targeted approaches echoing neo-Victorian rhetoric (Davies 2010). There has been a focus on working ‘on’ rather than ‘with’ young people, a preoccupation with targeting groups labelled by their deficits and the ‘buying-in’ of a youth work approach, where youth workers are called upon to run particular programmes, such as those with hard-to-reach young people or those excluded from school. With the re-emergence of pedagogical expectations, of which the young people’s Arts Award can be seen as an example, youth work has become more ‘organised’ and about ‘participation’ (Van de Walle et al, 2011). Having to justify public expenditure and prove value for money has shifted to a ‘product approach’ (Ord 2014), which focuses on accreditation and recorded outcomes. This new authoritarianism undermines the traditional democratic and educational approaches (MacDonald 1997, Davies 2010).

Over the last fifteen years, cultural policy has argued for the arts’ contribution to health, crime, employment and education and various research has demonstrated impact in order to justify continued public expenditure (Ruiz 2004, Matarasso 1997, ACE 2004). The arts were positioned by government policy as integral to a civilised society and a flourishing economy. However, this desire ‘to do good’ has often obscured the most innovative and engaging approaches (O’Brien & Donelan, 2008). An entirely instrumental viewpoint of the arts and culture has been highly criticised (Belfiore 2002, O’Brien & Donelan 2008) in terms of evidencing social impacts, claims of ‘value for money’ and the absorption of cultural policies within existing social policies. Targeted programmes are an instrumentalised approach to investment in culture (Rimmer 2009) and the arts were made to conform to the ‘cult of the measurable’, through economics and statistics (Belfiore & Bennett 2007). With the over-emphasis of the economic impact of the arts, the key value placed upon the Arts Awards was its ‘economic’ currency as an accreditation.

This paper draws on findings from an ethnographic study of three youth projects, which used the young people’s Arts Award. This paper aggregates observational and interview data around the value, experience and practice of the Arts Award within youth settings. It presents a three part heuristic based on the example of the Arts Award programme, of three different ways on a spectrum of arts ‘use’ in youth work.

Findings: tensions around expression, responsivity and accreditation

Young people in this study welcomed the opportunity afforded by the Arts Award to engage with the arts as a means of expression, experimentation and identity formation. Working with artists was one of the key affordances of the programme as some of the young people learnt that their youth workers were also artists. Young people had the opportunity to ‘try-on’ identities and frequently made affiliations through music and style, using the arts as a badge. The creation of rap lyrics in particular, enabled young people to get their voices heard and get their messages across. The language that young people chose to use was significant, exploring their multiple and inherited identities and the stories they chose to tell about their lives through their work, whether that was film or music or dance. Young people valued the new experiences that undertaking the Arts Award gave such as working with new people, going to new places and developing new arts skills. They also demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit in setting up their own record labels or production companies using social media to promote themselves and others.

Despite the diverse backgrounds and arts interests of the young people on the programmes, they felt an affinity as a group through undertaking the award in a youth setting. Young people reported a strong sense of collective identity and the benefits for them of ‘feeling part of something’, becoming part of certain communities, which were viewed in a positive light by the workers, as opposed to deficit groupings. Individually young people were using their cultural practice to negotiate their own identities and part of this identity work was discovering and joining informal arts networks, getting to know where their artform happens and how to take this forward beyond the life of the projects. Building their own informal arts networks and tapping into the ‘local scene’ through the connections of local artists or youth workers was important to the young people as they were able to develop shared interests, experience and understandings, as well as shared languages and resources. The sharing of work and ideas was key in this arena as performing was also strongly taken up by the young people and linked their identities to particular learned discourses of performing, particular ways of being.

Youth workers also valued the award as a means of responsivity, as a way of being flexible to young people’s interests, often reacting quickly and positively to their needs and ideas. Previous research (Davies 2011, Kiilakoski & Kivijarvi 2015) has argued for the value of youth workers skills in terms of improvisation, using the arts as a tool to approach sensitive subjects with young people and an addition to youth workers’ own personal ‘tool box’ to create activities for their settings. Workers interviewed as part of this research did view the Arts Award as a useful framework through which to structure youth sessions. They saw the award as an opportunity for young people to achieve, to engage with something new, develop artistic skills and access culture, for example by taking young people out on trips or to galleries.

The arts were considered a useful tool for getting to know young people, building relationships and springboards for conversation. Some youth workers developed techniques around using different parts of the Arts Award for exploring and developing shared interests with the young people. They reported that they valued the programme for the opportunities that it afforded young people for decision-making and creative problem-solving, as well as the importance of conversation, negotiation and co-creation of knowledge. Echoing social integrationist agendas, youth workers considered using the arts as a way of bringing people and communities together. The impact of the arts was through the enjoyment young people had in working with them and this enabled signposting to other services or further education and supporting with English, reading and writing and other ‘transferable skills’:

And that’s opened up the door for us to actually be able to work with them and mentor them with other areas of their lives as well. And once you build up a relationship with some of them through the Arts Award, helping them to achieve they do come back time and time again. I’m helping quite a few of them now, look for volunteering opportunities or college or things like that.  I don’t think we would have built up those kinds of relationships in the first place, had we not used the Arts Award as a creative vessel to be able to work with them and build up those relationships. (Youth Worker)

The Arts Award was viewed by youth workers as a means of accreditation, suitable for targeted, intensive and creative work with young people. The arts are frequently used in youth programmes as a framework for education, the currency on which the Arts Award is presently recognised. The proposal for the development of an accredited curriculum for youth work, has been problematic and contested (Merton & Wylie 2002, Ord 2004). Whilst there is the potential for the Arts Award as part of this curriculum, youth workers in this study often felt that accreditations meant a loss of focus on the actual project and the work with young people.

However, a young person gaining a qualification is a measurable indicator with a real ‘tangible’ outcome: a piece of paper, the printed certificate, that is given to the young person. Some youth workers felt that this gave an ‘extra-added value’ to their project and argued that as funders frequently look for accreditations, they add the Arts Award into funding bids. Using the arts as an accreditation meant that some young people were encouraged to re-engage with education, and the Arts Award in particular measures soft skills such as ‘leadership’ and ‘communication’. Young people saw the award as a CV builder that would help them get into college or university.

Discussion: which way for the arts in youth work?

This paper has explored what the arts do for / in youth work, using the Arts Award as an exemplary programme. Findings have shown that the award was valued as a means of expression by young people, as a means of responsivity by youth workers and as a means of accreditation by both. However, there are tensions between these values and the differing ways in which the arts can be used in youth work – from primarily instrumental towards more human approaches. There was a dissonance between the current economic and social focus of youth policy and the relational and wellbeing approach that the youth workers found much more valuable in practice.

Data showed that the young people’s Arts Award can be considered a useful tool for youth work, however simply viewing the arts as instrumental re-iterates the rhetoric of arts for social good, as well as demonising those who take up places on these programmes. Often these programmes are seen as diluted and remedial as a way of ‘repairing’ young people rather than inspiring and empowering them. The impact of these targeted programmes and measurable outcomes on youth work may be detrimental to its democratic and responsive nature.

We need to be more critical about informal and arts education’s claims of impact and consider that an emphasis on achievable measurable outputs and value for money can endanger the sustainability and future funding of both youth and arts projects. It is important that we interrogate key assumptions about the arts and young people as a ‘social project’ and that we consider how to influence future policy, so that it begins to value more human factors in its measurements. But, how can the academic field influence these measurements and weave new pathways towards demonstrating the value of young people’s journeys rather than outcomes? It might be that engaging with the expressive arts is an ideal way of doing just this.

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Last Updated: 27 July 2017


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Frances Howard is a doctoral researcher from The University of Nottingham’s School of Education. She has worked previously in local authorities, arts education and youth work. For her PhD research she is undertaking an ethnographic study of ‘dis-engaged’ young people’s experience of the Arts Award programme within three youth project settings.