Arts and cultural organisations – museums, theatres, art galleries or digital media centres like Watershed in Bristol – can be amazing spaces for learning to take place. They engage schools in different ways – delivering creative workshops and programmes, hosting visits or producing education resources.
Away from the obsession with exam results, need for rigid hierarchy and eyes of OFSTED, our programmes allow young people to try new things, take risks, collaborate, explore the things that matter to them and create work for real audiences. Skills that are likely to be vital for a career in the thriving creative sector, and beyond, when they leave education.
Within the current climate, though, it can be hard for schools to engage with these organisations. In many schools arts subjects are being cut or their timetables condensed, and teachers have reduced budget and flexibility to deliver the curriculum creatively. Lessons are planned months in advance and trips out require resources that are in scarce supply. Hard to engage, that is, until you re-imagine yourself as an ‘employer’.
Schools are continually having to respond to the new agendas being set by politicians. ‘Employability’, with a strong emphasis on employer engagement, is one of the latest plans to be rolled out. This is a great thing – employers are well placed to inspire and improve young peoples’ preparation for the real working world.
Through re-packaging ourselves at an employer, Watershed has increased our engagement with schools and young people: sometimes you just need to respond to what people are asking for to get them over the threshold.
A good example of this is our changing response to work experience. Each year we get inundated with requests for placement from students – usually Year 10s. Until now we always said no as we felt we did not have the capacity to make it meaningful for the young people or the organisation. This year, we realised we were missing an opportunity. Work experience is the one week where schools are begging us to take their students out of lessons.
Thanks to significant gifts from two local families, who are loyal supporters of Watershed’s talent development programmes, we were able to deliver work experience within one of our existing programmes – Rife Magazine, Bristol’s youth led online platform, which develops young peoples’ digital content creation skills to tell the stories that matter to them.
We contacted every school in Bristol offering one student the chance to be a Rife Magazine content creator for a week. We asked schools to choose a student who had an interest in media and journalism and who received free school meals or whose parent or social networks did not link them to the creative or cultural sector. We really want to be part of breaking the nepotistic nature of work experience – where students whose parents have contacts get better opportunities.
Over the course of the work experience, 23 students took part in workshops on idea generation, creative writing, filming and editing, social media and progression routes into the creative industries. The whole week was delivered by young people aged 18 – 24 who have been involved in previous Rife projects, who we have trained as workshop facilitators. By the end of the week, each student had produced a written piece of content for Rife and produced a vlog.
Watching the transformation in the young people over the course of the week was amazing. Most of them had never been to Watershed before. Being in the space with students from different schools felt overwhelming but we watched them grow in confidence through our structured activity – building new relationships and being more willing to contribute their thoughts and ideas.
In the evaluation of the experience, students really valued being given the chance to write creatively about what is important to them – particularly as they don’t always get to do this at school.
They also loved learning new skills that are not taught in school, but that feel very relevant to the reality of being a young creative, particularly promoting themselves on social media.
They also highlighted the value in hearing from our older Rife content creators – who were delivering the sessions – about their career routes so far. They enjoyed talking about how everyone got to where they are now, asking questions and getting advice.
We had such a good take up that we ran the work experience week three times over, hosting students from 17 schools. Schools that have never engaged with our programmes at all have sent students, and we now have a relationship with a member of staff and a student from schools in every postcode across Bristol. We are excited about the potential of further engagement in the breadth of our offer as a result of these new relationships.
Work like this that brings young people together from across the city feels particularly important within the context of current political polarisation. You only need to look at the results of the Brexit to see how divided the city of Bristol feels. Bringing young people from different schools, neighbourhoods and backgrounds together feels especially timely.
We are not alone in doing this work within Bristol. Other members of the Bristol Cultural Education Partnership – Travelling Light, Circomedia, ss Great Britain and M Shed have also hosted work experience this year – engaging new young people into their organisations.
The Sector Skills Council states: “The diversity of the creative workforce in Britain has progressively contracted over the past five years in relation to gender, ethnicity and disability.” Offering work experience to a diversity of young people at age 15 has to be a good first step in moving towards the sector becoming more inclusive.
The creative industries are the fastest growing sector within the UK, and Bristol is one of the most productive cities in the sector. Employability is increasing, with two thirds of creative businesses in the Bristol area seeking to take on more staff in the next 12 months. Businesses highlight though that it can be hard to find recruits with the right digital, technical and soft skills needed for their business to grow.
Watershed’s young people’s programmes develop lots of these digital and technical skills alongside ‘soft skills’ like teamwork, creative confidence, and communication.
Just don’t tell anyone that it is a bunch of artists delivering them – we are an employer.
Hannah is Watershed’s engagement producer. Working with the engagement team and young people she has designed and delivers a range of inclusive projects that develop young people’s creativity and digital skills, providing platforms for their voices and pathways into the creative industries.
Read more opinion: ‘Rife gave me validation that I was doing something right with my life’