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Four priorities for the cultural education workforce

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Is now the right time for a review of the cultural education workforce? A recent workshop with RSA Fellows provided invaluable insight into the key concerns and opportunities facing cultural education workers and employers.

Earlier in the year, when the UK government’s promised arts premium was still a thing, I was posed a question by a colleague at a partner organisation: If it goes ahead, would every school, every child be able to access high quality provision through it? In trying to find an answer, we kept coming back to questions about the arts and cultural education workforce: is it big enough, diverse enough, spread evenly enough, well-qualified, appropriately skilled? Could we achieve universal access without exploiting those it would depend on - a largely freelance and low-paid community of practitioners?

It’s not easy to answer many of these questions, because the workforce in arts and cultural education is not very well understood. Even knowing who/ what we’re talking about in the first place is tricky: some talk about ‘cultural learning’, others creative learning, arts-based education, arts education, with areas of crossover and distinctiveness. Knowing who we’re talking about helps us identify the priorities: e.g. the teaching workforce in arts subjects has been in constant decline over the last ten years, but, within cultural organisations, learning and engagement teams have seen some of the lowest rates of furlough and redundancy through the pandemic.

A review of the workforce could provide some clarity about who’s working, where, how and under what conditions. Critically, it could help ensure that all young people can enjoy an entitlement to high quality learning and participation in the arts. With the RSA’s Living Change approach, a review could also be the starting point for RSA-led action research. In partnership with RSA Fellows working in this area, we could test innovations that respond to the findings of the review and that help improve the capacity of the workforce to ensure all children have an arts-rich education. Although the policy that prompted this conversation appears to have been side-lined as a result of the pandemic, the value of a review of the workforce has become more obvious post-Covid. There have been calls from prominent educators to prioritise the arts in recovery curricula and these build on other shifts in the education system, not least Ofsted’s focus on curriculum quality. But there have also been significant cuts to funding for the arts in higher education that have the potential to impact the current and future workforce.

A couple of weeks ago, we asked Fellows what should be in the scope of a review of the workforce and how a review could help them in their role. The RSA Fellowship includes many (roughly 10,000) people working in the education and cultural sectors. Our workshop brought together freelancers, employers, artists, researchers and administrators (as well as those who are all five and more) from schools, higher education, and third sector cultural organisations. While not necessarily a representative sample, it was nevertheless a useful cross-section of this community of practice, able to provide useful insights into the dynamics and priorities for the sector and for a possible workforce review.

Four clear priority areas for a review emerged from the conversation:

1. Precarity

The cultural education workforce is typified by relatively low-paid, freelance workers. Several participants talked about longstanding challenges for freelancers: inconsistent work and low pay make it difficult for people from low-income backgrounds to sustain (or even entertain the possibility) of a career in this sector. Not only does this present a challenge for diversity in the workforce, but it also makes it difficult to make arts subjects attractive to young people and their parents, potentially restricting arts participation, whether or not students enter this workforce eventually. Participants also indicated that the insecurity of work in this sector made it difficult to ensure access across the country: outside of major conurbations, practitioners can find it difficult to find the concentration of work they need to sustain themselves. There was interest in the Basic Income pilot for artists that has been initiated in the Republic of Ireland and in the cultural sector’s uptake of the Kickstart Scheme in the UK – could these provide inspiration for more long-term assurance of income security for cultural education workers, especially those early in their careers and/or from underrepresented communities?

2. Diversity

Participants want to understand who is working, whose voices are being heard (and funded). In line with recent findings by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, our participants were conscious that the (paid) cultural education workforce is predominantly white and middle class. They talked of a vicious cycle of low representation leading to young people feeling left out, being less likely to participate, and less likely to enter the workforce. Employers and educators in the group both suggested that their efforts to encourage more diversity were undermined by the precariousness of work and income in the sector.

3. Quality

We discussed the changing nature of work in the sector, with shifts to online provision and increasing focus on wellbeing outcomes, but participants expressed concern about how well-trained in these areas practitioners were. Indeed, identifying qualifications, skills and credentials was something that the group saw as a challenge all round. The RSA has a strong track record in supporting professional development and in developing digital badges that can help workers to evidence their skills in more flexible ways. Could badges help freelancers to explain their skills, help schools to identify the right practitioner and help funded arts organisations invest in the quality of their freelance workforce?

Beyond that, participants wanted to know how quality is understood – what outcomes are we working to, how well do we understand the routes to them? Are class teachers well-connected to producers of arts and culture? Are cultural sector workers knowledgeable enough about how children learn? How good is the sector at sharing understanding of effective practice? Fellows introduced the idea that a workforce review might lead to a charter for the sector, that would define work well done, good terms of employment, good conditions and good pay.

4. Trade-offs

Participants recognised that a review should be mindful that while dependence on a freelance workforce presents challenges to income security and diversity, it isn’t entirely a bad thing. For participants working in formal education settings, for example, working with freelancers allows students to learn from a wide range of practice. It also offers a chance for artists to balance creative work and teaching/ public engagement practice or to blend the two. But there may be a trade-off between variety and its creative potential and having a specialist cultural education workforce, knowledgeable about learning and for whom education is more than a side-line.

The RSA believes that education systems should provide all children with a rich education, one that supports both individuals and their communities to flourish. Equitable access to high quality cultural education is a key part of achieving this mission. Over the coming months we will build on the insights from these initial conversations to develop proposals for an action-focused workforce review, one that works with the Fellowship to deliver meaningful change. If you would be interested in helping us develop this further, whether as a Fellow with experience and expertise in the cultural education sector, or as an RSA Partner, we'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to reach out to us at partnerships@rsa.org.uk

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