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The 2021 Creativity in Youth Justice Symposium

Bridging the gap in creativity and youth justice

Having delivered arts activity in youth justice settings for over a decade, Xavier Fiddes has seen the sector go from strength to strength. Now Co-Director of In Focus Education & Development CiC, he’s building on his experiences to launch the Creativity in Youth Justice Symposium in March 2021 alongside Co-Director Kristianne Drake and the rest of the team. In this guest blog he explains why the key to success in arts and youth justice lies in bringing people together.

In just over a month we’ll be (virtually) welcoming people from around the country to the first Creativity In Youth Justice Symposium to share ideas and spark new thinking about the life-changing possibilities of the arts. Although this is a new project, it’s an idea that has been long the making.

I started volunteering in the world of creativity and youth justice ten years ago, helping facilitate photography workshops; I’m now the director of In Focus Education & Development CiC, where we mainly support at-risk and vulnerable young people through arts workshops. For the past eight years, amongst other projects, we have provided Southampton Youth Offending Services with a weekly arts programme that has enabled them to be the first youth justice setting to gain a Gold Artsmark Award, the creative quality standard for education settings.

In that time, I’ve seen a massive shift in attitudes towards both the delivery of arts education and also the acceptance of its usefulness as a tool for desistence. Nowadays, there’s much more emphasis on supporting young people at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system and including their voices in decision making about the support they receive.

Despite this positive shift, we know there’s still work to do around connecting the people and organisations delivering arts activities and youth offending teams themselves. As an organisation, we’ve consistently worked to improve understanding and collaboration with youth offending services. Youth offending teams have their own expertise and approaches, as well as facing a substantial workload. Over lockdown, they’ve been our only link to the young people we need to reach – so it’s been more important than ever to make sure our work integrates seamlessly into theirs, is compassionate to their workload, and is clearly of value. We know that when we get this right, we’re able to create meaningful creative opportunities for young people, together.

When making connections with youth offending teams, one approach that’s worked for us is being able to clearly demonstrate the impact that creativity in youth justice can have. Over the years, we’ve supported young people to gain over 100 Arts Awards, meaning they achieve a nationally recognised qualification that they might not otherwise have had access to. We’re continuing to build up an evidence base that makes the case for arts in youth justice and helps us improve what we do. What’s more, we can show youth offending staff that instead of adding to their workload, what we do can work alongside and make their lives easier.

Of course, it’s not just about the data. At our workshops, for example, youth offending staff see the process for themselves. When we run photography workshops, both the staff and the young people are learning to use the camera at the same time. That helps get buy-in from the whole class and show the young people that it’s OK to be a beginner. In the past we’ve followed up the workshops by exhibiting the work they made in galleries, including at the Tate Modern. Taking the young people to see it was a real highlight – it was the proof to both them and the youth offending team that they’d done something tangible. Working together on these workshops also creates an opportunity for genuine two-way feedback between youth offending staff and our team.

Creating spaces for conversations like these is vital, and thankfully, it’s become increasingly common. For example, one young person we work with is in care, had been excluded from school and was struggling to focus. Thanks, in part, to our support he has recently completed his Bronze Arts Award. Alongside his current school and social services we’re able to join discussions about his ongoing education – discussions which he’s also included in. Being a part of this means everyone involved has a better understanding of how we can work together and can clearly see how the Arts Award has helped grow his confidence and interest in education as he goes on to the GCSE-level Silver Award. We also run regular professional development for youth offending staff and have managers from the four youth offending teams in Hampshire on the Symposium steering group; Hampshire Youth Offending Team have even appointed their own Arts Champion to improve delivery across the county.

After seeing the difference this kind of collaboration can make, we saw a need for something similar on a larger scale – which is how the Creativity in Youth Justice Symposium was born. Taking place through free online workshops and talks on the 18th of March, the Symposium will bring together those working in arts and youth justice, whether that’s artist educators, youth offending teams, or anyone else interested to learn more and join in the conversation. The event will be an opportunity to share experiences, explore new and exciting practices and learn from the work being delivered now.

Like all the work we do with young people, the contents of the Symposium will be informed by and champion student voices. We know from the work we do that arts practices are not only for those who have a background in the arts but can be delivered by everyone given the right approach and attitude. We want this to be the start of an easy way to share knowledge, bridge gaps in understanding, and show that there is a clear way to integrate the arts into youth justice work – so that in another ten years we’ll have achieved even more.

You can find out more about and sign up for the Creativity in Youth Justice Symposium here.