Local Level is a community development consultancy that works on numerous projects, but this, they said, had been one of their favourites. The project had taken place across four different organisations in the East of England: Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service, The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Luton Culture. Each museum service had developed creative projects for 'young people looked after' and Local Level were involved in evaluating the outcomes for the young people through a methodology which involved formal interview, observation, informal discussion, monitoring forms and email contributions from approximately 80 people.
So who are 'young people looked after'? (One thing I was unclear on, is why the term isn't 'looked after young people', but syntax aside...) A looked after young person is anyone who is legally in the care of the state by order of a court. They may be looked after by extended family, or by a foster carer, or in a residential home. Reasons for their being looked after are many and varied but include abuse and neglect (including those witness to abuse and neglect), disability, being a refugee or an asylum seeker... Statistics are alarming: compared with an average household giving rise to 6% of young people with 'conduct disorders', for looked after young people, that increases to 40%. These are young people who may have been dislocated and had to move house up to 40 times: for many, 'there is no good thing about moving'. Self-perception is often that the young person looked after is 'the odd one out' or sees him/herself as 'an object'. Many are fearful, and to use Dickens' line from Great Expectations, as Kevin and Martin did, 'few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror.' But while there may be many shared experiences, these young people are all incredibly different: in their experiences, personalities, educational achievements, age... Being categorised as a 'young person looked after' is complex. Thrown together simply by circumstance, these individuals thus embarked on a variety of museum projects.
So, what sort of activities took place in this programme? Young people were aged from 7 to 17, and the sessions ranged from one-off activities of 90 minutes' duration, to 5.5 hours, to regular weekly sessions. Projects ranged from young people developing geocaching in the Norfolk countryside, to photography, film-making and editing in Ipswich, to print-making in Cambridge, to 'Smash Racism' events in Luton and sketchbook development at Norwich Castle. There were different levels of adult intervention in the projects and some projects (but not all) had involved participants in their design and organisation. Some practical 'top tips' mentioned for developing such projects included: ensuring the young people had something to 'take home' at the end of a session, remembering that taxi costs eat into budgets, planning time for recruitment of young people, establishing ways of communicating with the group, developing risk assessments and thinking about health and safety. (I would also want to add ensuring that young people are involved throughout in order to make it even more participatory and 'owned' by the group - i.e. involvement in project design and evaluation). One outcome hoped for by Local Level was indeed that 'how to' guidelines could be published online so that other museums wanting to be involved do not have to reinvent the wheel (as is so often the case in this sector).
Key findings from the research were categorised under four headings:
1) Confidence, self-knowledge and identity
2) Social skills
3) Cultural capital
In all cases, the experiences for the young people of working with each museum commendably seems to have led to an increase and benefits seen in all these areas (the report explains these in further detail). So museums are clearly playing a part in enhancing the lives of this group of young people (albeit for a certain period). But as yet, Local Level believe that this project is quite unique: there are not many other strategic programmes whereby museums are engaging with young people looked after. The East of England could be seen as something of a pioneer in this regard.
We did try to think of other similar projects where museums had worked with looked after children, and came up with the National Gallery's work, the V&A Strategic Commissioning Programme Image & Identity which took place from 2003-8 and involved several partners: Manchester Art Gallery, Museums Sheffield, Brighton Museum and Gallery and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in addition to NCH (now Action for Children) - and work in Scandinavia and Australia - but it would be very interesting to hear of any other programmes that are currently taking place, with a view to developing a more joined up approach to shape policy development, and also to develop an online space to share best practice and so on.
One ambition from the researchers was that more 'scientific research' into this area could be prioritised in order to strengthen a business case. Although it could be argued that government bodies seem to favour quantitative research, with such projects involving a relatively low number of participants, we discussed qualitative evidence as being essential. Longitudinal research would also be a key aim in developing a business case. Local Level had worked out that the cost to the museum was £20 per hour per young person - but with more experience in running such projects, these costs would fall. Perhaps a distasteful notion, but what is the social return on this investment? And - how can we help with developing a clearer policy argument to justify this? There were several questions in the room.
Firstly, why a museum? What is significant about these projects taking place in a museum, that makes them distinct from any other youth engagement or young people looked after project? The answer given by Kevin and Martin interestingly centred on the notion of 'stability': the museum plays a stabilising role in culture. It is also a 'safe space'. But why is this? I would here argue that collections always need to be central to a project taking place in a museum - otherwise it might as well take place in a youth club, school or sports centre. Museums can't solve every social problem, but using the uniqueness (or universality) of their collections might be an interesting place to start.
Another question raised was around the sustainability of such projects. Local Level clearly had a strong agenda (which I am sure we all felt was worth exploring and formalising further): to ensure that this work is given a political push. But how can we ensure continuity of projects, especially given that in many of the projects discussed, there had been no senior strategic support? It is so often the case that the people who need to be at such seminars and conferences (e.g. the policy makers and senior managers) are the ones who aren't present. Perhaps developing partnerships (e.g. with libraries) might be one way to sustain activity and take on a shared approach, but as with many projects, success or failure often depends upon key personalities and individual involvement. Given the current financial climate, how can we push further for government support? One interesting suggestion here was around PEPs (personal education plans) which, for example may attract a DFE (or other education) funding source in addition to DCMS (and culture related) sources.
A key question is also around accessibility and how the young people became involved in the project in the first place: how was it advertised and who advertised it? Inclusion for some means exclusion for others. Who were the young people looked after who were not involved in the projects? And why were they not there? Are these young people the ones who might benefit the most? How can we find and target them? Should we do so?
And finally, would the young people involved now be inspired to visit museums on their own? And does it even matter whether they do or not (especially given that they have developed lots of other skills)? Can a museum visit be an end in itself? Can a museum visit not be an end in itself? While anecdotal evidence suggests that some of these young people looked after may visit again, and indeed have visited again and have a real passion for collections ('I love the museum: my uncle is a paleontologist'), how can we research this and do we need to?
Perhaps, in the end, what matters most, is simply that these young people looked after had fun.