Blog: Not overlying, but underpinning

25 May 2017

Blog: Not overlying, but underpinning

By Melanie Carter – Area Manager for Northumberland and North Tyneside

It’s been a while now since I last blogged about Arts Council’s Quality Principles. In that time, our work has been zipping forwards rapidly – we’ve taken on a second generation cohort of EQiPP (Exploring Quality in Peer Practice), who this time have been exploring in cross-sector pairs how the Quality Principles can be used when schools and cultural organisations work together.

These pairs (and one trio!) came together recently, as always, a fascinating and thought-provoking set of findings and experiences. From using the Quality Principles as a project planning framework, to asking year 3 children to rewrite them in child-friendly language, their work had been wide and varied.

But the one thing they all agreed on was that the Quality Principles provide a holistic approach which ensures that children and young people are at the heart of arts practice. They give young people the language to express their own needs, and empower them to evaluate their own cultural experiences honestly – do they feel they are taking part in something of quality? And the way that the Quality Principles work best for everyone involved – young people, teachers, artists – is if they are integrated into all work from the very beginning; not overlying partnerships and projects, but underpinning them.

The more I’ve been working on EQiPP, the more I’ve wanted to spend time looking at CBNE’s own work programme in relation to the Quality Principles. As a strategic organisation that rarely gets to work directly with young people, the Quality Principles can feel somewhat ethereal; trying to articulate exactly how we embody them through our work has, at times, felt slightly like trying to catch a cloud in a net.

We recently did some whole-team thinking to try to change this, breaking our programme down into key strands of work, and thinking about how each of the Principles were relevant to each strand. Considering it as a whole team meant that everybody’s viewpoint was incorporated, and we could each bring our areas of expertise to the table. The Quality Principles only work as a common language if everyone is speaking it together. Plus, it meant that, in the space of only 40 minutes, we had created a grid full of examples of what the Quality Principles meant to us.

This process helped us see where our strengths and our gaps were. It also threw up something really interesting – that, due to our position as a Bridge organisation, we were seeing the Quality Principles in two different ways: how we support our stakeholders to embody quality in their work with children and young people, and how we ourselves ensure a quality experience for those organisations and schools we are working with. So, the next step became about separating those two ideas out, and seeing if our strength lay in either one area or the other. The result of this was this spreadsheet, which is a working document.

Now that we have audited where we are now, we are ready to begin following the “not overlying, underpinning” philosophy – using the Quality Principles as a filter through which to plan our ongoing work. At each stage of planning and programme development, we will be able to explicitly bring in the Quality Principles, using our mapping to determine which gaps need to be filled, and in which strands this can best happen. The question we will always be asking is “Where and how are we seeing the Quality Principles in this?”.

Not every Quality Principle will apply to every piece of work, and that is absolutely fine; to keep them meaningful, their integration needs to be conscious but not forced. The aim is to ensure that, as a whole, our work embodies the spirit of the Quality Principles in order to achieve what is surely the ultimate aim of us all – to enable all children and young people to access quality and meaningful arts and cultural experiences.

Need more support in making the Quality Principles an underpinning element of your practice? This summer we’ll be developing a toolkit to guide you through the process. Email Mel to find out more.