I write this in the week the End Child Poverty Coalition revealed the North East has seen the biggest increase in children living in poverty anywhere in the UK. Their figures state a 35% fall into this category, 5% more than the country’s average. Depressingly, as Covid-19 hits the economy, this figure continues to grow.
So when the Family Arts Campaign gave the North East Family Arts Network (NEFAN) a small grant to prepare an audience development plan to diversify the families we engage with, it was crystal clear that reaching these families should be a priority.
Art is good for you – the evidence is so compelling now that Matt Hancock is giving GPs the all clear to prescribe it. There are multiple benefits, especially for families living with disadvantage, yet we know this group is less likely to engage with our museums, galleries, theatres and festivals. At the same time, they’re more likely to experience poor mental and physical health. Here, we have the potential to make a huge difference.
From scoping the work already going on in the sector, we found that charity Children North East is already helping Sage Gateshead and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art to Poverty Proof their offer, addressing barriers that could be in the way of disadvantaged families feeling the considerable benefits of their world class music and art programmes.
Luke Bramhall, the man who developed Poverty Proofing originally for schools, explained the fundamental principles behind the idea, “…the root cause of poverty is a consequence of the structures and inequalities in society as opposed to the notion that poverty is a result of individuals’ behavioural choices.
“[our] ‘poverty proofing’ work… explores what structural changes and policies can be implemented to eliminate inequalities and accessibility within the practice of …organisations.”
Essentially, Poverty Proofing gives these families a voice – one we can respond to make sure what we offer is as welcoming, accessible and fulfilling as possible.
The benefits are obvious, but how will it work in practice? To answer the question, I need to first explain how the North East Family Arts Network engages with families.
Our region is fortunate to have a strong ethos of collaboration and there are 15 organisations who actively subscribe to the network. In the context of the Family Explorers North East project (more on this later), we call them the ‘Brilliant Places’.
Last October our project was further boosted by funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation via the Family Arts Campaign. We’re now part of a network of six Ambassadors across England who are sharing best practice, nurturing partnerships and proactively expanding and diversifying family audiences for culture over three years.
As well as each of our region’s network organisations having their own routes to diversifying audiences, we are actively engaging over 11,000 families through Family Explorers North East (FENE). FENE formed in response to research by 2013 Morris Hargreaves McIntyre showing that to grow in cultural confidence and try new things families needed to:
- see recommendations from their trusted peers
- get honest and fast answers about the practical aspects of making a visit
- get help in narrowing down the options for days out.
To tackle these three areas, we’ve created a Facebook Group community where families can share recommendations, ask one another questions and we post our own curated recommendations from the NEFAN members.
All the NEFAN network members are asked to sign up to the Family Arts Campaign’s Family Arts Standards so families are assured of a good experience from visiting the places we recommend. They can also sign up to a regular e-newsletter and use a website that lists the key information families need to plan their visits.
Those of us working in culture sector audience development know behaviour change is hard. Getting families to try new experiences isn’t a quick and easy ask but this approach really works – 64% of participants who answered our survey last year said they had visited somewhere they may not have visited because they saw positive reviews for it through Family Explorers. That means potentially 7,000 visits that may not have happened otherwise.
The Facebook Group is a warm and useful environment that people want to be part of and so it’s mainly grown virally. Until now, the families who use Family Explorers North East have been self-selecting so we know little about who these families are.
Once again, we’ll be turning to The Audience Agency to find out. They’ll be looking at postcode data we have gathered to glean their social economic status so we can establish our baseline before we hook up with Children North East to start the Poverty Proofing process. In a year’s time we’ll be surveying again to see how far we’ve come.
The principle of listening to families has always been at the core of Family Explorers North East and the staged plan proposed by Children North East aligns perfectly with this aspiration:
Training and initial consultation with staff
Training for Family Explorers staff and steering group members covering:
- Why this work matters including the definitions, consequences and root causes of poverty
- Exploration of staffs’ current role within Family Explorers
- Identification of some of the barriers staff identify within their work role.
The training garners an understanding and empathy for families suffering the effects of poverty, and staff start to understand and unpick the impact poverty may have on the accessibility of their work.
Scoping exercise within Family Explorers
A scoping exercise to grasp an understanding of current work, processes and set up of Family Explorers, examining the existing communication models to understand the context for this work. This will highlight key themes to explore in the next phase and within each thematic area we will develop the lines of enquiry and questions to be asked.
Consultation with current users of Family Explorers
The initial phase of consultation is with current users of the organisation. This will consist of focus groups, one to one discussions, chat using social media platforms and an online questionnaire.
Consultation with individuals and families who do not currently access Family Explorers
This phase consults around 20 families living in poverty by working with partners including VCS organisations, schools and health organisations. Children North East makes sure these families are properly supported through the process.
Discussions with families and small groups will explain why individuals don’t access Family Explorers tools and why they don’t engage with network organisations
Comprehensive report with recommendations
The process culminates in a comprehensive report with recommendations and discussion points presented back to the Steering Group.
When the report is written, we have the job of implementing the recommendations and taking steps to develop this audience, working with the expert organisations most connected with these communities.
We are keeping an open mind about the methods of delivery for Family Explorers in the future and may branch out into offering community events and other new ways to mobilise peer recommendation depending on what is learnt from the Poverty Proofing process.
We also plan to offer a free half a day’s introduction to Children North East’s Poverty Proofing to members of our network who haven’t yet engaged with it. Children North East are following this up with a Poverty Proofing conference to discuss its themes and share best practice. This should ensure that those families who are persuaded to try new events and genres through Family Explorers will have an equally positive ‘Poverty Proofed’ experience when they visit the venues.
There is just one small hurdle to overcome to make this happen – we don’t yet have the funding. As I write this, we are putting the finishing touches to the application. Wish us luck.