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Bright lights are on the arts

At long last politicians are recognising the full benefits of cultural education activities, but is funding going to the right groups? asks Rebecca Kilbey.

Two of the more encouraging aspects of the Scottish Executive's recently published national cultural strategy, Creating our Future ... Minding our Past, are its emphasis on young people and the acknowledgement that "participation in cultural activities can improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, promote social inclusion, raise self-esteem and confidence, and widen horizons".

Those of us with direct experience of taking cultural activity to young people are already convinced of the additional benefits of our work. My First Bite Theatre in Education Company and most companies like it can produce literally hundreds of letters from the schools and youth clubs that we work with, citing examples of young people "growing in confidence", "learning to listen and to respect one another", "working together effectively" and "exceeding their teacher's expectations" following involvement in arts education projects. For most companies, these additional benefits are the main motivation for keeping them involved in this field, even though funding is almost non-existent and its status is low within the arts sector as a whole.

Now, at long last, it appears that others, including politicians, are beginning to take notice of the wider benefits of arts education activity in Scotland.

The national cultural strategy is full of such well-intentioned statements as "culture is at the heart of education", "creativity should not be restricted to a few subjects, but should be central to children's and young people's experience across all aspects of the curriculum" and "cultural activity has a key contribution to make to the development of inclusive schools where learning and achievement for all are celebrated". But how are these intentions to be translated into action? Who will have the responsibility for putting culture at the heart of education and how is progress to be monitored?

The strategy appears to recommend that national companies such as Scottish Ballet, Scottish Opera, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, together with the regularly funded companies and venues, take on increasing levels of educational outreach wor in schools and communities throughout Scotland. It also recommends more arts training for teachers and the appointment of key teaching staff as cultural co-ordinators to liaise with arts and cultural organisations to "organise activities which ensure that our national cultural resources are used to the advantage of all young people".

Certainly both national organisations and schools could do more to promote educational outreach work in Scotland, but there are limits to the amount that they can take on because of their already full programmes of work.

Meanwhile, there are specialist, experienced companies working in this field but, sadly, the strategy makes no mention of them.

As a representative of one such company, the story is all too familiar. First Bite, based in Edinburgh, is widely respected throughout central Scotland, where it has toured movement-based theatre productions exploring issues relating to the personal and social education curriculum for the past 12 years, reaching 360,000 young people. We know the company is widely respected because, in July this year, following the board's announcement that the company would close at the end of August 2001, letters were received in vast numbers from schools, youth clubs, community organisations, local authorities and other funders telling us how much we would be missed.

The Scottish Arts Council also sent several letters, all very supportive, conveying its deep respect for the professionalism and quality of First Bite's work over the years. Yet the total funding provided to First Bite by the SAC was just pound;12,000 - and half of that was for First Bite's final production which toured primary schools this summer.

No company, however innovative and resourceful, can continue on that basis indefinitely, nor should they be expected to. For the SAC and the Scottish Executive, the lessons are there to be learnt. Hopefully no more companies will be lost in the process.

I have been personally delighted to note, for the first time in my estimation, a Government beginning to show real commitment to the development of a cultural strategy, backed up by an increase in funding. My question is, is the funding being directed at the organisations and individuals who can best deliver?

Rebecca Kilbey is the founder and administrator of First Bite

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