Last week Ofsted announced it would begin measuring cultural capital as part of its school inspection framework. Yasmin Ibison, founder of youth arts project Critics’ Club, thinks it risks entrenching the white, middle-class face of theatres, galleries and museums in the UK. But she is working on the front line to do what many think the government won’t – getting disadvantaged children to engage with the arts while ending the cycle that leaves them undervalued and underfunded.
After graduating from the University of Birmingham last year with a degree in French and Spanish, Ibison moved to London where she enrolled in social innovation course Year Here. While completing a five-month placement working with sixth formers, she was shocked to see that even the students studying drama and arts didn’t engage with them outside of school.
She says, “They were intimidated. They saw those spaces as elitist, they didn’t feel they could just walk in even if they were free.”
The arts help you see from different perspectives. That’s the magic of going to see a theatre production or an art exhibition – you step into another world for an hour or two
The 23-year-old counts herself lucky for having been exposed to the arts as a child, meaning she felt comfortable going to plays and gallery exhibitions as an adult. “But while as a mixed-race woman I would say there has been some improvement in terms of diversity of the stories told,” she says, “if you look in the audience, it’s still all middle-class white people.
“You have to ask: are these stories reaching the people who would benefit from them the most? Maybe not.”
Ibison set up Critics’ Club, a robust programme that helps young people not just engage with the arts but develop a sense of entitlement about it.
It started as an after-school club; the founder was just looking to test the water, but it was so successful that it ran for the remainder of her time at the school. The pupils go on a trip to an art exhibition or a play – as critics – and once there receive a guide that helps them think critically about the work. The following day, Ibison runs workshops with them where young people have the floor to discuss and debate the ideas they came away with.
Finally, each student writes a review to be published on the Critics’ Club website. This is an important element of the programme, as Ibison was keen to give young people a chance to respond to art however they want – rather than how an examiner wants them to. And crucially, there’s no pressure for them to like whatever they experienced.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
“There was a huge demand for it to continue so I kept working with the school externally after I left,” says Ibison, relying on small amounts of funding from community pots.
Since then, the founder has worked with another three London schools, with many pupils signing up to the programme more than once, and amassed a collection of more than 100 reviews. Now as the schools return from their long summer breaks, she is gearing up to start the programme again.
“The arts help you see from different perspectives,” Ibison says. “That’s the magic of going to see a theatre production or an art exhibition – you step into another world for an hour or two. That helps develop young people’s creativity and discover their imagination which we lose as adults.
“The arts can be challenging and they’re a great vehicle through which we can address uncomfortable or taboo issues with young people. They end up seeing the world as a lot bigger than before.”
Ibison wants to roll out the programme for schools right across the city and beyond, so is currently on a mission to raise £2,500 to kickstart the social enterprise.
“Schools are more and more cash-strapped, I don’t want to charge them for the full cost of everything,” she says.
The success of the programme is measured according how many youngsters say it helped them feel confident expressing their opinions, currently 85 per cent. But it’s seeing someone discover a new world they love that really shows its value, Ibison says.
“In one school there was a boy who’d never ever been to the theatre at all. He came back on the bus completely giddy, saying ‘I love the theatre!’ Asking his teachers if he could still take drama as an option. He was just so happy about it.”
The Critics’ Club founder is clear: if the government really cared about young people’s ‘cultural capital’, it would pump in the money and resources to do that. Until then, Ibison will continue nurturing the hippest arts critics in London.