A partnership was formed between Blackpool’s Children's Services and Blackpool’s Grand Theatre. After consultation with young people experiencing life in care; the ‘Illuminate’ project was co-produced.
This two-year arts holiday programme strengthens belonging, resilience & well-being offering opportunities for young people to tell their stories whilst building skills with artists. They worked on the Grand Theatre’s stage, learning about lights & sound, creating dance, poems, banners and lanterns for Blackpool Illuminations. We use our ‘Story-Led Resilient Practice’ approach, building the capacity of young people feeling isolated and stigmatised. We combined skills, offering a ‘safe’ space for children to be heard.
Roles and responsibilities
Establishing roles and responsibilities whilst developing a shared language was challenging. This was a variable team meaning that we were brokering new relationships not only with the children but with artists and wider team. Induction into the project and communications was an ongoing challenge. Capacity from the council was challenging post lockdown, adding extra stress and strain to an already small engagement team in social services.
Life challenges and behaviour
Their understanding of ‘family’, how they fit in and negotiate relationships is tiring, placing demands on their mental health and resilience. This is often expressed through challenging behaviours and low attention span.
Their need for ongoing, regular 1:1 and group extra support is high, as they process chaotic and painful life experiences. As capacity is stretched, we relied on volunteers and theatre staff for support. Their access to support networks and social groups is hard because of transience. Blackpool has the highest number of children in care in England, this is the first regular dedicated holiday programme here focusing on building ‘resilient & creative skills’.
Programme structure and content continuity
Some children are only able to come for only a couple of the sessions or days and others come to all and have become a core group. So regularly re-bonding the group so all are engaged, feel included to confidently participate and make friends. Planning continuous activity for the core group whilst having a modular approach for children who attend irregularly has been a logistic and creative challenge. A co-productive approach means we regularly adapt the content to engage the regular group and the young people who drop in; meaning more development time and resources, creating a higher demand on the budget.
A One Team approach
We adopted a ‘One Team’ approach. In the previous planning model the artists would plan separately and then deliver sessions. Now in our one team approach we review and jointly plan session content with the artists. The team from the council are better informed and prepared to offer improved support. Artists will be clear about the nature of support the young people will need in the activity and this has been explained ahead of time and not on the day. We plan afresh after each holiday and artists ideas are freshly informed by and developed with the social workers and young people. This co-productive approach means that there are ‘off the shelf’ workshops.
We have created an ‘Action Learning Set’ taking a timely, realistic solution focused approach to problems and challenges. We hot debrief with open and honest conversations, so issues didn’t linger. We have built trust this way and with mutual respect of each other’s contributions being of equal value. A new shared language and understanding has emerged over the past 12 months.
Support for young people
We put more support staff in place from the theatre and additional artists as volunteers were irregular. The sessions offered on rotation are shorter and more variable, so children struggling with attention span and behaviour are better engaged. The ‘Story-Led Resilient Practice' approach means we focus on ‘resilient moves’ that model and reinforce positive behaviours. For example, being free from prejudice, improving group work, being or having someone to rely on, sharing interests and what makes a sense of belonging. The creative workshops offered the participants opportunities to safely and gently explore their ‘core self’ without the labelling and stigma of being in care.
The lead social worker highlights individuals whose “Walls have come down, whose confidence has grown, behaviour is positive and supportive as opposed to aggressive and disruptive.”
She describes young people whose confidence and resilience has increased as a direct result of the project:
“This project offers a safe space with adults who the children trust, who accept and believe in them. ‘Illuminate’ provides positive, consistent role models who are there for the children as they struggle to deal with deep trauma whilst fighting to be accepted. We offer a safe bridge for them to find and be themselves without labels. Post lockdown the council is stretched. We fulfil the basics e.g. when they might have run away or aren’t going to school, or worse. They are ‘held ‘at this project, the theatre is described as a family by them, here in this project they move away from basics to explore stories, well-being and resilient skills, who they are and want to be. The interpersonal work needed that we often don’t have time or resources to do.”
Over 70 per cent of the children said they had made new friends and had reconnected with them over the holiday period. It is hard to sustain friendships with school friends when living in care. The team said that this has very much contributed to their well-being, and they have made new friends, connected, tried new things and offered mutual support. This connects to ‘Five Ways to Well-Being’ (Mind 2013).
Over 60 per cent of the children could describe ‘resilient skills’ and find new ways of coping individually and collectively.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The partnership is developing a funding bid to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and advocating to the council for resources from Levelling Up funding. We will write impact case studies to demonstrate how the ‘Story-Led Resilient Practice’ approach delivered within a regular holiday format and programme positively impacts on the well-being and resilience of children and young people in care.
The Grand Theatre is working on a business development model with Professor Bolton to sustain the ‘Story-Led Resilience Programme’ of which ‘Illuminate’ is a part.
A town-wide approach
We are also working with our partners at the council to develop a strategic town-wide approach to a creative and cultural programme for our most vulnerable children and young people, especially those experiencing life in care. One focus will be around a shared resources approach so that there can be an unlocking of local Blackpool’ cultural offers which removes cost, transport and pastoral barriers for our children.
As the counil owns the Winter Gardens Opera House and Blackpool Tower as well as the libraries and other community and cultural spaces we want to ensure that this area of work is considered and embedded in the emerging ‘Blackpool Cultural Partnership’. The Illuminate project will have a documentary advocacy film and a creative film with young people’s voices at the centre. We are creating tools to showcase their work and the impact of the approach and project.
The Grand Theatre’s training package and resources for the ‘Story-Led Programme’ will be available to more Social Workers, youth workers and artists. The young people themselves will be presenting their work at Blackpool’s Lightpool Festival. The Grand Theatre has also included this work and approach in its three year National Portfolio Organisation funding application to Arts Council England.
The partnership with Blackpool’s Children's Services team has enabled us all to understand how to work together and having a two year long term project has meant that we could ‘test and learn’ using an ‘Active Learning Set’ approach. We didn’t realise initially how much more time we would need to plan as working co-productively requires more time, flexibility and most importantly working at the pace of trust’. Multiple and diverse organisations coming together brought their own capacity issues, language, routines and systems. We learnt about them and from each other’s adapting our communication styles and taking time to ask clarifying questions.
We learnt early on that it was our shared values and commitment that bound us together. We work with a social justice approach and this has meant that we have examined the barriers within our systems that lessen creative social engagement for our children in care. This is forming our ‘campaign’ and advocacy for a town-wide approach to a bespoke creative and cultural offer that will use learning from this project. This means that other organisations and councils can understand the flexible needs led structure with variable content, and the support systems that need to be in place.
‘Story-Led Resilient Practice’ and health inequalities
We learnt patience, and to understand that learning and working co-productively means outcomes are more likely to have greater personal impact. The principles of youth work and co-production mixed with the ‘Story-Led Resilient Practice’ offers content and approach, this takes more time so more resource is needed.
‘Story-Led Resilient Practice’ enables an experiential personal discovery journey that highlights the arts and story as a valuable tool positively contributing to vulnerable young peoples’ mental health and so reducing health inequalities.
Celine Wyatt FRSA, Head of Creative Development & Learning
Blackpool Grand Theatre
Email: [email protected]
‘Story-Led Resilient Practice and Programme’ ©Blackpool Grand Theatre, 2017.