Happy Birthday Arts Award

Posted By Diana Walton on 30 June 2016

Diana Walton, Director of Upstart Projects, reflects on Arts Award’s 10th birthday and its lasting impact on young people.

16 years ago, when I was an Arts Council Learning Officer, I met a group of 15-year-olds who talked just like like artists. They discussed creative challenge, experimenting with new art forms and the pleasure of sharing their skills as arts leaders. 

A young man in a yellow t-shirt holds a video camera up to his eye, while a young man next to him holds up a boom mic
A Gold Arts Award film-maker, Trinity College London. Photo © John Nassari

They were telling me about an award called YALA, or the Young Arts Leader Award, which they said gave them choice and responsibility and was different from their arts subjects in school.

I was at Langley School, Solihull, where the charismatic headteacher, Susan Orlik, had persuaded me that she’d had a good idea and the Arts Council might be interested. She felt that young people should be able to get an award for the arts as well as for sport or community service.  

So the story began…and YALA evolved into Arts Award. When the Arts Council ran a national pilot two years later, young people told us the awards should be qualifications to increase their value, so Trinity College London came on board as the awarding body.  

A group of young people in a dark room shout into microphones and megaphones
Giving young people a voice through Arts Award, Trinity College London. Photo © Kirstin Pirsk

Today there is a suite of five awards. Young people can start at age five (or even younger) and take part till 25, with well-trod pathways into further arts training and careers and excellent links with the arts and cultural world. This year, Arts Award celebrates both its 10th birthday and a quarter of a million awards made since 2005. 

Arts Award helped me to find myself as an artist and a person

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with Arts Award throughout that time, and in this milestone year I’ve been reflecting on Arts Award’s enduring appeal – both to young people and to arts professionals (who see initiatives come and go!). So here are a few key factors in Arts Award’s popularity…

No 1:  Young people are naturally creative and make great leaders

I saw young people’s appetite for experimentation, leadership and responsibility at Langley School years ago and have watched it ever since, in theatres and schools and museums and young offender institutions.

As part of Arts Award’s birthday celebrations, I’ve been involved with the first ‘GOLDExpo’, a live showcase which shares the talents of Gold Award achievers over the past decade. Gold Arts Award is the highest level, the same standard as A-levels, and carries valuable UCAS points.

Three young men pose with their guitars on a spiral staircase
Arts Award musicians, Trinity College London. Photo © Kirstin Pirsk

GOLDExpo is run by the Arts Award Youth Network, a powerful team of young creatives who have emerged from the programme and now run events and an online magazine, Arts Award Voice  They embody the Arts Award principles of creative challenge, professionalism and leadership.

In the run-up to this event, it’s been wonderful to meet young artists, film-makers, musicians and theatre-makers who did their Gold Award years ago and felt it opened doors to their successful creative careers. There’s Dan, now a local photographer, Elspeth - an arts administrator, Ben - a lighting technician and Lizzie - a freelance theatre director.

No 2:  One size does not fit all in the arts

And Arts Award can open the door for personal interests, secret passions, private ambitions. I’m thinking of Janey, the punk who adored William Blake’s poetry; Gus, the A-level drop-out, looking for ways of becoming a stone-carver; Faz, the classical violinist who wanted to write a play; Louie, the breakdancer, who aspired to paint movement…

Arts Award enabled these young people to realise a talent that might have been missed in mainstream education. And personal passions can lead to great artists.

A young woman wearing headphones makes notes at a tech desk
Doing Silver Arts Award at Create Studios, Swindon. Photo © Kevin Ricks / Trinity College London

No 3:  Qualifications matter

They matter to the academically able, who do Gold Arts Award to add value to their university application or bump up their UCAS points. And they matter equally to young people who may not get many others. Take Stephen, excluded from school, and his comment after collecting his Bronze Award at his first award ceremony: ‘Whoa…rough…sick…I’m proud of this shit.’

personal passions can lead to great artists

No 4:  A lasting impact

It’s been fascinating to work with London South Bank University on the Arts Award Impact Study, four years of research tracking 68 young people, surveying hundreds more and interviewing Arts Award alumni and arts professionals.

Their report makes happy reading for me, as it confirms the value of Arts Award in helping young people move into further education, training and employment. But more than that, it captures how Arts Award can spark talent and support success in so many different young people and the powerful way in which it builds learning skills and confidence. The researchers found that the impact of doing an Arts Award actually increases over time. 

A young man in a checked shirt dances at a party
Dancing at an Arts Award celebration, Trinity College London. Photo © Paul Maven

One young person speaks for many and sums it up for me when she says: ‘Arts Award helped me to find myself as an artist and a person.’

Happy Birthday Arts Award – I can’t wait to see where you’ll go in the next ten years!

Diana has worked to develop Arts Award with Arts Council England and Trinity College London since 2000. She is also Director of Upstart Projects, which supports young people to grow their arts and media skills, and runs many Arts Award projects.

A group of young people pose in their black Arts Award t-shirts
The Arts Award Youth Network celebrating Arts Award's 10th birthday. Photo © Upstart Projects

Find out more

Arts Award’s 10th Birthday celebrations conclude with the first Arts Award Week, running from 2-10 July  

Learn more about Arts Award and find out how your arts organisation or school can get involved

Hear from young people at Arts Award Voice

Read about the Arts Award Impact Study

Find out more about Upstart Projects

Follow Diana, Arts Award, Arts Award Voice and the Arts Council on Twitter