Arts and minds

 Young people in the care system have the odds stacked against them. Even for those who are well settled with a foster family and at school there is a sense of being different and cut off from people with similar life experiences.

In Oxfordshire, a team from social care and health, education and youth offending has found a novel way to promote self-esteem and address feelings of isolation by staging an annual residential arts festival for looked-after young people in the county.

Simon Brown, placements manager for Oxfordshire children, young people and families, is one of the project’s creators. He explains: “It seemed like a good way of engaging looked-after young people who were socially isolated. We chose a performing arts group – Tin House – that had specific experience of working with disaffected young people.”

The event has been held for the past four years at an outdoor education centre in the village of Farmoor, funded largely through lottery and Home Office grants.

Careful preparation is crucial, and includes involving young people. Brown says: “We get a group together before the event to work with the artists for a day and choose the theme of the festival. The first year they came up with ‘Hillside Seaside – Farmoor Sea Than You’d Expect.'”

There was a sense of not quite knowing how things would turn out. Putting together more than 45 vulnerable 11 to 16-year-olds in dormitory accommodation for a week does come with risks attached. But there wasn’t a single incident and the group was complimented for being one of the best-behaved the Farmoor centre had hosted.

Brown says that the team offers a very high ratio of care staff, one for every two children. “They have mostly worked for us before, providing one-to-one support to prevent placements breaking down. Some of them have ambitions to become social workers or teachers or they’re older people with experience of youth work or bringing up their own families.” The staff join in with the arts – “it helps build relationships and gets young people over the fear of making fools of themselves and looking daft in front of their peers”.

For the past two years the group has also been supported by trained volunteer mentors who have been in care themselves.

Becky Keen, now a Connexions adviser based in London, has worked as an outreach worker at the festival every summer, last year taking annual leave in order to participate. “I’m there to support the young people and make sure they’re safe and happy,” she says. “I try to get them involved in activities if they’re not doing it already. There are usually a few who hang back but by the end of the week they’re joining in and opening up to other young people. We’re a really strong team and people look forward to seeing each other the following year.”

The first summer the young people wrote poems and songs, danced, sang, designed scenery, and built a pier, a ship and lighthouse as props. One boy who had been particularly difficult to engage but was into BMX biking built a ramp and turned his bike helmet into a shark’s head. On the final evening the group performed to an audience of 200 – families, foster carers, social workers, teachers and dignataries from the county. Brown says: “The shark became the centrepiece for the show – it was all about ecological survival and the hunter becoming the hunted. It was a huge success. Children didn’t want to go home. The feedback was that all they wanted to talk about was Farmoor.”

One of the many positive spin-offs from the festival is that young people want to meet up with their new friends and join arts and drama groups at school or those provided by the looked-after children’s service. “The project boosts children’s self-esteem and makes home and school placements more stable,” says Brown.

“There’s also been a fall in the offending rate of looked-after young people. We hit all the right targets so we’ve been able to get Home Office funding.”

Lessons learned

  • High levels of supervision are crucial when you bring together vulnerable looked-after children. Brown says: “The site manager told us we were one of the best managed groups they’d had.”
  • Staff need the right mix of skills to support and motivate young people. “Workers join in the activities and help ensure there’s a good production at the end of the week but we’re also ready to support a young person if an issue arises,” says Keen.
  • Meticulous planning is the key to success. “The second year we’d relaxed a bit and felt the final performance wasn’t quite as good, so the third time we did loads of planning and it made running the event really easy,” says Brown.

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