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Opinion: All children should have equal access to creative and artistic learning

Cost is a key barrier to the participation of children and young people in creative, recreational activities, writes Saoirse Brady.

Saoirse Brady Legal & Policy Director

GROWING UP IN the North in the 1980s had a few obvious drawbacks.

But I’m beginning to realise how lucky I was when it came to school supports like free school books, hot school meals and music lessons that I previously took for granted.

I’m from Newry, an hour’s drive from Dublin yet my experience of school was very different from my friends and colleagues who grew up in the South.

My parents never had to pay for school books, instead every year we were given our books from the school and covered them for protection – if you were unlucky in whatever leftover 1980s wallpaper was lying around – and handed them back at the end of the year.

We never dreamed of writing in workbooks as these were also passed on to the pupils who came after us.

I think one of the most striking differences though was the access we had to the arts through learning a musical instrument in school.

I remember being about seven or eight and being brought into the dinner hall (yes we also had the option of subsidised hot school meals) where we had to do a sort of listening test.

People who passed the test then had to go and meet with different music teachers, employed by the local education board, to talk about the type of instrument you might be suited to play.

I was so giddy when I went to talk to the brass instrument teacher that she changed her mind about giving me a French horn and instead I was brought along to chat to Ms McEvoy the ‘strings’ teacher instead.

We immediately hit it off and she asked if I wanted to learn to play the viola. I didn’t really know what a viola was but I was up for the challenge.

Much like my school books, I was given a musical instrument on loan, that I could take home to practice and play, on the understanding that I would take care of it. I very much considered it my viola.

As I grew, I was given a bigger instrument and continued to play it in secondary school. I got to take part in school concerts and travel with the local orchestra making friends in the community.

All of the children in my school were given the same chance regardless of how much money their parents had and I think this is something to be celebrated.

I appreciated these opportunities at the time but it wasn’t until I started working at the Children’s Rights Alliance in Dublin that my eyes were fully opened to how fortunate I was. 

Although some free music programmes do exist in certain schools in the South, this is not the norm and sometimes parents now have to make a contribution to the lessons in the North too.

It is such a shame that some children cannot access these activities.

Did you know that taking part in cultural activities like singing, painting, dance and theatre benefits children in developing better social skills and positive relationships but also academically?

Participation has a positive impact on children of all backgrounds not only on their health and wellbeing but it can also boost their self-confidence.

A 2016 report by the Arts Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) using Growing up in Ireland data found that children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to participate in arts and cultural activities than children from better off families.

Cost is a key barrier to the participation of children and young people in their local community and recreational activities.

So how do we change this and ensure that more children and young people can access activities that are often considered elitist or out of reach?

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At the Children’s Rights Alliance we are proposing that the Government introduces a subsidy for every child under 18 in the form of a ‘culture card’.

This would go directly to families with children so that they can decide with their parents what they want to do. While there are currently some fantastic arts initiatives in schools, we believe that children should also be able to experience arts and culture in their local communities.

While my music lessons took place in school, I still had the benefit of being able to play my instrument at home and in the community with other children my age.

Introducing a culture card for every child would cost in the region of €36 million a year which is well worth the benefits it would bring.

Other European countries have introduced measures to encourage children and young people to engage in cultural activities including Italy, Norway and Scotland.

But we could also look a little closer to home and emulate some of the access to arts and cultural activities that children have access to, just up the road, across the border. 

Saoirse Brady is the Legal and Policy Director with the Children’s Rights Alliance. 

The Children’s Rights Alliance unites more than 100 members working together to make Ireland a great place for children to live. 

This call for a ‘culture card’ is part of our No Child 2020 campaign and we will meet with political leaders this Thursday. We are calling on the Government to take steps to tackle child poverty, in Budget 2020 and beyond.

About the author:

Saoirse Brady  / Legal & Policy Director

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