The Engage Conference 2019 will examine the benefits and challenges of young people’s access to the arts, exploring best practice, partnerships and policies from the sector.  

The arts and culture provide a lens through which children and young people develop their understanding of themselves and the wider world. It creates a space for children and young people to shape their thoughts, feelings and their futures. Access to the arts is a fundamental human right, and yet many children and young people, particularly those who are most marginalised, do not have this opportunity. With this in mind the Engage Conference 2019 draws its inspiration from City of Dreams, an exciting ten-year programme which gives every child and young person in Newcastle and Gateshead access to arts and culture. 

Key contributors at the conference will be young people, whose voices will build a UK-wide picture of their current cultural access and how culture can be delivered more on their terms. Examples of best practice will focus on innovative work that help children and young people overcome the barriers they encounter (both real and perceived) and embrace them as leaders and co-creators. Delegates will hear from organisations and individuals who are giving a voice to the marginalised. Experts will showcase programmes through which access to the arts has been created or improved for young people with special educational needs, disabilities and mental health issues, as well as those facing challenging circumstances such as rural isolation and socio-economic deprivation. 

The conference will open with a keynote address by Sharna Jackson, Artistic Director of Site Gallery in Sheffield, and author of children’s literature. Sharna will reflect on her experience across a wide variety of roles in the cultural sector, all of which have been driven by a desire to ensure young, diverse, disengaged young people are supported to access the arts and culture.  

Dhikshana Turakhia Pering, Young People’s Producer, Brent 2020 – London Borough of Culture, will give the keynote address on the second day of the conference. Dhikshana will unpick what true co-production with young people means, drawing on her experience with Brent Blueprint Collective, a part leadership programme, pressure-group and think tank making sure the young voices of Brent are seen and heard. 

2019 is an interesting time in terms of policy and practice. Almost a decade after the Curriculum for Excellence rolled out in Scottish schools, a new curriculum is arriving in Wales and promises to be more supportive of the arts. In England the work of Arts Council England supported Bridge Organisations and Local Cultural Education Partnerships is bolstering the cultural offer for young people on a place basis. These subjects will feature in the conference programme alongside a workshop with socially engaged artist educator Jack Brown. Jack will challenge delegates to consider what constraints different environments place on young people’s creativity.  

There is a growing call to diversify the cultural workforce and to provide accessible pathways for children and young people into the creative economy.  Educators, mentors and digital innovators will highlight ways of supporting young people into creative careers. The conference will offer tangible ideas and case studies.  

Above all the conference will be a call to action. Engage was founded thirty years ago, in the same year that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was published. This is an opportunity to reflect on what is different for children and young people now, what the future may hold and consider how partnerships and new ways of thinking can bring about real change. 

The event will be useful for anyone working in cultural education, particularly those involved in the visual arts and heritage across the UK and beyond. Delegates can expect to take away tangible ideas and actions to build into their own work. The conference is intended to be a conversation starter, to encourage educators to think differently and listen closely to youth voices.