In the 2018 report entitled Reshaping Cultural Policies, UNESCO makes a candid statement: culture is a tool to turn the world into a better place. While matching this perspective with cultural education, one city in the world seems to be the frontrunner: Amsterdam. This is, at least, the conclusion drawn by the British art education expert, Paul Collard. How does this unfold in practice and how does it tie in with the various global developments related to children? The following are five questions addressed to Peggy Brandon, director of Mocca. The latter is the foundation that is commissioned by the municipality of Amsterdam to connect primary school children in that city to arts and culture, reaching well over 95% of the city’s schools.
TG: Why is cultural education important in a child’s development?
“Recent research by UNESCO has shown that cultural education unlocks creativity. That is, not only does cultural education allow children to familiarise themselves with this domain but it also gives them the opportunity to express their emotions while teaching them fundamental competencies — analysing, creating and reflecting are examples hereof.
Practising sports or being part of a sports club or pursuing any other leisure activity are of course also meaningful approaches. Though, sports are not every child’s cup of tea. Besides, at least in the Netherlands, the system of clubs and unions has changed due in part to a growing sense of individualism. One thing is certain: every child sings, dances, acts or draws. Thus, particularly in a city like Amsterdam, where two-thirds of all children have a foreign background, cultural education plays a major role in identity development — it allows children to become their best self”.
TG: As the so-called forerunner, what steps should Amsterdam take to reinforce this position?
“It’s a simple yet complex answer: how to bridge the gap between the wish to make all children part of this entirety when in fact it’s not mandatory? The art realm is not a compulsory component of the curricula of Dutch primary schools. While the Dutch government notes the importance of promoting art and design in general and invests plenty of money in this matter, the next step would be arts as a means for young people to achieve a sense of belonging — to make them feel part of Dutch society”.
TG: Generally speaking, what should a school have in place in order to properly embed cultural education in its curriculum?
“First and foremost there should be consensus on the importance of cultural education in the life of a child. This should be done while taking the cultural background of every single child into account. Ordinarily, there are no schools that firmly oppose cultural education. Yet, the level at which schools are able to implement arts in their programmes varies. This often stems from the logistical ‘burden’ that comes along when incorporating cultural education into one’s curriculum. After all, primary schools in the Netherlands already have to comply with dozens of prerequisites”.
TG: Plenty of investigations show that Dutch youngsters with a foreign background do not always enjoy equal opportunities on the labour market. In turn, is cultural education in Amsterdam accessible to any child, regardless of his or her ethnicity or social background?
“Again, it might seem simple but it’s complex. For as long as we remain within the confines of the cultural offerings of primary schools, there are many possibilities that, at the same time, help to mitigate exclusion. What happens outside school, is indeed a different story. Even so, art can provide children with several skills that might come in handy in their upcoming professional lives. In the Dutch labour market, characteristics such as being able to get on the same wavelength as your colleagues and the capacity to fit in are very much valued. Several Dutch cultural educational programmes are currently responding to this trend. In the city of Utrecht, for instance, children are prompted to apply for a position in an opera performance. In doing so, they are taught all the ins and outs of application processes and are also given the insights on how to present themselves”.
TG: In 2017, UNICEF spent over half a billion dollars in delivering relief to children in crisis regions. While a comparison might be out of place, is cultural education, approached in this spirit, a luxury or, in fact, a necessity?
“Instead of entering into that comparison, I would rather pose a counter-question: what are the implications if children are not exposed to culture? The biological effects of childhood traumas have often been the subject of research. On balance, arts and culture could be deployed as a holistic tool that offers children the possibility to transcend traumatic experiences or to use them as part of their creative thinking or to balance them out. On the whole, arts and culture encourage us, adults, to take children seriously”.
Peggy Brandon (1961) is currently finishing a book on the successful arts education model in Amsterdam. A Japanologist and communication professional, she was the first Surinamese-born museum director in the Netherlands.