A brush with the other side

July 5, 2002

Art workshops are giving young people from East London estates a taste of further education. But there is still a chasm to cross, says Linden West.

Gina lives with her small child. Still only a teenager, she truanted from school from the age of nine, took hard drugs and had an unwanted pregnancy. Her baby has been ill for most of its short life, and Gina has Crohn's disease. She is the kind of single mother who government ministers tell us must take more responsibility for her condition; who chooses to get pregnant, and whose offspring will perpetuate cycles of failure, crime, drug abuse and hopelessness.

Shazir, also a teenage mother, has a history of abuse in a violent family, a sick mother and an emotionally unstable father. Her father threw her out when she was pregnant, calling her and her baby "evil", because the baby's father was white.

Gina and Shazir live on a housing estate in East London. Higher education belongs to a different world: two-thirds of university students come from social classes one and two, and just one in 100 from social class five, to which Gina and Shazir belong.

But just over a year ago, they and other young mothers were persuaded to attend a youth centre specialising in parent support programmes. There they took part in a series of workshops run by a community arts project called Arts and the Learning City. These were funded by the Higher Education Funding Council and London Arts, and involved, among other partners, the University of East London. The aim was for the arts to act as a springboard for people like Gina and Shazir to re-enter education. Besides the workshops on visual arts and textile design aimed at young mothers between the ages of 14 and 19, there was another series designed for young men, which was concerned with graffiti art and its role in football and urban street culture.

The collaboration was evaluated using interviews with those taking part in the early stages and towards the end of the project.

There were disappointments. None of the young people, after a period of a year or more, had progressed into higher or further education. Promised workshops at UEL never materialised, and some staff who had said they would take part pulled out.

The community-based workshops struggled to get going at first. Many of the young women remained disaffected, their lives frequently chaotic and their behaviour rebellious. Structures and timetables were not easily imposed.

Yet Gina said she had changed as a result. Sculpting was therapeutic and helped her express her anger about her pregnancy. "I suppose all I was was a baby carrier. That is what I felt. There is no head and no legs (on her sculpture) because I wasn't actually a person. Like a baby machine. So just middle, just boobs and a belly," she says.

She dreamed of working for a magazine, doing the page layouts and digital designing. She was now thinking of going to college but the cost worried her, as did the lack of childcare.

She had also become involved in a single-parent advocacy programme and a peer sex-education project in local schools, in which she shared her experiences with the children. This was what was needed, she said, more than "a load of professionals" telling the kids how to behave.

Shazir said her social worker thought her incapable of looking after her baby properly. She had left his father because he was "cheating on her". The police were involved and the baby was sick. Eventually she escaped bed and breakfast and was moved into a one-bedroom flat.

She now wanted to go to college and get some GCSEs because she needed "a job, office work, or whatever". She sometimes dreamed of teaching English. She was good at it in school. Sometimes she used to go to school "for a whole week and not bunk". But she got "a bit lost" with "heroin and stuff like that". The centre had been a lifeline and was "more like a family" to her. Doing art made her feel good about herself and she could even imagine herself as a student. But the perceived costs of college, and the limitations of childcare, got in the way.

If the lives of these young women were frequently chaotic, and their behaviour destructive, there were also heroic glimpses of learning and progression in more personal, relational, even political terms. There were moments where the young women felt themselves to be learners and agents in their own lives for the first time. This can raise difficult issues about identity and stir up complex feelings about life histories and potential futures. Some resist engagement for fear of rejection all over again. There may be anxiety about whether they can or want to change, or even deserve to.

Such young people easily become defensive and walk away from commitment as a result. But doing art can enable difficult feelings to "hang out" and be worked on symbolically and, to an extent, be transcended. Projecting anger into creative activity, and producing something worthwhile and admired by others, can be therapeutic.

Policy-makers need to listen to what they have to say about the meaning of learning and progression in the totality of a life, rather than just disparaging them. And they need to acknowledge that substantial resources are required for work of this kind, and for supportive centres in which it can thrive. Because funding currently tends to be short-term, minimal and tokenistic, project workers often spend scarce time searching about for more cash.

A quarter of the student population in post-compulsory education - those studying full-time in universities - receives 75 per cent of available funding, while the money for people such as Gina and Shazir, and for widening participation projects such as this - usually carried out by the universities that receive the least money - is relatively derisory. Lack of grants, fear of debt and inadequate childcare easily inhibit people such as Gina and Shazir from moving into formal education given their life histories. Changes in the system of student support, as the government itself has been forced to admit, have especially inhibited the children of poorer families. There is a massive price to be paid for neglect on this scale.

Linden West is principal lecturer in education at Christ Church University College. His report, Glimpses Across the Divide , is published by London Arts and the University of East London.

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