The democratic programme of the first Dáil in 1919 opened with a singular promise to the children of the imagined Republic: “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as citizens.”
This document, written in the midst of revolution, sets out a minimum standard for the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of children. Given the desperate urgency of child poverty at the time, the inclusion of “the means and facilities” for citizenship as a basic requirement is powerful. To consider children as citizens was an egalitarian act of imagination that foreshadowed the children’s rights movement over half a century later.
Inspired by that democratic programme, No Child 2020, a joint initiative by The Irish Times and the Children’s Rights Alliance, calls for a universal investment in children’s participation in cultural activity as one of five actions to eradicate child poverty.
State obligations to children took on new significance in 1992 when Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child enshrining the State’s commitments to “promote, fulfil and protect” children’s rights. Arising out of a paradigm shift from the dominant view of children as passive subjects the convention recognises the child as a full human being with the ability to participate fully in society and acknowledges the primary role of parents in the care and protection of children as well as the obligation of the State to assist in these duties.
There are remarkable similarities between the idea of children’s citizenship in the 1919 document and the so-called participation rights of the convention. But now an international human rights instrument gave children and young people the right to be heard and gave grown-ups (parents, family, the State) a duty to listen. Most radically, article 31 sets out the right of the child to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. It goes even further, undertaking to provide equal opportunities for cultural and artistic activity. By ratifying the convention, the Irish State expressed a binding commitment to art and culture for children for the first time in its history.
Without a new intervention, in addition to existing provision, that yawning gap in public policy means that art and culture remain only for some, not all, children
How has our now prosperous Republic delivered on that commitment to every child since 1992? The Ark Cultural Centre for Children – the first of its kind in Europe – was established in 1995, citing article 31 as one of its founding principles. The State has developed arts policy and invested in arts for children through the Arts Council. This ensures that the Ark, as well as other child-centred organisations such as Babaró and Branar in Galway and Kids’ Own in Sligo, can make exciting, contemporary work for children across Ireland. The Arts Council remit is clearly to invest directly in artists and arts infrastructure but indirectly, participation opportunities for children have increased too.
The national cultural institutions, funded directly by the State, also run programmes for children. Another welcome development is Creative Schools, a programme born out of the Arts and Education Charter, to create an arts-rich environment in 300 schools.
However, neither this targeted initiative in schools nor the existing arts infrastructure alone can fulfil universal access for all. With so many children living in poverty, the barriers to participating in cultural activities are self-evident. Without a new intervention, in addition to existing provision, that yawning gap in public policy means that art and culture remain only for some, not all, children. The introduction of a universal subsidy for every child to engage in one cultural opportunity each year – one of the proposals advanced as part of the No Child 2020 initiative – would begin to address the economic inequality that limits their cultural participation.
Singing, painting, dancing and performing helps children to develop better social skills and positive relationships but children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to participate in arts and cultural activities than children from more affluent families. Cost is a key barrier.
Because children’s learning is enhanced by arts participation this, in turn, creates further inequality in school achievement. Many arts organisations attempt to level out that inequality by offering incentives for school groups and teachers and Deis schools often use School Completion funding for cultural visits. But neither of these tactics can bridge the gap in participation between those living in disadvantage and their more affluent peers.
Direct investment in children’s capacity to participate would be a decisive step towards addressing this existing inequality. This is an opportunity to put arts and culture at the heart of public policy for children – not as a byproduct of already hard-pressed arts funding but as a direct investment in the quality of children's lives.
Aideen Howard is director of the Ark Children’s Cultural Centre, Dublin