City of Dreams in the Durham Commission


The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education was published in October this year.

City of Dreams is proud to be a case study.


The Durham Commission on Creativity and Education is a collaboration between Arts Council England and Durham University, aiming to identify ways in which creativity and creative thinking can play a part in the lives of children and young people. This wasn’t just about making a case for creativity in school, or commenting on decline in creative subjects in secondary education.

The Commission considered creativity in a broad context, both within and beyond education, trying to find out what works well and where there might be gaps to fill. City of Dreams was delighted to engage with the investigation team, take part in round table discussions and share some of our learning. Our case study drew on insights from Big Culture Conversations, from our experience of testing new ways to engage under25s, and from efforts to increase access to cultural participation by NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues (NGCV) and partners.

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Led by Professor Simon James, with a highly respected body of commissioners from the arts, business and education the Commission conducted considerable research to help develop a fresh vision for creativity in education.

The Commission presented a series of recommendations in Westminster on October 15th 2019, where City of Dreams was cited an “inspirational exemplar” of creativity, learning and engagement. You can read the full report here, find our case study on page 40. One key theme of the report is especially relevant to NewcastleGateshead:

‘Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and students attending state schools deserve rich and varied experiences of excellent arts and cultural education. To deny them this is not only educationally limiting but socially and morally unconscionable. It reduces the likelihood of students from disadvantaged backgrounds building the kinds of creative skills they need now and in the future.’

This echoes the assertion of the Cultural Learning Alliance in its recent Arts For Every Child briefing that “access to the arts…is a social justice issue.”

City of Dreams’ has a growing evidence base to support this view. We have begun mining audience and participation data from NGCV members, cross-referencing postcodes with volume and type of engagement, and reviewing which schools benefit most from working with cultural organisations. This is revealing a stark picture; those living and learning in the wealthiest postcodes of our city are almost 8 times more likely to engage in creative activity than those living in postcodes ranking in the top 2 deciles of multiple deprivation.

One of the Commission’s recommendations for closing this shocking gap in equity is to better equip schools so they can support creativity for all young people, regardless of background. Working from the same principle, City of Dreams and NGCV partners have successfully engaged 100% of state funded primary and secondary schools in NewcastleGateshead during the 2018-19 academic year. 

We’re also delighted to have supported Newcastle Cultural Education Partnership‘s successful application for Partnership Investment and to help with evaluation of their upcoming projects, which will link creatives with the lesser-served schools in the city. Later in 2020 we also intend to work with Newcastle and Gateshead Cultural Education Partnerships to explore the concept of a “cultural passport”, seeking to deepen and broaden creative experiences for primary school children.

The Commission did not only consider creativity formal education settings. It also gathered evidence on the importance of creativity to young people’s wellbeing and social mobility, both areas of significant challenge on Tyneside. 34% of children in the area grow up in poverty, rising to 49% in parts of Walker, Byker and Elswick, whilst a study by YouGov in June 2019 found that 53% of local young people experience loneliness and poor emotional health.

The Commission pools a diverse set of sources to argue that creative activity can be an answer to these challenges. This compliments learning from City of Dreams Big Culture Conversations (2018, 2019) and feedback from beneficiaries of our Creative Pathways pilot, which describe creative practice as a catalyst for developing critical thinking, organisational and teamwork skills and supporting a kaleidescope career journeys. An evaluation of #MakeSomethingBrilliant (2019) also told us that 80% of participants improved wellbeing, grew confidence or developed new skills.

The Commission goes further still, proposing that creativity does not belong exclusively to the arts, artists or arts organisations. A notion borne out by City of Dreams experience since launching in 2018; in responses to Big Culture Conversations, in diverse submissions to Our City Our Story, through the unique programming ideas generated by X-Culture participants, in the innovative actions of City of Dreams Young Champions who are drawn largely from non-arts backgrounds.

At their core, the Durham Commission and City of Dreams share a belief that there is creativity in every child and young person, that it is all too often untapped and that releasing it can enhance life chances. It’s this belief, based on strong evidence, that has motivated City of Dreams to focus on removing the socio-economic barriers that prevent some under25s engaging with creative activity.  Over the coming years we will expand #MakeSomethingBrilliant, increasing its collaborative programme of accessible offers, to build on the 14,500 under25s from deprived postcodes who take part in Summer 2019.

We will also strengthen partnerships with holiday hunger programmes like Newcastle’s Best Summer Ever and champion cultural venues pioneering initiatives, such as Northern Stage’s work with local partners in Byker and Sage Gateshead’s Poverty Proofing activity with Children North East. 

We hope we can be a pathfinder for the Commissions’ concepts and recommendations, supporting the call for a range of organisations to deliver it’s vision including the Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted, Ofqual, Institute for Apprenticeships, BBC, Arts Council England and Local Cultural Education Partnerships (LCEPs). In NewcastleGateshead, we would add community groups and charities, schools, smaller arts organisations and cultural venues to that list. The latter, we have learned, are an essential part of realising the vision of creativity for all.

The experience of City of Dreams has been one of bringing sectors together in collaboration, of augmenting existing work through connection and innovation, and fostering meaningful dialogue with under25s. We have learned that collaboration requires resources and people. There had to be enough existing activity to make connecting it up worthwhile. Our best innovations were built on platforms of  infrastructure and expertise, and dialogue only became meaningful when there was a critical mass to act on it.

The importance of NGCV to making City of Dreams a suitable case study for the Durham Commission cannot be overstated. The partnership of 10 nationally and internationally recognised members, spanning dance, music, theatre, cinema, museums, science, literature and contemporary art, initiated City of Dreams. They continue to resource and lead it, creating the space – virtual and physical – for the wider arts, education, voluntary, community, business and health sectors to unite.

In this way we have been able to forge an alliance for change that is beginning to show the power of creative engagement and learning to impact employment prospects, active citizenship, wellbeing and happiness. We are on the road to realising our ambition of being the “best place to be young”.

The Durham Commission on Creativity provides a wealth of evidence, and case studies, showing that creativity advantages young people, as citizens, workers and leaders of the future. City of Dreams is delighted by to be highlighted as one way of supporting the Commission’s vision of the UK as a world leader in creative industries and in creative approaches to making a richer, happier more productive society.

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