Inclusion difficulties in the age of Covid-19


The continued health restrictions and lockdowns – essential as they’ve been to control the spread of Covid-19 – have presented the Inclusion Team and the young people The Garage works with with a number of new barriers to overcome. Youth Arts Worker Tom Francis explains more.

The pandemic has presented major challenges for most people. As the last year has ground past, it’s become clearer and clearer that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged have borne the brunt of it. Against this background, the work our Inclusion Manager Adam Yaxley, our Education and Inclusion Administrator Sophia Kelly and I do is more critical than ever – especially after a decade in which funding for youth services has seen a reduction of around 70%.

Many of the activities used by the Inclusion Team to explore communication, teamwork, trust and so on rely heavily on being in a shared physical space and are focused around eye contact, body language and non-verbal communication. Finding ways to achieve these things through the virtual space of a Zoom call is at best difficult, sometimes impossible.

Although we are continually experimenting and attempting to find workarounds, very few of them have proven to be as effective. Even when The Garage was able to open its doors under Covid-secure arrangements, the extra restrictions and procedures everyone had to follow could be very hard for young people who were perhaps already anxious or struggle to follow rules or observe boundaries in social situations.

For many families – particularly those on low incomes – accessing sessions online is hampered by poor internet connections and reliance on shared or insufficient devices. Many families can only access sessions via a smartphone which can be difficult to see, particularly if sessions use screen-sharing or need participants to see things in detail.

It’s been fascinating to talk to young people about their experiences of living through the pandemic and the sheer variety of responses to things like social distancing and remote learning. One of the key principles at The Garage – what I sometimes refer to as Rule 0 in our sessions – is that we treat one another with respect, regardless of our differences.

While I’d anticipated some resistance to things like social distancing and constant hand-washing, I was really encouraged by how so many of our young participants were able to directly relate these measures to the idea of respecting and looking after each other and were happy to follow them even if they found it tough.

Remote learning has been a very variable feast as well. For many young people, online lessons can be harder to engage with. Others have positively thrived while doing lessons at home. For a child who finds large crowds and noise hard to deal with, not being in a busy classroom and completing work at their own speed has been a welcome change.

My younger groups, who’ve grown up around technology which was a futuristic dream when I was a kid, seem to have relatively few gripes with doing Zoom sessions – although this isn’t the case for all of them of course. The older groups, including our adolescent participants, seem to have found it more difficult.

Some have expressed a sort of “camera anxiety”, an unwillingness to turn their camera on due to feelings of unease at being observed or having to look at their own image. Some will engage via audio only, which can limit the impact of games and exercises and their ability to engage in performance-based activities.

Through it all though, the Inclusion Team has continued to see stories of great resilience and perseverance in the face of the strange new environments we’re navigating. A good number of our Foundations participants have completed their courses online and gone on to join new classes as part of our Big Breaks bursary scheme, which funds them for a full year on a class of their choice.

As the pandemic starts to recede and we begin to return to something more like normal life we know the challenges for young people won’t be over. On top of catching up with lost learning and reconnecting with friends, family and peers, they will need help and support to regain confidence and to begin to imagine and define their own journeys through life.

The Garage definitely has a role to play in this, providing a safe, nurturing environment where young people can learn new skills, challenge themselves and work creatively with others. Our mission has always been about making performing arts accessible to everyone and the Inclusion Team sits at the heart of this.

We work with young people from challenging circumstances and backgrounds or who have specific barriers to taking part in arts activities. This covers an incredibly wide range of issues, many of which can intersect – disabilities or special educational support needs, struggles with mainstream education, anxiety or other mental health difficulties, low confidence and self esteem, traumatic life events or living on a low income which is a disadvantage that increasingly cuts across a majority of our referrals.

We know the Inclusion Team’s work has the potential to transform young lives. Our Foundations programme is a series of 10-week courses designed to boost confidence, resilience and social skills through drama, music and dance, which forms the core of our activities. The Inclusion Team has seen participants go on not only to participate in our class programme but perform on The Garage’s main stage as part of the Big Summer Production, go on to study performing arts in further education – including The Garage’s own HNC programmes – and take their first steps into careers in the arts.

We’re already planning an ambitious summer programme and beginning to build links with new referral partners and strengthen existing partnerships. Whatever the coming months hold, we’re ready to help young people explore and fulfil their potential.

Visit our website to also find out more about our Inclusion Teamreferral networkoutreach work and Arts Award opportunities.

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