The Culture Challenge MK – a review of our work

We recently put together a report for members of MAKE, the MK Cultural Education Partnership Meeting (formerly the Milton Keynes Learning & Cultural Education Partnership), highlighting our work which has taken place in the town since 2016.

We are posting this online as some of the case studies, comments and figures seemed too good not to share, and for anyone new to The Culture Challenge, it provides a flavour of our philosophy and the work we’ve been carrying out with young people in the town. Here follow some key insights from the report.

The Culture Challenge

Who are the Cultural Providers of Milton Keynes?

We currently have 23 Milton Keynes cultural providers listed on The Culture Challenge Directory. These are:

We currently have 11 new providers are at the point of filling in application forms and have developed, with the help of Arts Gateway MK, a list of 55 potential MK providers to target, gathering knowledge on the artists/cultural organisations existing across the Milton Keynes region. These ‘potentials’ are regularly contacted with requests to sign up.

How do we communicate with the schools and cultural providers of Milton Keynes? 

The Culture Challenge boys

Monthly e-Newsletters

Term time monthly newsletters are sent to both schools and cultural providers working in Milton Keynes, with relevant news and opportunities. 205 contacts within Milton Keynes schools are signed up to hear about activities, case studies, culture voucher opportunities and relevant educational research. Likewise, we have 49 people subscribed to our cultural provider newsletter. This monthly mailing keeps them informed about schools who are looking for artists to work on dedicated projects, opportunities for artists in the local area and news and research from within the sector to promote best practice.

Social Media

We are an active and positive champion of cultural activity on social media:

  • Twitter 1865 followers
  • Facebook 394 followers
  • Instagram 263 followers


In December 2018 all MK schools were written to promote the Culture Challenge MK and the ArtsGateway MK Culture Vouchers. All MK cultural providers were written to in February 2019 with a copy of our celebration report and a request to help us spread the word to other providers. In March 2019 all schools were invited, by post to the CPD sessions. A mailshot is planned for mid-March to the MK potentials list to encourage them to sign up. Milton Keynes practitioners are promoted to Milton Keynes Schools and are also included in the mailouts to Bedford Borough, Luton and Central Bedfordshire Schools.

What are we offering in terms of events and training?

The Culture Challenge CPD Sessions

TCC has previously delivered a ‘working with schools’ workshop at Arts Gateway MK in 2017, and has presented at MKLCEP (now MAKE) and AHA meetings in 2018.

During 2019, The Culture Challenge are collaborating with MAKE to delivering three CPD sessions for both teachers and creative practitioners covering topics raised in recent MKLCEP (MAKE) meetings. Sessions are due to take place in March and May 2019.

The Culture Challenge Surgeries

We are continuing to reach out to new cultural providers across the Milton Keynes region by running informal ‘surgeries’, which are free, drop-in sessions for anyone wanting to learn more about The Culture Challenge. Two have taken place at The MK Gallery. These sessions have proved useful to both potential and existing Cultural Providers, with two further dates scheduled for April and June later this year (MK Arts Centre & MK Gallery).

How do we work with our Partners? 

Quarterly meetings have been held with Joan Stewart of Arts GateWay MK by Jo Atherton The Culture Challenge Co-ordinator, and formerly Kayte Judge, and members of TCC team have attended 2 CEP meetings where possible. Meetings have been held with Lallie Davies and Victoria Mayes variously by Kayte Judge and Jo Atherton on an ad hoc basis.

Culture Vouchers in MK schools

Culture Vouchers work as a closed currency, awarded to schools to spend on the delivery of creative workshops with their pupils. They can be exchanged with any Provider listed on The Culture Challenge Directory when booking a workshop. In MK they have been funded by Arts Gateway MK and the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) and Learning Ladder. Over the last three years, we have allocated Culture Vouchers to a wide variety of schools across Milton Keynes including:

  • Emerson Valley Lower School
  • St Mary & St Giles C of E Primary School
  • Denbigh School Milton Keynes
  • Shenley Brook End School
  • Walton High
  • Lord Grey School
  • Holne Chase Primary School
  • Broughton Fields Primary School
  • Emerson Valley School
  • Great Linford Primary
  • Heronsgate School
  • Milton Keynes Academy
  • Radcliffe Sixth Form
  • Stevenson Academy
  • We secured Learning Ladder funding for culture vouchers for a project within the Lakes Estate, and worked with MK Gallery to work directly with CYP through a youth group.

As part of our licence agreement in the past year, Arts Gateway MK generously supported the distribution of Culture Vouchers to two schools, enabling young people of Milton Keynes to experience two quite different dance workshops:

  • Cultural Provider Pagrav Dance are working with Caroline Haslett School this week, to undertake Indian Dance (Kathak Dance) as part of their exploration of India and Indian Culture.
  • Dance practitioner Hannah Delaney worked with St Bernadette’s Catholic Primary school. Over the course of six weeks, each class planned, refined and explored the value of courage under the guidance and expertise of a dance teacher. Teacher Melanie Smith was delighted with the results, explaining that ‘children who usually lack confidence to perform were absolutely wonderful and flourished throughout the performance.’

Fundraising update

We met our Culture Voucher Funding targets for 2016-18 through support of the National Network of Collaborative Outreach. Funding applications have been made in 2019 to the following and we are waiting to hear back from them (anticipated by April 2019). Due to the timings of these applications we have agreed to extend the end of our delivery to the June 2019 and will honour Culture Voucher funded activity until the end of the year. Current applications in progress include the WW Spooner Charitable Trust (£3k), Emerton Christie Charity (£1k), Gilbert and Eileen Edgar Foundation (£2.5k) and The Jim Marshall Charitable Trust (4k).

Cultural Provider Case Studies

Helen Parlor, Director MOTUS Dance

Helen is a Director of the Milton Keynes based MOTUS Dance. She enthusiastically describes The Culture Challenge as a ‘powerhouse for collaboration’, having welcomed the opportunity to work with schools outside the town and extend the reach of her creative practice into neighbouring Bedford. MOTUS dance have been commissioned using culture vouchers for Wellbeing Culture Clubs in three schools in Bedford, and recently took part in the BACE twinning programme as visiting artists.

Helen is passionate about many of the problems facing young people today and the challenges of the current education system. She has experienced first-hand the consequences of a qualification driven, solitary way of working where pupils are working with a lack of collaboration, resulting in a raft of problems including a lack of empathy, poor self-esteem and ultimately depression. This is where she feels the real value of The Culture Challenge lies, to harness creative skills for the wellbeing of young people, and possibly preventing the development of more serious problems in later life.

Helen feels there is a huge appetite for the service within Milton Keynes, but to be truly successful, a partnership with an existing organisation in the town is what is needed. The umbrella view that this partnership could bring would provide insight into the existing educational and cultural landscape in the town, and in turn, The Culture Challenge could share their expertise in creative ways of working, knowledge of the education sector and advocate best practice for working with young people.

Jane Charles, Small Beans

Jane Charles runs Small Beans as a textile artist and tutor working with a variety of age groups. She found herself in receipt of Culture Vouchers, delivering a project with two schools for MK50 in 2016. Jane explains that ‘the vouchers helped the schools fund the project, which was invaluable’. The final artwork featured in the MK50 Middleton Hall exhibition in January 2017, continuing the legacy of this project and exciting time for Milton Keynes. Jane acknowledges that The Culture Challenge MK has supported her work with schools, providing her with the opportunity to ‘think outside my usual ’textile box’ of teaching skills, as answering a brief often does not suit textile projects so I’ve been able to pull other ideas together, some of which have been successful.’

Andrew Macdermott, ceramic artist

Andrew Macdermott is a Milton Keynes based potter and ceramic artist who has been working with a variety of schools in the town and beyond, describing his experience with The Culture Challenge MK as being an ‘integral link’ in his creative practice. He explains, ‘it’s allowed me to bid for challenging, exciting and meaningful projects and given the schools a ‘one stop shop’ experience to create strong ties with a local artist like me. The way schools can bid for vouchers or access information on providers has helped focus their approach and make the transition from an idea to a successful project.’

Andrew would love The Culture Challenge to continue to run in Milton Keynes. ‘It would be a great shame if the service was no longer available to Milton Keynes schools and youth services. There is a great need and enthusiasm from young people to access artistic and creative projects. The service can only enhance their educational experience and it would be a great loss to the area including the artists/providers themselves. My practice and reach as an artist has increased directly and by at least three to six opportunities a year as a result of my involvement as a cultural provider. The brokerage role of The Culture Challenge is invaluable between artist and school and both need that lynch-pin to bring projects to fruition.’