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Research shows that the arts can be highly productive and positive for young people. However, our research suggests that the inclusive potential of the arts can be undermined (Howard, 2022). We theorise this as ‘curriculum injustice’, where young people facing multiple forms of disadvantage, such as living in poverty, are more likely to be offered fewer opportunities for learning.

We explore the particular setting of alternative education provision (AP), where lower-quality education, patchy arts provision and deficit pedagogies have been highlighted previously (Thomson & Pennacchia, 2014). Within AP sites, we witnessed particular forms of ‘safe teaching’, which dealt with the young person’s behaviour first, and their learning second. Low-level behavioural activities, often packaged as ‘soft skills’, dominated the curriculum, reducing the amount of time young people had for the learning that they had missed in mainstream schooling. A more limited and rigid approach was offered which reinforced a binary of young people being ‘good with their hands’ (rather than using their heads). We saw similarities with Jean Anyon’s (1980) ‘pedagogy of poverty’.

‘Low-level behavioural activities, often packaged as ‘soft skills’, dominated the AP curriculum, reducing the amount of time young people had for the learning that they had missed in mainstream schooling.’

Paint by numbers pedagogy

Tagging is the writing of a name or nickname on a surface by a graffiti artist. However, tagging is often seen as a subcultural and illegal practice and is most commonly associated with deviance and vandalism. In our research, we observed young people being heavily instructed in a highly controlled way. There was no freedom to explore the artistic material of the spray can, or to learn about the rich history of graffiti art within hip-hop culture. The reduction of major tasks, such as spray painting a tag onto a large board, to smaller bite-sized pieces taught via strong direct instruction and slow pacing, eliminated any content that could have been intellectually challenging for the young person. We noted that the goal of this atomised form of pedagogy is often employed in ‘lessons’ with young people in order to construct ‘orderly youth’ (Thomson & Pennacchia, 2015).

Furthermore, the young people were assumed to have neither used spray cans before nor to have any views about whether the activity was art or simply something that was usually associated with mindless vandalism. The focus on skills meant that there was no opportunity to discuss the social and economic contexts in which tagging occurs, nor the identity issues of young taggers. There was no occasion where the students were able to discuss the various aesthetic qualities of graffiti and develop critical evaluative criteria which might apply to other art forms. There were potential direct links to sociological discussions about protest, the ownership of public space and the ways in which street art forms become commercialised. However, to us it was clear that the reductive focus on the simple production of a tag seriously reduced the potential for meaningful discussion and learning. We questioned whether, through the simple act of writing their names with spray cans, young people had been denied opportunities for cultural learning.

Curriculum injustice

AP educators selected the tagging activity for two reasons: first, it was assumed to be of interest because it was ‘popular culture’; and, second, it had links with youthful, largely male, criminality. Creative tasks were seen by the educators as one way for young people to come to terms with their own accountability and responsibility, and as a result they frequently chose issue-based work as a way for young people to explore their previous ‘risk-taking practice’ (Baker & Homan, 2007). In AP settings, both the art form and the apparent interest that the participants had in it, were exploited through the lack of connection with knowledges that were needed for formal qualifications. Arts practice devoid of substantive connections with young people’s own knowledge and interpretations, and disconnected from their social, historical and political underpinnings, led to an exploitation of these art forms and the young people themselves.

For all young people, not just those outside mainstream education, engaging in a variety of art forms is important. The process of making can be therapeutic and support wellbeing. But the arts also offer a range of platforms, media, genres and traditions through which young people can express themselves, explore ideas, and communicate their experiences, interpretations and opinions (Thomson & Hall, 2023). However, if it is devoid of cultural learning, as with this example, the inclusive possibilities of the arts are squandered.


Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162(1) 67–92.  

Baker, S., & Homan, S. (2007). Rap, recidivism and the creative self: A popular music programme for young offenders in detention. Journal of Youth Studies, 10(4), 459–476.

Howard, F. (2022). Using and abusing the arts with ‘at-risk’ youth. Journal of Applied Youth Studies, 5, 1–16.

Thomson, P., & Hall, C. (2023). Schools and cultural citizenship: Arts education for life. Taylor & Francis.

Thomson, P., & Pennacchia, J. (2014). What’s the alternative? Effective support for young people disengaging from the mainstream. Prince’s Trust. Thomson, P., & Hall, C. (2023). Schools and cultural citizenship: Arts education for life: Taylor & Francis.

Thomson, P., & Pennacchia, J. (2015). Hugs and behaviour points: Alternative education and the regulation of ‘excluded’ youth. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(6), 622–640.’s_the_alternative_Effective_support_for_young_people_disengaging_from_the_mainstream_Funder_The_Princes_Trust