Circus News

The Persistence of Youth Circus in the UK

CircusWorks, the umbrella organization for UK youth circuses, recently conducted a survey and interviewed 45 youth circus organizations to learn more about their activities, demographics and needs. CircusWorks’ multifaceted mission and work include disseminating information and providing support, advice, and resources to the social and youth circus sector, while they also represent UK’s youth circus internationally.  This survey is an important milestone for the organization to shape their work in the future.  We asked Circus Works’ director, Lynn Carroll about the UK community and the results of this survey specifically.

CircusTalk: What was the main purpose of the survey? What was the most important question you were seeking an answer to?
Lynn Carroll: As an organization committed to supporting and developing the UK youth circus sector, we need to know what issues youth circuses are having, what they need now, and what they hope for in the future. We were also interested in mapping the sector as a whole: discovering how many young people are learning circus in the UK, what they are doing, and if there are gaps in provision. All of the data we collected will inform our work going forward, as it has given us a much clearer picture of what youth circuses need. The survey also allowed us to have really informative conversations with youth circuses about their work, their priorities and their underlying ethos.

CT: How big is the UK youth and social circus community? Which ones are the leading organizations in the field?
LC: We know of 97 organizations regularly teaching youth circus in the UK. As this project was funded by Arts Council England, the data we have collected only includes English organizations: we intend to survey Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland next. It’s impossible to say who is ‘leading the field’, as there are so many different youth circuses doing incredible work in many different ways. To name a few from the survey: Circus Central in Newcastle has done great work developing youth circuses across the North East. The Roundhouse Street Collective in London provides fantastic opportunities for young people on local estates. Circus Mash in Birmingham makes incredible performance work with their young people. Extraordinary Bodies Young Artists was founded specifically to address the lack of access for disabled and non disabled young people to work in the performing arts together, and in our home town of Bristol, the Invisibles provide free circus workshops in disadvantaged areas. And Circomedia has one of the biggest and fastest growing youth circuses in the UK. I could go on…

CT: What was the biggest surprise or shock for you that you learned from the survey?
LC: The absolutely amazing work that youth circuses do in their local communities with exceptionally limited funding and resources. 77% of youth circuses receive no core funding, and, while 53% have at some point received project funding, many of these grants were one-offs. Only 10% of youth circuses own their own building, and 62% share their venues with non-circus activity. The two largest challenges across the whole of the UK facing youth circuses are the lack of funding and venue insecurity, two issues that we hope to tackle in future.

While the impact that circus can have wasn’t a surprise to us, the persistence and determination of youth circuses to provide lifelines to disadvantaged young people, even when they receive little funding or profit from these ventures, is truly astounding.

Despite these challenges, the youth circuses we interviewed are doing truly incredible work. Many were set up specifically to bring circus to disadvantaged communities, to improve their local community, or to create opportunities for young people with disabilities. Almost all of the youth circuses we interviewed told us personal stories of the ways that they have supported young people facing a huge range of life challenges, and how, through circus, they have been able to give them confidence, skills, friendship and support. 41% of the organizations interviewed subsidize classes for disadvantaged students, and of that number 51% fund these subsidies either through other areas of the organization, or out of the youth circus founders’ personal savings. Some of the youth circuses interviewed even feed the young people in their classes, knowing how important a hot meal can be.To quote a couple of the youth circuses we interviewed:
 “We started the company as we felt that there was a need in the area to address the problem of cuts in youth provisions during the tory government. We had zero funding to set up, just the knowledge we needed to do something.”
 “We have an ethos of trying to support young people in particularly vulnerable areas and backgrounds in our area.  After working on several estates and under several guises, we now have a commitment that we wish to run programmes on estates for a minimum of 2 years as we feel this is the minimum commitment that vulnerable youths need to build relationships, trust and know that we are not just more people sweeping in, building their hopes up and then leaving.”

While the impact that circus can have wasn’t a surprise to us, the persistence and determination of youth circuses to provide lifelines to disadvantaged young people, even when they receive little funding or profit from these ventures, is truly astounding.

CT: How do you see the future of youth and social circus in the UK and what is the international trend, in your opinion, in this field?
LC: It’s growing! 68% of youth circuses reported to us that their numbers have grown in the past 12 months. The number of youth circuses being founded has been increasing rapidly since 2009. CircusWorks, along with many other organizations internationally, has been working hard to change the perception of circus: for circus to be taken seriously as an art form, as a tool for social engagement, and as a powerful way of addressingthe growing health crisis brought about by sedentary, risk averse lifestyles.

The academic world is starting to recognize the benefits of youth circus. In Canada, researchers Dean Kriellaars and Patrice Aubertin conducted a ground-breaking study in circus and physical literacy in schools. They found that young people who learned circus in PE classes have higher physical ability in all areas (strength, flexibility, coordination etc.), than young people who learned sport in PE. Moreover, the gender gap in physical ability closed between girls and boys learning circus in PE, and there was even data to suggest that their academic abilities improved, in areas such as girls’ mathematical abilities and boys’ literacy. We’re delighted to say that Dean and Patrice will be presenting their newest research at the CircusWorks conference this year, which will be held in Bristol on 4th-6th October.

‘Excited’ was the most popular word youth circuses used when we asked them about the future. I have met youth circus practitioners from all over the world, and they are the most passionate, socially conscious, determined people I know. If current trends continue, the UK youth circus sector will grow rapidly in the next few years, and youth circuses will continue the incredible, challenging, life changing work that they do. CircusWorks will do everything we can to support them, and to advocate on their behalf.

UK youth circus infographics

Main image: UK Youth Circus. Photo by  Matt Hennam