Rhona Matheson, Chief Executive, Starcatchers

Rhona Matheson photoRhona is Chief Executive of Starcatchers; a national arts charity that began as a small pilot project in the North of Edinburgh. The organisation’s arts-based approach to child and family development has been shared in communities across Scotland.  Recognised as a leader in their field at an international level,  Starcatchers is the only arts and Early Years organisations funded by the Scottish Government’s Third Sector Early Intervention Fund. 

 Reading Breaking the Mould was really interesting. It’s exciting to think there are all these women who have done these amazing things, but a lot of us don’t know they existed and that they had such impact. It’s also only a fraction of the number of women out there who’ve done amazing things, if you extend it beyond this one small geographic area, what else have we been doing? The stories are a way of understanding who’s been here before us and what they’ve had to do to achieve their ambitions, especially given the context that some of them are in. I thought the profile of Marie Stopes was interesting – that there was a real ego in the middle of her work, how she didn’t allow her husband to take any credit for his role in their work and her disapproval of her son’s choice of wife. It’s all about context, the context of the time she was living in. The context we live in and the people that surround us inform everything we do and that resonates for me in terms of the work we do with Starcatchers.

 Whilst there was some theatre being made for Early Years in Scotland when Starcatchers started 10 years ago at North Edinburgh Arts in Muirhouse, no one was making work for babies. The focus for the pilot project was on how artists make work for 0-3 as a creative intervention. We asked how do you engage with that age group? And from that, make professional children’s theatre performance for babies? It was a really pioneering initiative that I was brought in to manage. Being based in the Arts Centre, the project was also in the position to ask how do you create a bridge between the Arts Centre and the local communities?

 I think we’ve still barely scratched the surface, in terms of how we use arts with very young children in Scotland and that has been a key driver for me. My job has completely changed as Starcatchers has evolved: I came in as a project manager, sitting within the structure of another organisation, and now I am the Chief Executive of a company that is flourishing. Becoming a company in 2011 was a huge step but this was also liberating. The conversations that we’re now able to have about work we want to do, now and in the future, gives us the freedom to breathe, move and connect. One of the things I’m most proud of, is that we’ve been able to make inroads across the different sectors. We have local authorities, not just their arts divisions but early year’s education, social work, children and family services, who now have an understanding of why using an arts-based approach can support them to deliver the outcomes that they’re working towards. 

I have become obsessed with what happens when you have a consistent contact between artists and the same group of children, and parents and carers over an extended period of time. This is about having a deeper, more meaningful impact through the consistent contact of an artist going back week in week out, building up relationships with children and really responding to their needs and interests.

 People often assume that our work is just for the babies and children, but connecting with parents and carers is just as important. With The Playground we did really simple things in a block of sessions, where the artists would work with parents. The nursery said they were usually lucky if they got 50% attendance for parental engagement projects, we got 96%! We also had local authority educational psychologists come to the sessions with parents and children. They observed relationships and attachments between some of the parents and children that they had never seen before. Getting that feedback showed us that this approach makes a difference and this has allowed me to push for us to look at ways in which we can offer extended programmes in communities that can become embedded in these areas and become part of the fabric of the community rather than something that parachutes in for a fixed period of time.

The performances that we make are also really important and instrumental in enabling children to have positive, shared experiences with their parents or carers. We know that the experience can stimulate play and we get lots of feedback from people saying they still use the CD from Hup, for example, and they make connections between the performance and their child’s activities even weeks afterwards.

In a wider context, I think Starcatchers has achieved huge amounts and we have been recognised much more broadly as an organisation that is making a difference. We’re one of the only arts and Early Years organisations funded by the government, not through culture, but through the Early Years division. Making the connections at government level has been key, as has connecting with the third sector and we’ve established a broader understanding that has been instrumental in breaking down sectoral barriers across the Early Years landscape. We are also often asked to input into projects by other artists and practitioners as a result of our expertise and this allows us to support the growing field of arts and Early Years in Scotland.

Throughout Starcatchers’ evolution, there has been a sense that we’re always fighting our corner, justifying the importance of arts and creativity for our youngest children, which has been a challenge. It’s the sense of having to hold on to what you believe in, having the courage of your convictions and really going for it. Sustainability is always the biggest challenge that I think we’ve all got, but particularly in this climate. Many of our funders have a focus on supporting vulnerable children and families and this is something that is at the heart of much of our work. However, as our approach is different, that can sometimes be quite intangible to funders because we’re talking about the arts. That can be frustrating because we know that the work can deliver the outcomes they are looking for.

Academic research and evaluation has run alongside our projects from the beginning. It has been instrumental because it allowed us to say ‘this is how children engage with this work and this is why it’s important’. I think over the years and all the performances and projects, we’ve probably had 98% of people thinking that it’s been a really positive experience. That’s fine for us to say but actually having an independent perspective saying yes, this is good quality, this is having an impact, is really important.

International connections also started early on, and have had an impact on our organisation and arts and Early Years across the world. A member of the pilot project’s steering group, Jo Bellolli, who works for Polka Theatre in Wimbledon was connected with a European project for 0-6’s called Small Size. She connected me to this network and to develop relationships with a range of companies across Europe. Additionally, becoming part of Imaginate allowed us to connect into the International Children’s Theatre Festival in Edinburgh and their networks, which were quite different to mine. It was an interesting way of bringing those two parts of the children’s theatre sector together in Scotland and there’s now a very, very strong early years theatre sector across the world.

Whilst developing a strong Board can be challenging, we have been lucky to get some brilliant people [Fiona CarrProfessor Aline Wendy-Dunlop, Susannah Jeffries, Kate Park, Mary Glasgow] who have been really instrumental in getting us to where we are now. They come from different sectors, including higher education, the third sector and social work, primary teaching, midwifery, theatre and art. So, they all have really interesting experience and that means they can offer the right kind of support for almost everything that we might need at this point.

I’ve been really lucky to have had support from a number of people over the years. It’s been quite a tumultuous journey with lots of highs and lows. I never expected to be running an organisation: I always knew that I wanted to make a difference but was never exactly sure what shape that would take. There are some key women who work in this field who have connected across Europe and further afield who support each other. Jo Bellolli was really key in sharing her expertise and offering support the first few years. My colleague in Holland, Ingrid Wolff, runs a small festival and delivers engagement projects that have parallels with some of Starcatchers’ work. We have developed a strong relationship over the last few years and use each other as support.

 Since 2013, through our Creative Skills programme we have worked with over 1000 Early Year’s practitioners to build their confidence and capacity in using arts and creativity in their daily practice. There’s a mindset that we’re trying to shift and in certain areas that is beginning to happen. It is frustrating that at times we are working with practitioners who are not always able to make connections between what we are offering and the policy. At the same time, there are many organisations in the third sector and local authorities who see how the arts and creative practice can contribute to delivery the policy framework that we are all working with, and there’s huge opportunity within that for us. I have grand ambitions of having a Starcatchers nursery offering an arts-based approach to childcare that is rooted in a community. I would want this to be a setting that is a community resource that connects across the area. I think this could offer an exciting way for us demonstrate the transformational power of the arts and the impact this can have on very young children and their families.


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