Creative Schools is a mission to increase access to arts and cultural education

Tania Willmer
Tania Wilmer
Tania Wilmer, director at Stratford Circus Arts Centre, writes for IAM about an innovative new arts and education initiative that is partnering a broad range of cultural organisations in order to foster learning and creativity with London schools.

Engaging with art is essential to the human experience. The arts challenge us, compel us to empathise with others, and give us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition. Empirical evidence now supports these claims: according to key research by the Cultural Learning Alliance in 2017, participation in structured arts activities can increase cognitive abilities by up to 17% and boost attainment in subjects like Maths and English.

Yet, while we recognise art’s transformative impacts, its place in the UK education system has become increasingly tenuous in recent years. A recent report from the Fabian Society called Primary Colours published last month (Jan 2019) found more than half of teachers felt the quality of arts provision had worsened in their school since 2010, and the majority felt they no longer had the resources to deliver high-quality creative experiences for their pupils. In some of the poorest places in Britain, where up to one in four children are growing up in poverty, young people also face additional barriers to accessing the kinds of creative experiences that enrich childhood, inspire learning and to which they have an entitlement, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

At the heart of one of these communities where children are growing up in high levels of poverty is Stratford Circus Arts Centre (SCAC), a large multi-art form venue that offers accessible, world-class performances as well as creative learning to people and communities in Newham and across East London.

At SCAC, as part of our mission to increase access to arts and cultural education, we have recently launched an exciting new phase of the Creative Schools initiative which builds on the success of the first phase of the programme, co-hosted between SCAC and Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning between 2015-18. Creative Schools is a partnership and brokerage programme for wider school improvement, aiming to seed change in school communities through the arts, not another creative learning offer in itself. We’ve listened to the educators in the boroughs to find out what would work best for them and have developed a school-centred approach. It begins with a consultation with senior leaders and teachers to do an audit of the needs, challenges, and ambitions of the school community as a whole.

The consultation is a chance to hone a brief for arts partners who then respond to it with bespoke or tailored versions of creative projects that reflect each school’s goals, while working within their budget and time constraints. The network of cultural partners for this project includes organisations like Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning; East London Dance; immersive technology innovators, now>press>play; and creative problem solvers, Fixperts; organisations keen to respond to the needs of schools in ways that inspire, for example by teaching literacy through dance, learning about science through music, and projects that put the students in charge, for example to coproduce a poetry event, or run a design business.

In some schools, leaders are using the programme to support teachers to implement a new curriculum. Projects range from short-term interventions or workshops to many months of activity culminating in a live celebration event.

Funding for the three-year project from The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Foundation for FutureLondon and the City of London Corporation’s Central Grants Programme, will also enable further collaboration between boroughs, schools, and arts and cultural organisations to make education more creative for all. This is particularly important for serving those outer London boroughs with very young and expanding populations, where there are fewer cultural spaces like galleries, museums and performance venues that engage with schools.

Gathering information, such as logistics and costs, from multiple partners can be untenable for teachers already struggling with a heavy workload. One teacher commented that the programme was a “way for schools to see what projects are available all in one go, and then pick what would be most helpful to their school. All without having to send a million emails.” Pupils commented that projects were “once in a lifetime opportunities”, that not only offered new experiences but changed their perspective on art; “I didn’t know art could be so modern and futuristic,” said one student.

Through its events programme, Creative Schools connects educators with the arts sector to develop new partnerships and collaborations as well as share learning outcomes to support professional development and to generate new ideas. At these events there are matching exercises, opportunities for sharing stories from the classroom, and the chance to develop dream projects, as well as school problem-solving activities to really spark connections and create a stronger collective voice for the arts in education.

For cultural organisations there have been new longer-term project commissions through the programme; it has offered the opportunity to prototype new ideas that meet a need or trend coming directly from the schools, for example to develop the real-world problem-solving skills of pupils. The programme also offers the potential to connect with new schools through the network. By bringing a broad base of culture and education partners together, Creative Schools joins up experience, knowledge and expertise to improve equity and access to East London’s incredible arts and cultural offer.

Since launching in early January, we have already registered interest from many schools in East London, who are open to reinstating a broader curriculum and new ways of learning. In more and more schools, particularly in the most deprived areas, leaders recognise that creativity is not merely something to add colour and sparkle to  a young person’s experience of school, but an essential skill for the 21st century that can and should be explicitly taught. Who better to foster that and support teachers to unleash their creativity than arts and culture professionals?

Creative Schools aims to tackle some of the real-world challenges faced by schools, such as teacher burnout, closing the attainment gap, or meeting OFSTED targets for improvement. Partnerships that have already taken place as part of Creative Schools include a project undertaken by three Newham primary schools and five cultural partners including Fuel, Arcola Theatre, East London Dance, soundSPARK, and Bow Arts. The project set out to improve literacy creatively through workshops which included music, dance, performance, and animation. It culminated in a multi-art-form event co-curated with Poet in the City, which brought the students ideas to life on stage. Creative Schools’ school-centred approach has proved particularly popular and has been praised by Arts Council England as a model for collaborations between cultural institutions and schools.