Getting the most from external arts partnerships

Written by: Jeremy Newton | Published:
Successful partnerships: Pupils taking part in the Start project at mima – the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (Photo: Jason Hynes)

Primary schools often engage with external organisations when it comes to delivering arts education and wider opportunities. Jeremy Newton looks at some of the ingredients that make for productive relationships

No-one disputes the fact that all primary school-age children, whatever their circumstance, should have access to a broad range of arts activities. Early engagement with the arts can raise aspirations, increase confidence, improve communication and language skills, and develop critical-thinking and analysis, as well as unlocking creativity.

But the necessary financial resources and teacher training to provide varied and regular arts activities may not exist. Arts activities both in and outside school are also feeling the squeeze in an already crowded curriculum.

So where a school has committed to an arts engagement programme it is important to ensure that the arts organisation and the programme chosen are offering much more than "art for art's sake".

If you are starting a new relationship with a local arts venue or organisation, there are a few key questions you need to ask yourself during the planning stages and answer in conversation with your arts partner:

  • What are your aims and objectives for the project? What do you want to achieve?
  • Which curriculum area(s) do you want to address?
  • Is your class prepared for visiting this particular arts venue?

And for receiving any visitors that may come to school as part of the programme?

  • What sort of positive experience do you want from the programme (both for your pupils and yourself)?
  • What journey will your pupils go on during the project and what will the legacy be?

Length and sustainability

The longer the programme the greater the impact. Look for a programme that will run for a minimum of two years, ideally three. A longer programme allows both the school and the arts partner to really get to know and understand each other so that the teachers and pupils can get more out of the work.

With a longer period of time progression routes can be established for each class – or even pupil – enabling successes to be built on and developed at the venue and in the classroom. Longer programmes also give schools time to plan in some fundraising activities to support their future engagement in arts activities. A committed arts partner should be looking long-term to see how they can maintain a link with the school well past the end of the programme – having sensible, practical discussions with the school to sustain the work.

Relevance to the school and all pupils

The activities have to work for you and your pupils, and they should do so on many different levels. The arts programme should be flexible enough to be tailored to the issues that you and your pupils find particularly relevant. For example, for pupils in year 6 a popular theme for the programme might be "transition", as pupils can see the relevance to themselves as they approach transition to their teenage years and the move from primary to secondary school.

Inclusion is essential and the partner should offer a level playing field for all pupils regardless of their academic ability and performance in class so that everyone can take part, both in activities at the venue and, importantly, in the classroom.

The programme should add value and by that I mean broaden and enrich the curriculum by providing alternative ways to engage all learners, whatever their ability, making the learning process fun, inspiring and memorable for pupil and teacher. You are going to the partner for their expertise and therefore they should be able to offer new, unusual and varied art activities which make it exciting and interesting for the children.

Participation most certainly means hands-on, so pupils and teachers need to be actively involved all the time, whether that is writing poetry, making music, painting or dancing. It is not the work alone that the pupils need to identify with. They must also have a connection with the actors, musicians, dancers, poets and artists. When it comes to theatre, we found that drama worked best of all for pupils when performed by young, local actors who the pupils could identify with (and we found that if they were performing comedy, it worked even better).

Inspiration and CPD opportunities

It is not just the pupils who should be inspired. Teachers too should be taking a range of new ideas and skills back to school. Check that the partner can provide CPD opportunities for the teachers, including new arts and drama skills and techniques in their teaching.

The programme should provide teachers with the time and space to discuss ideas with peers, to share experiences and develop new ways of thinking in developing and instigating a more creative curriculum.

Teacher training and development can often help to increase a school's capacity (and its willingness) to consider other ways of embedding creative work within the curriculum and engaging in arts and cultural activities outside of school. The programme's legacy should be to increase the range of opportunities for all pupils to engage in cultural education and ensure pupils not involved in the programme's activities will still be able to benefit from the initial investment in the programme.

CPD should be a priority for the partner. Check whether a new teaching resource will be created by the partner after the programme that takes on-board teacher, pupil and partner feedback and provides a practical guide and inspiration for teachers for future classroom use.

Location, location, location

The proximity of the arts venue to the school is a critical factor. If the venue is local then co-ordinating and funding trips is of course going to be easier. Looking more long-term, if the pupils enjoy themselves then they might continue visiting the venue on their own after the programme has finished and may encourage siblings, parents and friends to use the venue.

Celebrating the work

There should be a finale event where the pupils can publicly exhibit or perform their work in the arts venue, in the same way as professional artists. This celebration helps elevate pupils' perceptions of the value and importance of their creative work. Treating the pupils as committed artists makes the work more meaningful for both the pupils and their teachers. It inspires the pupils to do well and gives them pride in their achievements.

The space used within the venue is also important. Performing on the main stage or exhibiting in one of the main rooms of the gallery as an actual artist (as opposed to say the rehearsal space or a corridor within a gallery) is hugely exciting and inspiring for young people.

Additionally, partners should not confine the celebration to the venue but identify key school events for showcasing the pupils' work, such as the summer or Christmas fair.

Involvement of parents

Partners should be keen to involve parents and families in their children's arts and cultural activities. Pupils can often gain a greater commitment to a programme and feel a sense of pride and achievement if they know that their parents are going to be invited to view their work at the finale or celebration. It also means that those pupils may be more motivated to continue to participate in arts activities at the end of the programme and aspire to greater achievements. Parents may also gain from having a shared interest in their child's creative abilities.

Shared learning

Find a partner that wants to learn as much from you and your school as you wish to learn from them. With a longer programme, partners have an opportunity to review and adapt from what they learn in the first year or so of the programme, making it more relevant and suited to the school's needs.

Arts partners should take what they learn from each programme to help them improve their capacity to work with schools. They should be learning how to better engage with their partner schools and how to design activities that are relevant and appropriate to different age groups.

Whether or not you are a school with a high percentage of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, following these suggestions should ensure you get the very best out of your school's engagement in arts and cultural activities and help you to create a lasting legacy of arts engagement between your school and the arts partner.

  • Jeremy Newton is chief executive of Children and the Arts.

The Start programme

In 2006, Children and the Arts set up the Start programme to enable arts venues and schools to work together to offer disadvantaged children and young people opportunities to engage in creative activities that inspire them and enhance their experience of the arts. Children participating in Start visit their local arts venue at least twice to see arts performances and exhibitions. Children are given the chance to go behind the scenes to meet artists, directors, technicians, etc. Alongside these visits, pupils take part in creative workshops, developing their own art works, performances or dance pieces.
The National Foundation for Educational Research completed an evaluation of the Start programme last year, Evaluation of the Start Programme: Case Study Report, (October, 2014), which has been used as the basis for this article. Visit
www.childrenandarts.org.uk/our-projects/start/


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