Successful arts partnerships

Written by: Michael Corley, Gary Peile | Published:
Photo: iStock

Working in partnership with outside organisations can bring a real boost to your arts and music provision. Gary Peile and Michael Corley discuss the work they have undertaken in partnership

School partnerships are the thing of the moment in education. So how can schools best make the use of partnership working to enhance arts education?

While the focus at the moment appears to be very much on promoting STEM subjects from primary school right up to A level, no teacher will argue that it is not also important to ensure that all pupils can explore and develop their creative side through the arts.

Arts education can help develop valuable skills for all pupils regardless of any natural creative talent. Studying the arts – whether it is art, music, drama or dance – can help young people to develop skills such as listening, communication, emotional understanding, interpretation, team-work and innovation right from the earliest stages of their schooling.

However, for primary schools in particular, the specialist expertise and resources needed to effectively deliver arts education can be a challenge. Unlike in secondary schools where pupils will be taught creative subjects by specialist teachers, most primary schools rely on classroom teachers to deliver the full breadth of the curriculum.

For some teachers bringing art, music and drama into the classroom is an easy and enjoyable thing to add to the curriculum, for others it can be completely out of the comfort zone.

Resources can also be an issue for primary schools ever concerned about squeezed budgets. For art you need materials for pupils to create with. In music, even if it is just having a selection of handheld percussion instruments, it is difficult to maximise the potential of the subject without having instruments for children to play. Even in drama and dance you need to have space to allow the children to move.

It is in addressing these challenges of access to specialist expertise and resources that partnership working can really benefit primary schools.

Our two organisations – Active Learning Trust (ALT) and Norfolk and Norwich Festival Bridge – have developed a partnership that has done just that. The Bridge programme came about after the festival was granted Arts Council funding to act as a "bridge organisation" between arts and education, developing arts opportunities for children and young people.

Within the project there are three levels of partnership working, all of which deliver particular benefits to our schools.

  • Overall partnership between ALT and the Bridge.
  • Partnerships between schools working in local hubs.
  • Links between individual schools and a partner professional arts organisation.

With the growth of school groups, whether this is through a multi-academy trust or a federation (both formal and informal), there are increasing opportunities for schools to get involved with external organisations. The idea behind the way of working is to take advantage of economies of scale.

This is not only true with regards to paid-for services, but can also be seen in the time and resource it takes to identify and form relationships with external organisations that can support learning across the schools group.

Instead of having teachers from 10 different schools trying to find, contact and liaise with an organisation like the Bridge, now all it needs is a central figure to make the arrangements on behalf of the trust or federation.

Even though the initial connection and set up may be made at a central level, the best partnerships develop when there is a level of flexibility to allow each individual school to adapt the initiative or project to best meet the needs of their school.

How we have done this is to develop an arts education policy in collaboration between the Trust, the schools and the Bridge. This policy clearly sets out an ethos for arts education across the Trust's schools which aims to ensure a consistency of delivery throughout.

However, while this policy should underpin everything that the schools deliver in terms of arts education, it is not too prescriptive and allows each school to develop their arts curriculum in the way that best suits their needs.

ALT operates across Cambridgeshire and Suffolk and has clusters of schools based around three distinct areas: North Cambridgeshire, Lowestoft and Ipswich. These local "hubs" form the second level of partnership in delivering this initiative.

Working in groups of three to four schools, teachers can work much more closely together, focusing on the specifics of day-to-day delivery and impact in the classroom.

At the start of the project, the Bridge delivered CPD for teachers in each of the schools, who would then become the arts education champion. Throughout the project these teachers will continue to work together to share best practice as well as discussing any challenges faced or things that did not work as well as hoped.

It is through this shared understanding that the schools can quickly revise and improve any activities taking place making sure that all children across the Trust are getting the best possible arts education from their school.

The final stage of partnership is in connecting individual schools with an external partner. Within this project the Bridge, as well as helping to establish a culture of arts education across the Trust and providing CPD and coaching for teachers, is acting as a facilitator.

After meeting with each of the lead teachers across the Trust the Bridge can identify the needs of each school and use their network across the region to identify suitable link partners to come in and work with the school to deliver a specific project.

For example, one primary school might have a teacher who excels in music but they need additional support with art and so would benefit from a partnership with a local art studio. Another school might want to bring their arts curriculum more into line with subjects like history and so would value a project with a local museum.

Making these initial introductions is something that schools can struggle to do by themselves, simply by not knowing who to contact or having the time to do the necessary research. Taking advantage of the insight and contacts that the Bridge already has means that the schools can build these links and hopefully establish long-term relationships that will continue to evolve.
Based on our experience so far here is some advice for other schools about how to make this kind of partnership successful:

  • Localise: there is a wealth of expertise in any given region. Don't worry about finding nationally operating organisations, try speaking to some smaller local groups – you may be surprised at how willing they are to get involved and work with your school to develop something unique to you.
  • Identify what you want from your partnership: this will help you identify and select the right kind of organisation to work with and make for a successful collaboration.
  • Individualise: a one-size-fits-all approach may have some positive results, but it is by adopting an overarching principle or culture that can be adapted to meet individual school need that really delivers impact.
  • Engage the teachers: identify one or two teachers within each school who can act as champions for the initiative. In taking part in CPD and working closely with peers at other local schools these teachers can then cascade their experience and learning to the rest of the school.
  • Give it a go! Be open to trying new things, even if it doesn't work what can be learnt from that experience and how can things be improved for next time?
  • Gary Peile is deputy chief executive and operations director at the Active Learning Trust and Michael Corley is head of Bridge at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival.

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