Bringing schools and the arts together?

Here at Children & the Arts, we are always interested to hear what is happening within the field of cultural education, particularly when it relates to disadvantaged young people.

Curious Minds is one of the new Bridge organisations, funded by the Arts Council to connect children with the arts, and it has just produced a highly insightful report, State of the Region. This looks, in some detail, into the needs, challenges and potential in connecting young people, schools and communities with arts and culture.

While the organisation’s report focuses on the North West, where it is based, it nevertheless highlights key issues that relate to almost anywhere in the UK.  By examining both school and art organisation viewpoints, it raises a number of valuable points and themes.

As an introduction, it says that one of the biggest challenges in opening up access to the arts lies in enabling schools and arts organisations to actually ‘find’ one another.

“Cultural organisations often find schools difficult to make contact with,” the report notes.  “Many teachers now have email but it can still be hard to access the right email address and ensure information reaches its destination and is not lost. The majority of arts and cultural organisations we spoke to would like access to schools simplified and opened up.”

“(Equally)…schools say they know there are brilliant people out there but they don’t have enough time to research available options. Teachers often live outside the immediate area and may not know about cultural opportunities in the local community.”

Value for money

The report goes on to state that schools typically wanted to offer a wide range of art forms, with music, theatre, dance and visual arts being the most popular, but perceptions of affordability often hindered arrangements.  The most common reasons for selecting certain arts providers were value for money, it said, as well as recommendations from other schools and the capacity to link work to the curriculum.   What also emerges from the findings is that schools want arts organisations to better understand the rigours of the curriculum – including the pressures they face to improve literacy, numeracy and wellbeing – and ensure their activities support learning outcomes.

Funding, unsurprisingly, emerges as key issue in the report.  Of the 33 schools involved in the report, all had spent something on external arts provision in the past year but 56 per cent had spent less than £1000 and 41 per cent said they would spend less money next year. Only two schools said they would spend more.

However, two thirds of schools had engaged with an arts or cultural organisation in the last two years.  For the vast majority (92 per cent) the most common way of connecting was through a one-off workshop in school or a visit to a show, exhibition or event.

New ideas

Networking has already proved a success in many cases. One gallery has set up a popular bi-monthly primary school art teacher’s network, while a city-based theatre company organises regular gatherings of secondary drama teachers.  Thanks to an improved understanding of what could work better, performances have been organised at 4pm, enabling pupils to come straight from school. Performances have also been programmed at specific times in the school calendar, in response to teacher feedback, and this has led to a large increase in ticket sales.

Other ideas coming from the cultural sector to better engage schools include the bringing together of schools for creative events, offering short sessions in inspirational settings or focusing on particular themes, like a book club, and the co-ordinating of contact from different arts providers in order to build better relationships with individual heads and teachers.

For Curious Minds, and other Bridge organisations, the central goal is to bring schools and arts or cultural organisations together on a long-term, sustainable basis.  As the report concludes: “Our mission is to build on what works well and be unafraid to work in partnership to change the things that could be better.”

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