Saffron Walden County High School is a somewhat unusual secondary school. There aren’t many schools whose grounds contain a 740-seat, modern concert hall with its own resident orchestra (Saffron Hall and the Britten Sinfonia respectively). It is the sole secondary school serving the Essex market town of Saffron Walden, around 20 miles south of Cambridge. With a limited independent sector and no grammar schools in travelling distance, almost all Saffron Walden’s young people attend the school.
In the midst of these advantages – which the leadership team are quick to acknowledge – familiar debates around arts and cultural learning animate discussions amongst staff at Saffron Walden. Principal amongst these is the dynamic between excellence and inclusion.
Caroline Derbyshire, headteacher at Saffron Walden County High School says: ‘Everybody is here which makes us a genuinely comprehensive school in terms of the ability profile.
‘There’s a tension working with a big arts organization like Saffron Hall. You might feel under quite a lot of pressure to actually only focus on the more able. We say no. Saffron Hall is there to enrich music in this school and that means for everyone. Staff included, actually. At whatever level you’re playing, the idea is that you’re pushing on and that you recognize excellence and you strive to achieve it’.
‘There’s also recognition that for some people, that’s not going to be their pathway. But if they can appreciate it, if they can love it, if they can get involved at their own level, that’s what’s important’.
Cultural learning at Saffron Walden is inescapable; the school, in the words of Director of Music Alan Broadbent, ‘puts the arts right in people’s faces’. This approach is perhaps why Saffron Walden has a strong track record in encouraging young people into further cultural studies or into the creative industries. Many students go onto courses in fashion, in textiles or in fine art and a comparatively large number of students each year go on to music school or conservatoire training. As Deputy Head Polly Lankester points out, this is helping to create a virtuous circle: ‘Students are seeing other students be very successful and that helps them think “I could do that’”.
It’s not just in creative career paths that cultural learning is supporting pupils after they leave school. The school has adopted the ‘Four Cs of 21st century learning’ – creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration – to which they’ve added their own focuses on positivity, resilience and independence.
Caroline explains the links to the wider world: ‘We’re tying this up with all sorts of business groups in the community who are emphasizing, funnily enough, the same skillset. They are sometimes described as the entrepreneurial skills but that makes it sound like it’s about making money. Clearly in the world of the arts, it’s very little to do with that. It’s more about living a fulfilling and useful life and that’s what we’re emphasizing’.
Embedding cultural learning within the wider framework of the ‘Four Cs’ has meant that teachers at Saffron Walden have a strong sense of the benefits of the arts and culture to wider learning behaviours.
Polly explains what arts subjects offer to learners: ‘The arts naturally offers collaborative opportunities. It also helps students to reflect on their learning, the barriers and what the next steps could be for them. Cultural learning often has really high-quality verbal feedback, both peer to peer and teacher to student. But importantly, there is the ability for students to respond and use that feedback. Across all the arts faculty, people are very skilled at getting students to engage’.
Saffron Walden, which has developed a bespoke CPD pathway for its teachers, has encouraged teachers of creative and cultural subjects to lead. Examples include drama teachers leading CPD sessions on how to use drama within class for effective role-play. According to Alan involving arts teachers in leading CPD can inspire risk taking in others ‘It can be something fundamental as
letting kids go in your classroom, physically and being confident you can get them back. For people who teach kids behind desks, that’s quite a big thing’.
Peer-to-peer learning is also a significant feature of Saffron Walden’s approach. Work from the school’s sixth form is prominently displayed in the art rooms to inspire younger children. ‘I saw a really good example of that just the other day’, says Polly, ‘I was down in art and the member of staff had brought out his group to look at the board - to look at and to think - and they were using the work from other students to help students focus’. This practice isn’t limited to visual arts. In drama, students’ performances are filmed in order for them to look back at previous work and review.
Despite their evident successes in embedding the arts and culture into school life, senior leaders remain constantly reflective about their work. Participation in Artsmark – for which Saffron Walden was given a Platinum award – has been particularly helpful. ‘Those mechanisms’, says Alan ‘are valuable in terms of making you sit back because you can be very complacent when you’re sat in class with lots of kids ‘doing’. That’s a very dangerous place to slide into. Being made to account for it makes you think “Why do we do that? Is there a better way?’’’.
One area in particular that concerns Caroline is pushing back against the perception that Saffron Walden is a specialist music school: ‘There’s a certain prestige around music in the school. I worry that staff who are in other departments might look at that and might feel “we used to be more evenly treated”. We do our absolute best to make everybody feel we’re really interested in everything that happens here’.
While the school is keen to emphasize the balanced nature of its learning, the drive that has placed the arts at the centre of school life shows no signs of diminishing. ‘I’ve been a headteacher for 12 years now and I’ve seen so many different iterations of results’, says Caroline.
‘If you are measured by this year’s flavour, you don’t look any good. Whereas measured by last year’s flavour, you might look amazing. To some degree, you’ve got to hold your nerve about this and you have to say “we know what we’re doing is really valuable” and argue for it’.