Creative and cultural learning has a particularly strong role to play in schools that work with pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. In order to try and capture the range of cultural education innovation that is taking place in our region, we spoke to three schools who work with pupils with complex needs: Beacon Hill Academy in Thurrock, Lexden Springs School in Colchester and The Valley School in Stevenage.
Though each school differs slightly in the pupils that it supports, whether by age range or the nature of the children’s needs, various common themes have emerged. Strongly represented throughout is a focus on supporting communication for children who might otherwise have problems expressing themselves or who feel constrained by their needs.
Simon Wall, headteacher at Lexden Springs articulates the importance of cultural learning to break through these barriers. ‘The arts’, he says, ‘are about teaching children to self-regulate, to express, to recognize emotions in themselves and other people’.
Flis Kirk, Learning Leader for Performing Arts at The Valley, gives similar weight to the arts as a means to improve communication: ‘The bigger picture for us is to ensure our children are confident communicators and feel as if they have something to offer. So many of our pupils have such low self-esteem and think that they have absolutely nothing to offer the world. And though it might sound a bit cliché, the arts are a really powerful way of them realizing that they do’.
For children who face severe challenges with communication, the arts offer the opportunity for multi-sensory learning that can enhance communications between adult and child and the child and their peers. Lexden Springs have developed this kind of practice through providing sensory art sessions for their pupils.
As Music Co-ordinator at Lexden Springs Victoria Utting explains: ‘We use lots of resources linked to a topic and we just allow the children to explore them, often in a sensory way. Pupils are smelling the resources, they’re licking them, they are feeling them on their bodies… they’re making choices’
Cultural education is also influencing teaching methods and learning behaviours within the special schools that we interviewed. Assessment frameworks for children with SEND can be more flexible than those used within mainstream schools. This has allowed some schools to be innovative about the contexts where children learn, taking inspiration from how arts and culture can support learning.
This inspiration is evident in how strongly special schools emphasize the entitlement that children have for cultural learning.
For The Valley School, a secondary school that frequently takes children who come from mainstream primaries, this is central.
‘Often if children come to us from a mainstream primary school, they’re not part of plays and things, because they either ‘couldn’t cope’ or they were doing extra maths and English’, says Flis Kirk. ‘For them, being in the play is seen as a reward. And we need to fight against that sort of mentality. Because it’s an entitlement, these opportunities shouldn’t be given as if they’re treats’.
Beacon Hill Academy has developed its own approach to children’s learning environments in which children follow their own ‘personalized learning adventure’ as Sue Hewitt, Principal of Beacon Hill, explains.
‘The learning and the targets that we’re trying to achieve for each child is completely different. It doesn’t come off a check list, and it doesn’t say, “Well, you started at ‘A’ so you have to go to ‘B’, then you go to ‘C’ next”. Actually, we plot where our children go depending on their emerging interests, needs and skills. That flexible way of working knits in really well with the arts. If there’s something that’s really working for a particular child, we can carry on developing learning down that route, we don’t have to go down a set pathway’. This tailored approach to learning was particularly positively noted in the school’s most recent Ofsted inspection.
The Valley School too has changed how they conceive of children’s learning alongside their increasing focus on creative learning. ‘One of the first ‘mantras’ I brought in when I came into the school, was the idea that making mistakes is good’, says Corina Foster, headteacher of The Valley School. ‘And we’ve subsequently changed a lot of the language over the years. We stopped talking about work and we started talking about learning. And we stopped talking about mistakes as being bad. And the mindset changes that have accompanied this language change have been huge. The arts have been a wonderful medium to explore this’.
Arts participation also allows schools to quite specifically plan learning experiences for different groups of children, something of particular concern to special schools that might have a range of different needs amongst their student body. For children who have a low level of cognition, the process of cultural learning can be hugely helpful as Sue Hewitt, explains:
‘A lot of what we are doing is repeating the same types of activity over and over again because the steps are so small, and they take such a long time to embed. So, if you’re working on stimulate/response type things, if you can vary the settings and the way in which you deliver that, you might suddenly find the one thing that a child connects with. For a particular child that’s your golden moment’.
Gwyneth Terrell, Lead for the Communications/Sensory Team at Beacon Hill is clear that the arts and culture provides a particularly fruitful area for this kind of learning: ‘You can do it again and again, and each time it’s still fresh and interesting for everybody involved in the project’.
Collaboration with cultural partners forms a vital a part of the work of those seeking to strengthen creative learning in SEND settings. A willingness and openness to working with external partners is characteristic of all three schools and this goes beyond hiring in a one-off intervention. Successful partnerships see skills pass both ways between SEND-specialist teachers and cultural practitioners with strong proficiency in a particular artform.
Lexden Springs was a participant in an ongoing programme – Bright Futures for SEND Music – run by Essex Music Education Hub, that seeks to improve musical opportunities for children with special educational needs. The programme looked at what professional development schools needed and brought in professional musicians into schools to run a 10-week music project which the school could tailor: at Lexden Springs the practitioners ran a project on using iPad apps to compose and remix music.
Significantly, the programme involved transferring skills from teacher to practitioner, as Victoria Utting explains: ‘The first week the professional would model a session and then the second week the practitioner and someone from the teaching team would run this same session. The idea is you’re skilling up more special needs practitioners, you’re skilling up the teaching cohort and you are motivating and exciting the pupils. By having professionals in, you can see it working and it gives staff the confidence and the desire to carry that on’.
Beacon Hill too has worked extensively with external partners, facilitated by the Royal Opera House’s Thurrock Trailblazer programme. The school has broadened its range of cultural learning through participation in the programme, particularly around dance and heritage activities, developed in partnership with Historic Royal Palaces. As Amanda Bradley, the school’s Cultural Champion says, ‘The projects that we took on through Trailblazer have given us more options just to get out into the community to explore different places, and also try new activities in schools’.
This outward-facing approach has strengthened an aspect of Beacon Hill’s practice that is particular noticeable: the school’s focus on partnership working with mainstream settings. The school currently has students from other local schools come in and take part in dance activities with Beacon Hill’s pupils and there are plans to expand this programme in the coming academic year.
Sue Hewitt believes that this work has been one of the most exciting things to come out of the school’s cultural learning journey: ‘We’ve got to the point in projects where the mainstream students and our students were working alongside each other and gradually our staff are taking a back seat. The mainstream students were able to give our students the support they needed but allowed them to take the lead and decide on how it was going to work - that was fabulous to watch’.
Special schools across the Bridge region are active participants in Artsmark and Arts Award. Twelve special schools, inluding Beacon Hill and The Valley School, have embarked on an Artsmark journey and over 100 Arts Awards at a range of levels were awarded last year by special schools who are registered Arts Award Centres. The Valley School is one of those schools that has placed a strong focus on Arts Award, seeing its value as a structured award in an environment in which few pupils go on to take GCSEs in creative subjects
Flis Kirk describes how The Valley use Arts Award: ‘Arts Award has been brilliant for us because, at its core, it’s about young people making choices about making your own decisions and taking yourself on an arts journey. We offer Arts Award right through from Discover to Gold and it has worked brilliantly with our curriculum. For example, we’ve currently got a group Year 10s who are all working on an Arts Award. And every single one of them is doing a different project: a drum challenge, an animation project, learning how to use stage lights, set design, painting. But they’re all able to collaborate and share what they’re doing with each other’.
From all three schools interviewed, it is clear that there is excellent and innovative practice all across our region for children with special educational needs. While many of the approaches are highly tailored to support children with complex needs, all those who we spoke to have a strong sense of the intrinsic value of the arts for all pupils. As Amanda Bradley says: ‘From our work with mainstream students, there’s quite often an expectation that they learn the arts as a skill. But before you have to worry about pupils learning how to do something as a skill, they need to first learn how to enjoy it’.