Recent years have seen increasing public attention on the challenges facing creative and cultural learning. A strong central focus on accountability measures saps teacher time and, despite protestations to the contrary, literacy and numeracy focus in primaries and pressure to not enter pupils for arts GCSEs in secondaries are creating the perception that creative learning is less valued. Moreover, reductions in school funding in real terms are making it harder and harder for headteachers to justify spending money on the arts.
These are all challenges that face The Sweyne Park School and its headteacher Andy Hodgkinson, who has emerged as a key voice promoting the arts and culture in school in the region.
‘If you want to protect the arts, to defend them and promote them’, he says, ‘I think you’ve got to be really clear about all of the arguments you can marshal, because they are under threat at the moment. Because of curriculum reforms. Because of accountability measures. And because of austerity, in particular’.
‘When things are well established, I can work hard with governors and stakeholders to ensure we preserve them despite these constraints. However, developing brand new permanent provision is a real challenge. I’m proud of the fact we have preserved art, music and drama... They’re about respect and identity, self-expression and confidence for our students’.
Respect in particular is one of the key attributes that Sweyne Park wants to instil in its pupils, as recognized by its 2015 Department for Education Character Award, and Andy is clear that the arts plays a significant role in supporting this agenda.
‘Drama has a particular significance to our ethos of respecting yourself and others in the community. Through that act of putting on a mask, you are able to explore different identities, different narratives, and what that does, I think, is really reflective of our ethos’.
This respect for different identities encompasses broadening students’ understanding of those from different cultural backgrounds, something that Andy acknowledges is a real challenge in a school with an overwhelmingly white British demographic. ‘We do try very hard in this regard. One of the awards that we most cherish is the International Schools Award and we’ve had that reaccredited five times now. It’s about trying to widen horizons and get pupils thinking about different kind of perspectives on things which is hugely important. We certainly haven’t got that cracked yet, but it is big on our radar’.
Another element where Andy sees the arts has a particularly positive role to play is in being inclusive. ‘We take everyone in our catchment area – no matter what their needs. For example, we’ve got a unit for 24 Deaf and hearing-impaired children at the school who all engage in the arts, which are a hugely powerful part of their experience here’.
‘Were you to have visited next week you would have seen our signing choir, which is a mixture of children who are Deaf or hearing impaired, and children who are hearing but have chosen to learn BSL’.
However, Andy is also aware that a focus on inclusion carries its own tensions and can be prejudicial towards ensuring provision that supports the most able.
‘On the one hand I want a school that is utterly inclusive, so everyone does the arts and everyone hopefully gets something from it. On the other hand, I want to have something that is a provision that allows people with a real gift or flair to unleash their talents, and the two can sometimes compete with each other. What we’re trying to do is get the best of both worlds’.
‘We start at the point of transition and when pupils are in Year 6 at local feeder primary schools, one of the things we do is a thing called the Play in a Day. It costs us, but it is money well spent’.
‘A professional drama consultant comes in and works with Year 6 and some of our Year 7 pupils who went to that primary school and use it as a way to find out about Sweyne Park. They create a performance, develop some skills and some confidence, make some new friends and relationships, and then the parents come in in the afternoon and watch the performance’.
‘What’s great about it is that it creates a sense of family. It’s one of the most effective things that we do with transition, but it’s also a statement of intent in terms of how we want to work with our families and pupils collaboratively, and that we value the arts’.
This work with feeder primaries has developed into a more substantive partnership with a local primary school that has joined with Sweyne Park in a multi-academy trust. ‘It’s going to be another opportunity for us to use our expertise to work with the primary school to enhance their arts provision. That will in turn help us with transition and progression’.
In addition to this work, there is plenty on Andy’s to-do list around the arts in the senior school. and to help this the school has started an Artsmark journey. ‘The question is now “what have you got to do more of?”. There are certain cohorts – at this school that would be disadvantaged pupils – with whom we need to do more to encourage engagement in the arts. I think there are more cross-curricular links to be made, the links to things like reading, writing and maths’.
Despite the opportunities these kind of changes offer, Andy knows that resource, workload and accountability pressures will continue to be a factor. ‘On our stance on the arts, my conscience is clear because we do such a lot with very little. But ultimately if we didn’t have such high demands on us as teachers we could do an awful lot more’.
It is this message which he will continue to spread as he fights for the future of the arts in his school and beyond.