28 October 2014 at 12.26pm | Comment on this article
Our school is a little different from your average school. We don’t always work in a classroom – sometimes, we teach at the bedside. Attendance at our school isn’t compulsory, but for reasons of continuity, it is crucial that we take any and every opportunity to engage our pupils. And, despite being a small school, we have children and young people from all over the world, of all ability levels, who may have never met before.
We are the Children’s Hospital School in Great Ormond Street Hospital, a setting which despite the huge limitations this may conjure for teachers, actually allows for a highly personalized curriculum. Yes of course it presents challenges, but most importantly, if a child does not have a positive experience of school here, they can lose interest and motivation and fall behind; meaning a successful re-integration to their own school can be hard to achieve.
While strong relationships and the use of a variety of engaging approaches to teaching go a long way to motivate our students, having the arts at the heart of our curriculum has been key to our pupils’ successes. Whether early years, adolescent or in-between, we find that our students respond with curiosity, imagination and enthusiasm to the arts.
During a hospital admission children often have things done to or for them, resulting in reduced control over their environment and activities. Arts-based activities can present the perfect antidote to this. Through the inspiration and guidance of a skilled practitioner and sometimes visiting artists, children have the opportunity to try things out, succeed and fail, but crucially to lead and take control at their own pace. All of our young people can benefit from this child-led approach to learning, but it is highly relevant for those with the most complex learning difficulties.
It is incredible to observe the power of the arts to unite a group of children and young people who have never before met; to create a sense of belonging and inclusion, even among strangers. Our arts-based activities allow each young person the freedom to bring and develop their own skills and make a unique contribution to something collective. A great sense of pride and satisfaction can come from the creation of a final product or piece and the chance to come together in a performance is too good to be missed – an opportunity for celebration, sharing and allowing the children to enjoy events that often mark the calendar in their mainstream schools.
The arts not only unite our children and young people, but also every subject we offer in our curriculum. This term’s whole-school theme ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is being explored through Science, Maths and English as well as the Performing Arts. Our students will learn about the factors which affect the speed Alice falls down the rabbit hole, they’ll design and make props to support a call and response version of the story, and a child using his visual skills will locate the fluorescent Cheshire Cat in a darkened sensory room. We are familiar with differentiating activities in school so that they can be accessible to our students with a range of learning difficulties and disabilities. Notably however, with the ‘Alice’ project, the idea grew from work which was being done with a small group of children with the most complex needs and was differentiated by subject teachers for use with students across the whole school.
We are fortunate in our unique setting to be afforded the freedom to offer a highly personalized curriculum, which is so rich in the arts and benefits so greatly from the work of highly-skilled visitors and arts practitioners from national organizations such as the Royal Opera House, the National Portrait Gallery, City of London Sinfonia, and Chickenshed Theatre. We are aware that our colleagues in mainstream school are more restricted by the demands of a prescribed national curriculum and associated testing. This naturally transfers to parents, carers and children themselves and we have noticed a trend of anxiety around whether enough ‘real’ learning is taking place when they are in school for lots of arts-based sessions. We reassure families that learning through the arts equips young people with cognitive, emotional, and creative skills which are highly transferrable and necessary for successful learning in all areas of the curriculum.
Our approach and curriculum certainly seems to work and we know we are doing something right from feedback from pupils, parents and indeed OFSTED. Parents often tell us that the excitement of coming to the hospital school, or having a teacher visit, is what motivates their child through what can be a difficult time. One pupil, in a slogan competition described his experience of our school as being ‘the best time at the worst time’. Long live the arts and culture in our school!
Danielle Valdar manages curriculum delivery and Anthea Hawke is the lead teacher for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) at the Children’s Hospital School in Great Ormond Street Hospital.
This article forms part of a series asking why access to the arts and cultural learning are so important.