Metamorphosis: Using re-entry as a springboard for helping vulnerable primary school pupils fly

How to use the arts to unlock the potential of vulnerable pupils

What is going to matter most about the process of re-entry? Immediate preoccupations will inevitably lie with resolving safety challenges, the practicalities of social distancing, and staffing. But here I want to argue that, for pupils experiencing disadvantage and most especially those pupils for whom lockdown has meant loss, creating a re-entry experience that is truly developmental and socially safe is going to be at least as important. Like everyone else worrying about the effect of lockdown on vulnerable pupils, I have marvelled at the ingenuity of teachers, leaders and schools in providing immediate support. Happily, there is emerging evidence to suggest an important way of widening our offer, thinking creatively and establishing new and deep partnerships as we go, though embedding the arts right across the primary learning experience.

Using the arts to unlock potential

The starting point is learning from schools who have been using learning through the arts to empower and unlock the potential of vulnerable pupils. Having the privilege of providing formative evaluation to the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development Fund – which resources partnerships of schools to work for two years with arts organisation partnerships to embed learning through the arts in the primary curriculum – has revealed lots of benefits and challenges. You can see the start of this journey in this evaluation report covering the two-year Pilot. You can enjoy here, accounts of enabling welsh children to play and solve problems spontaneously and trilingually (Welsh, Spanish and English), enabling children experiencing disadvantage to develop their authorial voice through film making in Northern Ireland or embedding Shakespeare in life in school and at home through rehearsal techniques in Hull. The new Round 1 cohort have started to build on that learning. Some have started to take things even further in lockdown.

The schools in these partnerships serve mixed communities with significant cohorts of pupils experiencing disadvantage. The partnerships are geared towards building reciprocal exchange of skills and expertise between the teachers and artists so that teachers can embed skills, knowledge, understanding and techniques from the arts in their everyday practice, and so the artists can learn about the nature of the curriculum, about recognising and supporting progress and about the children and the community. There are many direct learning benefits for pupils, especially for literacy, and even more for their wellbeing, confidence and self-expression; for pupils for whom lockdown has represented significant loss will need those skills in spades on re-entry and be least likely to have had the opportunity to develop them.

Leaders becoming lead learners

The programme’s goal is to embed learning through the arts across the curriculum. So positioning school leaders as lead learners has been key to success and enabling complex practices to reach deep into pupils’ and teachers lives incrementally and sustainably. This leadership aspect of developing a big education through the arts has generally been new to arts colleagues, who have previously usually worked directly with pupils and teachers. Artists relish risks and school leaders learn to learn through them. Both are deeply concerned about wellbeing as well as academic progress. So building sustainable practices by recognising reciprocal learning and risk-taking involved has been magical for some. This is also a great example of effective leadership of continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) as our new review of systematic research reviews and the curriculum shows. Leaders modelling learning like this matters – because it helps position CPDL as the taking of shared responsibility for pupil progress and wellbeing.

Putting art practitioners at the centre

So we have been thrilled to learn about how some of these schools leaders have placed their trusted artist practitioners / arts organisation at the centre of planning for supporting learners during lockdown. These artists are working in close partnership with the teachers and tapping deeply into their knowledge and expertise. They are helping the teachers supporting home learning make imaginative leaps into new possibilities that take account of the realities of spending 23 hours a day in a confined space indoors and using this as a springboard for creativity. They’re helping to make sure learning and home schooling is fun and manageable for everyone, as well as developmental. Crucially, they are also helping teachers help pupils experiencing disadvantage express and develop their identities in different ways through visual arts, music, dance, drama and creative writing.

If you are a large family in a very small flat with no outside space and you’re only allowed out once a day then life is difficult. We want more resources that bring the joy back into people’s lives. Arts-based activities are great as they can calm things down at home, and that’s important for our families

We’ve been using a resource created by [our arts partner] it’s a PowerPoint that children can interact with, which contains a simple story [plus some] prompts for activities. My children have loved it, as the prompts are fun, e.g. dressing-up tasks, writing, drama, etc. It’s very open ended, and it can be done with parents and siblings and once tasks are completed children can take a photo and send them back to school. It’s digital content to enable offline activity.

Deputy Headteacher

Our parents aren’t teachers, so putting pressure on them is not right. We can’t get fixated on core subjects at this time, and I think the arts are a key way to frame activities and help parents. We post a very simple prompt each day, such as, make an image out of your laundry, or visit this particular online gallery together. It’s been really successful.

Arts Subject Leader

Supporting the ‘skilled disappearers’

This will matter even more as we start to plan for re-entry into formal education of our most vulnerable pupils. Many pupils experiencing disadvantage are ‘skilled disappearers’; deploying sophisticated tactics to make teachers believe they are present whilst staying below the radar. Others express their frustration more volubly through disruptive behaviour. “Seeing” the developing person and their starting points accurately through the veil of such behaviours in the course of traditional lessons is incredibly hard. So doing so in the middle of reconnecting with pupils after such an intense and often distressing period will be extremely challenging. Working with artists and arts organisations is an important way of expanding teachers’ reach in what promises to be an overwhelming practical, emotional and intellectual e-entry experience.

There are, of course, enormous downsides to the pandemic, especially for the arts and culture sector and for vulnerable communities. But there is a huge upside because there has never been a time when we have needed the arts in our learning lives more. And there has never been a time when the arts community has been more available for and thirsty for opportunities to help!

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