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The Elliot Academy Foundation Arts Ambassador network

Reflection on the strengths and challenges of running a multi-school arts network

Description: Exhibition of artworks created by children and young people from The Elliot Foundation Academy Trust, Arts Ambassador School Network, working with artist Anne-Marie Cadman. Credit: The Elliot Foundation Academy Trust.

This case study explores the activities of the West Midlands Arts Ambassador network, comprising 12 schools from The Elliot Academy Foundation Trust. Written by Billesley Primary School and Arts Connect.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

Arts Connect’s Arts Ambassador School Network Programme helps schools to work together to develop fantastic arts experiences for children and teachers. Working with 14 different networks to date, the partnership supports leadership for teachers and children, curriculum development, CPD and commissions artists to work in the classroom.

-Schools contribute to a budget that Arts Connect matches to commission arts and cultural organisations to run a year-long programme of activity with a year group or target group.

Teachers and children alike are trained as Arts Ambassador leaders, growing their confidence, creative skills, talents, and expertise as well as developing the cultural capital in every school across the partnership. The programme helps to develop strong sustainable creative school communities.

Twelve primary schools in the West Midlands within The Elliot Foundation Academy Trust (TEFAT) have formed the West Midlands Arts Ambassador Network, led by Billesley Primary School. The network also collaborates with 20 other Trust schools in London and East Anglia.

Since 2016, this network has worked together with Arts Connect to design focused programmes meeting the needs of individual schools as well as Trust-wide objectives, whilst championing local and community partnerships. The 12 West Midlands schools are all in areas of high deprivation. The regional Arts Lead, based at Billesley School, works with Arts Ambassadors in the network, to identify specific arts areas for improvement each year. A commission is created with an artist/arts organisations recruited annually. The artist/s work with each school in the network developing practice, showcased in a celebration event at the end of the year, as well as offering bespoke CPD for each school.

Billesley Primary School reflects on the recent successes and challenges of the network…

What worked well

In 2021-2022, we commissioned a sculpture/textiles artist to work in each school exploring 3D artforms to inspire young people and staff to celebrate their culture, identity and community. Over 600 children, aged 7-10, showcased their artworks in a 3-day installation exhibition of the work at the Birmingham MAC in the summer term.

This commission was created in response to our ambition to develop our approach to the arts in our schools. We were keen to improve our artistic provision and simultaneously celebrate the concept of being a global citizen with our young people and their communities. We chose a form of sculpture/ textiles to allow our children to explore a hands-on artform after the heavily digital impact of the pandemic. As well as providing high-quality experiences for young people, it was clear that we wanted an element of specific professional development for school staff during the programme so that it had a legacy in each school.

The Arts Ambassador network teachers, and Arts Connect, met in Autumn 2021 and collectively decided on the overarching themes for the programme:

  • Oracy
  • Diversity
  • Culture
  • Identity
  • Community
  • The Commonwealth

We commissioned our wonderful artist Anne Marie Cadman; she set about planning and working with each school to make the experience bespoke to them and meeting the themes. Each school approached it in a different way and our exhibition was filled with all sorts of art from tapestries to gigantic trees, banners, busts, decorative wheels to totem poles and statues. The range and the freedom of the brief enabled each school’s identity to be showcased in their work and the collective exhibition highlighted our values as a Trust and an Arts Ambassador network.

One of our main goals is to bring children back together physically and allow them to have tangible arts experiences after the stresses of Covid-19 and the impact it had on the arts in schools. We feel this programme not only met these aims but brought our communities together as we had several parents visit the exhibition.

Although it’s been a few months since the completion of last year’s programme, there’s already evidence of the legacy of the work. Several schools have incorporated more textile and sculpture work into their medium-term art plans due to the CPD they received from Anne Marie and all schools have their work on display for their school community.

Alongside our artist/s commissioned programme, we develop Young Arts Ambassadors (YAA) as leaders/champions of the arts in our schools. Although the pandemic made some of our plans challenging, children were still able to attend virtual leadership training, creating their own action plans and presenting them to senior leaders. These YAA carry on with their role in the new academic year and support the next group of YAA in their schools. Every school is on their Artsmark journey and also deliver Arts Awards with hundreds of young people each year.

Arts Council England selected us as a Creativity Collaborative and we’re integrating this into the programme across our schools and then sharing nationally.

The 2022-23 programme is working nationally with The Royal Opera House with all 32 schools in The Elliot Foundation Academy Trust, the 3 host Bridge organisations (Arts Connect, A New Direction and Festival Bridge) and will culminate with 2000 children performing at The Royal Opera House in July 2023.

What was challenging

The programme continues to be very successful and manages the challenges that arise when organising something of this scale in so many settings.

As lead Arts Ambassador teachers we meet, with Arts Connect, at 4 key points each academic year to reflect on the strengths and challenges of the past year and to plan next steps. We regularly review the logistical and artistic challenges of organising a programme across all 12 schools (e.g. timetabling to accommodate several days of artistic delivery). All Ambassador Leads and class-teachers understand that the benefits outweigh the challenges, but this often needs to be highlighted in schools, particularly with senior leaders.

From a coordination perspective, a key challenge is communication. The lead Arts Ambassador coordinator endeavours to keep everyone in the loop, with lots of notice, via email, but ensuring timelines are adhered to isn’t easy. To support this, we’ve agreed to a shared Google Classroom where documents and updates are posted for the network to see and comment on. We foresee that this will support communication and the sharing of information.

The engagement of all 32 TEFAT schools in 2022-23 will be breaking ‘new ground’, as previously each region has been working with its own regional Bridge, and this will be the Trust’s first national arts programme. The West Midlands lead Ambassador has been released off timetable to manage the national programme supported by the Trust’s Director of Curriculum.

What can others learn?

The West Midlands Arts Ambassador network has been delivering for over 6 years and the key learning is:

  • The importance of building relationships with the team of teachers and all partners. Each teacher is their school’s champion of the arts and works hard every day to making sure their voice is heard. It’s key that they’re valued as part of the network.
  • Having a clear vision and goals from the get-go is vital to the smooth running of the programme. Building these goals as a network means each Arts Ambassador has autonomy over decisions made in their school with flexibility for them to adapt to their needs.
  • Always ask yourself – what next? Each programme doesn’t stand alone as it directly impacts the children and teaching practice in each school, so how can you build on these year after year? For us, we’re looking at how we can collaborate with our wider national network more and broaden the scope of our work so that it has an impact on more children and teachers.
  • Arts Connect, and partner Bridges, work in partnership with the TEFAT network both at individual school (teachers and SLT) and at senior Trust (CEO; Directors; Heads) levels to ensure that through their strategic support, quality delivery and continual improvement in the arts is embedded, ensuring leadership and sustainability.