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The Thurrock Trailblazer programme  

Sustaining entitlement to quality arts and cultural learning across Thurrock schools

ROH Thurrock Trailblazer – Gateway Learning Community Literary Arts Festival – July 2018. Credit: Belinda Lawley

This case study is about an ambitious programme led by The Royal Opera House in partnership with the local authority and other arts partners, to deliver cultural education across Thurrock schools. Written by Royal Opera House Bridge.

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

“There’s nothing quite like the Trailblazer programme…to have such a committed group of teachers in one room with a passion for cultural learning is quite unique.” (Darren Henley – CEO ACE)

Following a research and development phase commissioned by the Director of Children’s Services in Thurrock and conducted by Royal Opera House Bridge (ROH Bridge), the Thurrock Trailblazer programme was launched in the academic year 2014/15.

21 schools worked together in this ‘Pathfinder’ year rising to 44 by 2021/22. Over 30,000 children and young people have benefited from the programme which has worked with 90% of Thurrock’s schools over the last nine years.

Now identified as a ‘levelling up for culture’ area, Thurrock has been seen historically as an area of ingrained poverty, but statistics are beginning to tell a different story.

The key investing partners in the Trailblazer programme have been the Royal Opera House (ROH) (both through the Learning and Participation team based at High House Production Park in Purfleet and ROH Bridge), Thurrock Council and the schools themselves, who subscribe annually in line with a formula based on their pupil roll. Thurrock is the ROH’s second home. The sets and costumes of main stage productions are created in Thurrock at the Royal Opera House Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop and Costume Centre.

What were the programme’s ambitious aims?

  • To assure that children and young people can express themselves through the arts and learn the subject knowledge, skills and techniques that help them to progress.
  • To help children to find a personal connection with their cultural heritage and those of others, accessing creative work from diverse cultures and times.
  • To co-create alongside professional artists, experiencing high quality, live professional performance and exhibitions first-hand.
  • To be introduced to the professional roles that make up the cultural industries and understand the contribution these make to artistic excellence and their enjoyment of cultural experiences.

And for schools and their staff….

  • To build such confidence and ‘product faith’ in the above that cultural entitlement becomes both prioritised and embedded in Thurrock schools.

In addition to enhanced learning outcomes and more opportunities for creative cross-curricular application of the arts, outputs include teachers’ increased understanding and commitment to the benefits of arts education; increased investment by schools in arts partnership activity; stronger teacher recruitment and retention in Thurrock; growth of cultural champions amongst middle leaders; schools able to access wider funding streams; new jobs; stronger arts infrastructure; new local traditions and culminating events.

Watch the film

View or download the 2018–19 Evaluation Report

View or download the 2017–18 Evaluation Report

What worked well

Management of the programme and the Cultural Catalogue

A small ROH team co-ordinate and curate the offer in consultation with senior school staff about pupils’ learning needs and local, regional and national arts partners interested in working in Thurrock. The offer is encapsulated in a priced, online Cultural Catalogue. Acting as a broker, ROH contract schools and arts partners to the Trailblazer programme. The subscription model is unique.

Subscribing Schools complete a formal application process and are allocated a budget to spend which is generally greater than their initial investment. There has been a significant level of subsidy.* The cycle begins in the Spring of the previous academic year, is coordinated centrally and managed in school by a pair of cultural champion teachers.

Strong feedback loops enable arts partners to refine their offer and also for new and innovative opportunities to appear in the catalogue year on year.

The nature of the programme

The programme offers a range of creative partnership activity tailored to age, stage and learning needs of pupils. Learning outside the classroom and crossing new thresholds is a desirable component of this work, although this feature has been more limited since the pandemic.

The annual programme of activity includes:

  • 6 modules of Cultural Champion Training for two teachers
  • Access to a Cultural Catalogue of over 100 educational cross-curricular offers involving 25 to 30 local, regional and national arts organisations, including training for teachers and access to live performances
  • ROH Create and Learn programme and exclusive ROH events
  • Artsmark support through ROH Bridge
  • ROH Trailblazer school liaison support

Themes requested by schools have included: careers, climate change, collaboration, parental and community engagement, targeted interventions, STEAM, Student Voice, wellbeing and resilience, world culture and early years development.

ROH includes its full ‘Create and Learn’ offer to schools in the catalogue and has expanded it through trialing and testing new features in Thurrock schools. There is also scope for smaller, emergent organisations working locally to strengthen their offer to schools through smaller-scale project working.

Celebrating the outcomes of the programme

Schools have established traditions of celebrating their involvement internally with ‘sharings’ and end of year events like pageants. Festivals have been staged at High House Production Park and around Thurrock, encouraging inter-school collaboration and helping to attract good publicity to the area. Kinetika, an NPO co-located on High House Production Park, has been particularly active at helping Thurrock celebrate its stories in an active way. Publications have been circulated and stored online to evidence impact. Senior staff from participating schools also attend annual symposia to discuss impact and next steps.

Establishing a predictable time cycle for the programme in order to be sure that school forward planning could be informed by the published catalogue has also been an important feature of its success.

What do people say about the work?

“Trailblazer and Cultural Champion meetings has given me an opportunity to develop a curriculum we are proud of as a school and the confidence to lead on projects that wouldn’t have been accepted before the programme.” (Cultural Champion)

“Having an Ofsted Inspection under the new framework really affected us all. We received a Good overall (with 3 good and 2 Outstanding areas) and in one of the ‘Deeper Dive’ discussions – Trailblazer was discussed!” (Cultural Champion)

“I think if I was to have a day off I would miss out on amazing things.” (A year six student who was a previously persistent absentee)

“I believe, with your help, we have upskilled many of our teachers over the last few years and I am determined that next year we will be sharing this knowledge and upskilling lots more.” (Senior Leader)

What was challenging

There was some reticence in the Pathfinder year born of the programme’s unfamiliarity and level of ambition. Both ROH, the Local Authority and local schools had to bed-in the idea and allow the complex partnership to evolve, acquiring more trust and confidence as it matured. Employing freelance arts education consultants who were former senior managers of schools to help with the interface between partners oiled relationships until the programme had built a strong reputation.

Establishing a representative steering group chaired by a senior council officer was helpful. High level Council and ROH and school senior management involvement has been prioritised, despite staff turnover.

The importance of training cultural champions in each school alongside the offer has grown in significance over the life of the programme – both to help with targeting and internal project management and also to establish networks of teachers who could support each other. This has helped put the programme on a stronger footing. We have evidence that, with additional leadership training for targeted teachers, experienced cultural champions have gone on to operate as consultants to other schools and the cultural sector and have created their own offers for insertion in the catalogue.

*The programme has had to ride fluctuating changes in economic circumstances of all partners, and a global pandemic. Fortunately, the model has been flexible and is constantly innovating and adapting to constraints and opportunities as they arise. A new iteration is being designed for the academic year 2023/24 in response to the cost of living crisis and to align the programme more closely to school and ROH current strategic priorities.

What can others learn?

  • Establishing a brokered offer like this needs to build independence and resilience into the system to avoid building a dependency model.
  • Complementary investment programmes, such as the ROH Bridge’s ‘Learning Offer Development Fund’, have enabled young companies to experiment with new work as part of the Trailblazer Programme.
  • The model allows cultural organizations to trial and test new programmes within a supported environment.
  • With a catalogued offer, tailoring partnerships working to age, stage and learning need is facilitated.
  • Subscription models are attractive to Local Authorities, but the level of subsidy should be clear and articulated regularly.
  • Middle managers trained to operate as Cultural Champions are an essential component. The Cultural Champions model has now been replicated in six other geographical areasWe are now considering developing progression and alumni opportunities for cultural champions.
  • The link between this work and improving schools was explicit.