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British Values – Beyond Box Ticking 

Specialist Leaders in Cultural Education develop a creative approach to delivering SMSC

A school pupil works on a mural being painted within school grounds as part of an art project. They are holding a can of spray paint and wearing a filtration mask. Image credit: Rachel Bywater

This case study is about the work of the Specialist Leaders in Cultural Education who used the arts to creatively deliver Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural development in schools. Written by Curious Minds.

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

Specialist Leaders in Cultural Education (SLiCE) is one of Curious Minds flagship programmes and is in its 10th year. It is a systems leadership model, which builds teacher leaders’ knowledge and skills to produce, deliver and research arts and cultural education. We identify overarching education themes and set out to find ways, through project delivery, that these issues can be addressed.

In our conversations with headteachers and teachers it was evident a number of them were struggling to deliver the British Values curriculum within Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) agenda in a way that wasn’t just “ticking the boxes”. This was impacting on Ofsted ratings – schools cannot achieve an outstanding Ofsted rating without demonstrably strong SMSC.

This action research programme set out to identify how arts and culture could support schools to deliver the British Values creatively and through direct experience.

We set out to enhance teachers’ ability to deliver the requirements creatively, with active support from artists and cultural organisations to animate and expand on key themes. Around 1000 children and young people, aged 5 to 18+ years, participated in several different projects on aspects of British Values. The programme was developed and managed by Curious Minds, using partnership investment funds of £65,000 to match schools’ own contributions.

This programme was delivered throughout the 2016-17 academic year by 13 lead schools in the North West, across all phases of education. These schools were: The Heath, The Dunham Trust, Rainhill High, The Studio Liverpool, Sandbach Primary Academy, Dowdales, St Ambrose Barlow RCHS, Fallibroome Academy, Great Sankey TSA, Tor View TSA, St Mary & St Thomas’ TSA, St Bernards RC Primary and Kelsall Primary. Around each of these sat at least two partner schools.

Cultural partners included The Whitworth, Company Chameleon, Liverpool BiennialCheshire Dance, Ludus Dance, Manchester International Festival, Macclesfield Museums, Manchester Camerata, More Music Morecambe, The Everyman and the Playhouse Theatres, Action Transport Theatre and Storyhouse.

What worked well

Through partnership working with an arts /cultural organisation, each lead school chose to focus on a particular aspect of the British Values curriculum, such as rights, tolerance, and respect. Schools had ownership of their own investigations and set out to address what they considered most important in their school.

The range of schools and cultural partners is significant here – and the depth of the work, as the programme ran for over a year. It demonstrated the creative and ‘problem solving’ value of using arts as a vehicle – for school leaders, teachers and pupils – making a curriculum more dynamic and relevant through nuance approaches.

Click to download a publication outlining what they did

A range of different approaches and art forms were deployed. For example, the use of drama to look at empathy through character, storytelling to examine liberty and drama games to understand why we have rules. The notion of identity was explored through photography and visual arts, resulting in an exhibition of pupils’ work.

“The group of harder to reach boys’ responded well to the project. I saw their confidence grow as they vocalised their thoughts and reflections on photographic images and what it means to be part of a community where values are important.”

Working with dancers and choreographers from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities had a profound impact of the ways students now view other cultures.

“Students thrived on a discussion and arts-based response to sensitive topics…”

Thirteen different artistic products were commissioned by the schools and created with artists. The creation of these products gave rise to dialogue, debate and discussion in a deep and rich manner between young people, artists and teachers. Often, being off-site in an arts venue created a safe and independent space from which tricky issues could be explored. The power of the arts to be transformative being evidenced in great measure.

“By working with a cultural partner, education practitioners can overcome the ‘dry’ and ‘challenging’ nature of the BV agenda and utilise cultural experience, creativity, and individual expression to develop tolerance and appreciation of other cultures.”

Involving pupils and students in the development of their curriculum, whilst also developing and refining their arts practice, had several impacts. One group of pupils, chosen because they had been reluctant learners, displayed changes in attitudes and willingness to engage, enhanced motivation and increased enthusiasm. Collaborative working was also key to this.

CPD(L) for staff members in various artforms extended their skills; offering diverse ways for them to deliver many subjects and growing their confidence exponentially. School leaders who were involved recognised that the arts provided a highly effective delivery method, and that this could be transferable to other curriculum areas.

There has also been an impact on the arts organisations, which have expanded the range of work they can offer to schools.

Many of the partnerships forged through this programme have been sustained. Notably, St Bernards’ pupils working with Action Transport Theatre who went on to co-create a professional piece of theatre called “Adrift” about refugees. This approach played a significant role in this school becoming one of eight Creativity Collaboratives in the country.

What was challenging

Moving away from the established way of delivering a curriculum area means that teachers need to be prepared to take risks and trust that artists have the skills to navigate uncertain territory. This requires the building of strong relationships, and for artists to show understanding of what is needed by the schools. Co-planning and regular ‘touch base’ meetings are important to ensure the smooth running of each project. Collaboration is key, although it is not always easy for schools to give power over to others. Artists can often manage tricky situations well, and not every situation can be anticipated so the artist’s ability to improvise and think on their feet really comes to the fore here.

Finding the right match of school and artists/organisation is also important. As the Bridge organisation, Curious Minds provided brokerage and coordination; troubleshooting and convening network meetings, where all partners came together to agree ways of working.

Skilled lead teachers, who have a level of autonomy to act and make decisions and the ability to take other staff with them, is also important to the success of a project. Buy-in from senior leadership is vital – if the work is to be given curriculum time, it needs to be valued by those who run the school. As this programme directly responded to expressed school need, this proved helpful in ensuring time and buy-in.

What can others learn?

Arts and culture can have a far wider role in schools than is often permitted. The value that a schools’ leadership attributes to this work is ultimately what governs whole school engagement.

Demonstrating a solution focussed approach, using arts and culture, to address a problem that schools are experiencing has proven a valuable way to promote wider engagement in arts activity and subjects. The role of the Bridge in introducing teacher leaders to external arts partners, based on commonality of interest, provides the trust required to make things work much faster.

Having 13 different projects within one programme overarching meant that learning could be shared between all participants. Artists and teachers working together with pupils and students modelled collaborative working and the different approaches provided fertile ground for inclusively engaging young people.

Working with pupils and staff off-site, in external venues, often promotes different and more positive behaviour, thoughts and actions, because the space is independent of school. Yet these new ways of thinking were transferable back into school.

Working with high quality artists confers a real sense of value to students’ own work, as they recognise they are being invested in. Those young people who don’t usually shine often do so in these situations, as the artists see something in them no one else ever has.

  • How can schools develop articulate advocacy for the arts at a senior leadership level?
  • How can the arts’ ability to problem solve for schools be more widely promoted?
  • The agency, in this case the Bridge organisation, provides a key role in the triangulation. How can schools find the “honest brokers” whose knowledge spans arts, culture and education and work with them for maximum benefit?