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Strengthening Creative Writing Through the Arts  

How a Bridge project supported 45 schools to experiment with creative approaches to teaching writing

Cwtta Blog Post Image

Two students are seated at a desk in red school uniforms. The pupil on the left has a post stick note in front of them and is writing the word ‘baby’ while the pupil on the right is seated next to them watching

Creative Writing Through the Arts in action at Northwick Park Primary School, Canvey Island.
Image Credit: Leila Balin

This case study is about an innovative programme designed to bring creative practitioners and primary teachers together to support the teaching of creative arts and promote children’s writing skills. Written and led 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

Creative Writing Through the Arts (CWttA) set out to demonstrate how learning through the arts can accelerate children’s writing skills. The effect of the programme on teachers’ practice and the quality of children’s writing was noticeable immediately and it was exciting to see the impact cascade across a school. We are still receiving enquiries from participating schools who would like to induct new staff through similar processes.

Royal Opera House Bridge (ROHB) formed a robust partnership to support this action research. We identified a well-networked group of primary schools operating as a SCITT in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University who became our Higher Education partner. Following a small pilot with early career teachers, ROHB secured Paul Hamlyn ‘More and Better’ funding (£237,000) which, combined with further investment from ROHB and 45 participating schools initiated and supported the CWttA programme for three years (September 2016 to July 2019).

The programme was managed by a steering group representing all partners and co-ordinated throughout by the deputy headteacher of a participating school, who was also a music specialist. Project funds were used to purchase her time from her school. ROH Bridge chaired the steering group, managed the budget and supported selection of artists.

For more detailed information on rationale see the following article.

What worked well

“It has made many of us think about how we approach writing, what we are asking our children to write about, how we motivate them. We have thought about the arts and how we can introduce our children to far more of the art forms – though visits, visitors or enhancing our own teaching.” (Headteacher)

How did we approach the action research?

Teachers took part in regular, high quality, live, professional development in arts subjects, led by creative practitioners (one day per art form). They gained ideas to integrate creative arts (art, dance, drama, film and music) into the teaching of writing, with children of different ages. Opportunities were created to team teach and co-design lessons alongside artists and to network with peers through facilitated action learning sets. Each academic year, sharing events or Teach Meets provided an opportunity for each cohort to share with a wider audience the approach, its impact and ideas for how it might be sustained. The programme was repeated three times with different cohorts of teachers.

A logic model has been developed. Both qualitative and quantitative methods were used to evaluate the project: teacher action research; independent assessment of samples of children’s writing; teacher questionnaires; interviews with head teachers; and observation visits to project schools (with a specific focus upon pupil voice).

The project had many benefits for children. Learning and teaching through Creative Arts inspired children to write. They wrote at greater length and their writing was judged to be of better quality. CWttA proved to be an inclusive approach. It was notable that the writing of pupils with special educational needs, children who speak English as an Additional Language and children in receipt of Pupil Premium showed particularly rapid improvement. Children showed enthusiasm, confidence and motivation to learn. Learning through the arts created opportunities for children to collaborate and express ideas about their learning.

There were also benefits for teachers and schools. Working with artists inspired the teachers. They increased their confidence in using creative art forms in the classroom and in teaching literacy through the arts. Teachers were creativeincreasingly taking more risks and adapting and developing ideas and approaches. The training had a cumulative effect which meant that teachers began to blend approaches from different artists together. Teachers shared ideas throughout and beyond their schools. Broader and more balanced curricula evolved in participating schools that included arts and cultural learning, within and beyond the classrooms.

Children who previously shied away from more creative activities, now love it when we incorporate visual art activities into lessons … The class are so eager to share their work with their peers and their confidence as writers has blossomed … Even previously reluctant writers are those who are coming up to me, asking if they can share their work with the class. Children have also mentioned that they are regularly writing stories and poems at home. There has definitely been a shift in terms of enthusiasm to write and what is being produced has been to a much better standard than before.” (Teacher)

“We needed to make our curriculum broader and balanced and heighten the foundation subjects. By approaching creativity through the arts, we could raise the expectations in writing (a core subject) whilst at the same time raise expectation of the foundation subjects, so it was a double win for us.” (Headteacher)

What was challenging about the project?

Longitudinal programmes of this scale require detailed project management. We were lucky to retain a high level of continuity, trust and confidence across the core steering group. This mitigated against any adverse impact from unexpected changes that needed to be made to the programme and helped us with quality assurance. Formally contracting all key partners also helped to ensure commitment.

The programme was set up as a piece of action research and because there was a University partner and third parties including children were involved in the initiative the proposal had to pass through the University’s ethics committee. Having a long run-in time was therefore helpful.

We knew it would be important to recruit generous, reflective artists who had experience of promoting creative writing through their creative interventions in the classroom and who were also experienced trainers. We interviewed widely at the start of the programme and this selection process was crucial to the programme’s success. We were also able to diversify the background of artists by meeting a wider field.

The University hired an independent literacy consultant to review samples of written work annually from 6 children per participating class and make criterion referenced judgement about progress. However, at the end of the first year, headteachers quickly requested that their staff be more involved in negotiating the criteria for assessing the quality of creative writing. It was also necessary to alter criteria for the youngest children. For years two and three, amended criteria were used.

Flexibility was also important. The school-based programme-co-ordinator had a direct relationship with participating teachers which made formative tweaks to the programme, in response to teacher feedback, straightforward.

Covid 19 sabotaged our live and online dissemination events! The website has been useful and the work has been duplicated in different parts of Essex twice now.

What can others learn?

The model works and has been duplicated successfully. It hinges on teachers having some autonomy in planning their lessons. The current tendency for centralised curriculum planning across groups of schools could pose limitations on this kind of work, or actually be an opportunity for greater impact, depending on the value placed on this kind of work by those in charge of curriculum planning. Having teachers at different stages of their career is interesting and useful. Schools also following an Artsmark journey found this helpful.

We recognised early on that there is a reticence in some artists to work in this way because they are sharing techniques and strategies that are their bread and butter for day to day income and longitudinal work is time-consuming. While we made an early commitment to set up open workshops where we could disseminate our learning to creative practitioners the small number of sessions we did set up were not well attended. If we had the opportunity again we would try and find other ways of involving more artists in this work to increase the legacy beyond schools.

Key prompts to help others

  • Put the time in to develop the partnership and don’t rush to start.
  • Consider piloting your approach on a small scale to trial and test your hunch.
  • Place programme management in a participating school.
  • Choose your artists carefully and offer face to face teacher training.
  • Contract partners and include a commitment to be represented on a steering group.
  • Establish common language and understanding of aims and objectives across all stakeholders.
  • Share learning both formatively and summatively.
  • Maximise peer to peer learning.