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LIKE FLYING – Teaching Young People to Fly

An ongoing, transformative, artist-led project for pupils in schools in Scotland

Pupils from Ardrossan Academy performing in Like Flying. Image Credit: Tim Morozzo

This case study explores an inspirational aerial theatre project supporting mental health and wellbeing for secondary students in Glasgow and North Ayrshire. Written by the National Theatre of Scotland.

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

Delivered in schools in 2019 and 2022, LIKE FLYING is an ongoing artist-led project conceived by Nic Green and produced by the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS). It aims to enable 12 to 14 year old pupils to reach their potential, increase their wellbeing, and build resilience. In 2022, 48 pupils engaged in the project: 7 completed creative work placements and 42 learnt to ‘fly’ in aerial performance workshops. The project has increasing relevance to young people today who have faced exceptional challenges to their mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In June 2019, performances at Craigmount High School, Edinburgh and Auchinleck Academy, East Ayrshire were produced by NTS in partnership with the Scottish Association for Mental Health. Performances in Bellahouston Academy, Glasgow and Ardrossan Academy, North Ayrshire in September and October 2022 respectively were produced by NTS in collaboration with MCR Pathways.

Aberdeen Standard Investments in association with East Ayrshire Council and The City of Edinburgh Council supported the project in 2019. In 2022, it was supported by: The Rayne Foundation, The William Grant Foundation, Binks Trust, The McGlashan Charitable Trust, The Ettrick Charitable Trust, The Murdoch Forrest Charitable Trust, The WM Mann Foundation, Educational Institute of Scotland and Savendie.

What worked well

LIKE FLYING aims to create a model that strengthens the resilience of young people, and which promotes the efficacy of creative interventions in secondary schools. The project targets secondary school pupils between S2 and S4, telling their stories of transitioning from childhood to adulthood through a range of means, with a focus on aerial arts.

The artistic lead on the project is Nic Green, an award-winning, celebrated artist and theatre-maker. Working alongside professional artists Nic and leading aerial performance practitioners All or Nothing Aerial Dance Theatre, the pupils at each school produce a series of high impact performances for their school and wider communities.

The production in 2019 was seen by professional critics and reviewers in 2019 including The Skinny, who gave it a 5-star review and called it “a stunning and immersive production which highlights the importance of arts for young people’s mental health”.

The young people involved in each iteration of the production are offered opportunities in performing, video filming and editing, directing and design, and technical management. Workshops where they are taught aerial performance skills, which facilitate and encourage teamwork and build positive mental and physical health, are delivered within their school. Participants also have the opportunity to explore creative writing, and their stories are then integrated into the final production to be shared with audiences of peers, parents, teachers and the community through theatre performances of LIKE FLYING, with the performance taking place both inside and outside the school using classrooms, corridors, gym halls and playgrounds as the venue.

Feedback gathered from the pupils who have taken part demonstrates how the project has developed their self-confidence, their feelings of self-worth and improved their relationships within their school. Both the school faculty and pupils have reported back on their pride in their achievements:

“I feel like the show is like one of a kind because there’s no other show like it, and we’re the people who performed it. We’ll always have that memory…” (Pupil from 2019)

“I didn’t know most of the older people in the group, so it’s been good to make friends but even better to be able to say ‘Hi’ just walking round school.” (Pupil from 2022)

“Our pupils have laughed, cried, shared the highs and lows, and pushed themselves in ways they never thought possible. It has been inspirational for us all.” (Teacher from Ardrossan Academy)

A 10-minute film made using footage from the 2019 performances and audience reactions is available to watch online. Audience responses on social media can be found here for Auchinleck and here for Craigmount.

What was challenging?

Delivering sited work within a school setting is very challenging and required buy-in from each school community and their respective local authorities. In order to build trust at the outset, a focus was placed on relationship building and getting to know the key stakeholders – such as building management who looked after health and safety – as well as teachers, parents and the pupils themselves. LIKE FLYING involves aerial performance and abseiling, and so a lot of work had to be done in collaboration with the schools around health and safety. The project presents an interesting dichotomy because the physical aspects involve an element of risk, and so there is a balance between giving the pupils the sense of doing something dangerous while providing a safe environment. Creating a foundation of trust empowered our partners to feel safe and reassured when giving consent and finding creative solutions when problem solving.

The performances centre around a 55-minute walking promenade performance within the school and school grounds, so ensuring accessibility to audiences was a big challenge for us as producers. When developing the work, we had to make certain that the routes through the schools were wheelchair accessible and had a limited number of stairs.

The project delivery timeframe in 2019 was significantly longer than 2022. Creating high quality productions within tight schedules required bringing together highly skilled creative and production teams and ensuring effective communication to meet shared aims. We learnt that the benefit of a three-week delivery schedule is there is a concentrated impact in the school community, however getting buy-in within such a short timeframe is a challenge because schools are such busy communities. Furthermore, undertaking the project on this shorter timescale in 2022 has allowed us to develop a three-week template that we can take to a further two schools in February and March 2023.

What can others learn?

In order to be a success, the project requires a strong relationship with the school and building management organisation. It is also beneficial to build a network of ambassadors within the teaching faculty who can advocate for different ways of working with young people which might not be traditional in a school setting.

By having teachers attend aerial performance workshops as chaperones, they were able to observe how facilitators speak to young people and it demonstrated the benefits of talking to pupils as a professional company. By the end of the project, schools were looking to change and evolve how they work.

At the outset, having pupils drop out of the project was a concern however there were no dropouts at all in 2022. This was achieved through a combination of factors such as:

  • the quality of the first taster session
  • spending the time developing relationships within the school
  • working with the school to identify the young people most in need of this collaboration
  • in school and after school workshops

Anticipating the needs of the pupils and proactively working to remove barriers to attendance also proved beneficial. Having decided to undertake in school and after school workshops, transport home after school was provided to ensure all pupils who wanted to participate could do so. We also provided snacks and drinks as part of our company welfare, as well as regular check ins with the young people.

The impact of LIKE FLYING goes way beyond the group of pupils who take part, and it has a positive effect on both teachers and the rest of the school community.