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Edinburgh International Festival’s partnership residency  

A four-year creative partnership placing the Edinburgh International Festival in residence in Leith Academy

Muster Station: Leith Reception at Leith Academy with First Minister. Credit: Jess Shurte 

This case study tells the story of an ambitious partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival and Leith Academy in Edinburgh. This partnership brought world renowned theatre companies and artists from a variety of artforms into the school, dedicating time and resources to work across curriculum areas and facilities. Written by Edinburgh International Festival.

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

Edinburgh International Festival has been in residence in Leith Academy from 2019-2022, delivering a programme of direct and meaningful engagement to support pupils to develop creativity, confidence, and employability skills. The residency programme has engaged pupils in S1-6 across curriculum areas, recording over 10,000 engagements with the school community.

Following the Festival’s award-winning residency in Castlebrae Community High School, Leith Academy applied to be the second residency school, embarking on a three-year relationship which would enrich both the Festival and the school.

Supported by the City of Edinburgh Council, the International Festival and Leith Academy worked collaboratively to design an ambitious and responsive programme of activity under three programme strands: artistic projects, which placed artists in residence in the school; logistic projects, which explored the skills and expertise of Festival staff; and connector projects, which deepened the connection between the Festival and the school.

Originally proposed to run until 2021, the residency was extended until Autumn 2022 to account for the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This allowed the project to culminate in an ambitious finale which transformed the school into a cultural venue as part of the International Festival programme.

What worked well

The ambitious residency began with a school-wide consultation with teachers and pupils, which formed the groundwork to create a programme responsive to the needs and interests of the Leith community.

Artists from a range of art forms delivered bespoke projects which nurtured confidence, creativity, and promoted the role of the arts to support wellbeing and personal development. A notable example was theatre company Civic Digits’ project with S3 pupils in the Computing Department. Combining drama and programming skills, the pupils created a data-driven actor and wrote short scenes for it to perform whilst exploring cyber security and resilience.

The residency’s logistic projects welcomed the Festival staff into school to share their expertise and through live projects with pupils. The first saw the Marketing and Communications team engage with pupils in Art and Design and Craft, Design Technology to explore the idea of a brand, and work together to design a visual identity for the residency.

Additionally, the Festival’s Development team worked with the Business Studies class in collaboration with the Music Department to explore fundraising, ultimately supporting the pupils to raise £10,000 to purchase music technology equipment, updating the department and allowing Music to deliver a new qualification.

A notable connector project was the delivery of a Personal Development Award at SQA Level-6 which saw nine pupils over two years work closely with the Festival to develop their personal, social and vocational skills through workplace experience.

“Our children at Leith Academy, and in any school, know when they are being invested in; we certainly feel invested in from the EIF Residency programme and it is clear the positive impact this has had not only on the young people at the time but on young people when they move beyond formal education and into their next steps” (Mike Irving, Head Teacher, Leith Academy)

To culminate the residency, the Festival commissioned Leith-based, world-renowned theatre company Grid Iron to create a new, immersive performance in the school building as part of the Festival 2022. This exciting project placed Grid Iron as the school’s artists in residence and ultimately transformed the school building into a venue, allowing the community to play host to an international audience. Senior students were trained to work in paid Front of House roles for public performances.

The partners delivered a project in Art and Design classes, allowing pupils to create 120 blankets which were part of the set design for the final scene. The pupils identified community and charitable initiatives to donate the blankets to after the performance.

“The festival was a time of year I always looked forward too when I was younger, so to have a small part in it was like a dream!” (Pupil)

What was challenging

The different cycles of the Festival and school posed multiple challenges, but a close dialogue between the partners helped to build the understanding and trust necessary to deliver the ambitious programme of activity. A regular Festival staff presence in school helped build relationships with staff and pupils and gave the Festival a deeper understanding of how to work sympathetically within the life of the school. Additionally, the school built the partnership into its School Improvement Plan and teachers across the curriculum embraced the cultural partnership, helping to co-create meaningful and relevant experiences for their pupils.

The most significant challenge posed was wrought by COVID-19, which severely limited activity for around twenty months of the residency. A little over a year in, residency activity ground to a halt when the country went into lockdown, meaning ongoing projects were suspended with only essential qualification work deliverable.

The impact of COVID-19 lasted far beyond the national lockdowns when activity was practically impossible. The partners followed local council guidance to minimise contact and limit the spread of COVID-19 and it wasn’t until into 2021 that the Festival were able to bring artists into school again.

Despite the challenges during this period, the partners maintained a strong relationship and the Festival delivered activity including:

  • Digital content, including access to performances, workshops and resources.
  • The installation of a new seating bank in the school’s drama department using profits from the production of Ian McKellen on Stage which was part of the Festival 2019.
  • A new programme of outdoor and digital activity for Leith Academy’s feeder primaries called Play on: Stages.
  • Personal Development Award qualification at level 6, with nine students gaining this qualification across 2 years.

The adversity faced by the school community, including social isolation, loss, and increased mental health issues, was recognised by the Festival staff and was particularly highlighted by an exhibition organised by the Personal Development pupils which collected the highs and lows of lockdown. With this in mind, the partners were determined to deliver a project with the scale and ambition of Muster Station: Leith, creating a special moment which shone a spotlight on the school and celebrated the perseverance of the community and partnership.

What can others learn?

The residency relationship is testament to the potential of a deep and sustained relationships between arts organisations and schools. For the Festival, embedding themselves into the life of the school has better equipped them to understand and support the challenges faced by staff and pupils. Approaching the residency with a holistic sense of what the Festival could offer, they’ve been able to utilise this to create opportunities for a range of pupils, hopefully inspiring the future audiences of the Festival and the future workforce of the Scottish cultural sector.

“Every member of staff of the Festival has said that working with Leith Academy has enriched the life of the Festival and everything we do. The end of the Residency won’t be the end of our relationship with the school, and we hope to take our learnings … (and) share these together with our colleagues across the city and internationally.” (Caroline Donald, Head of Learning and Engagement)

The long-term nature of this partnership allowed partners to build a strong relationship, understand each other’s ways of working, and over time co-create projects with more creativity and ambition.

“I loved the production, but what I loved more was to see the pupils of Leith Academy work alongside professionals of Grid Iron. This innovative work that really demystifies the interface between the arts profession and the drama education work going on is a fantastic blueprint in how arts companies and arts educators can collaborate for the benefit of the young people. Top marks all round” (Neil Millar, Senior Education Officer for Expressive Arts at Education Scotland)

An evaluation of the residency will be published in Spring 2023.