While schools often draw on the education teams of arts organisations for support, these engagements can often be brief and episodic. For example, having a theatre company visit a school to do a single workshop or a gallery arranging a visit for pupils. There is value to these briefer engagements as they allow schools under constrained budgets and capacity to offer a broader range of cultural enrichment opportunities.
However, there is also enormous value to long-term engagement between schools and cultural learning organisations. In this blog we use two case studies of this kind of long-term engagement to illustrate the benefits of this approach to cultural learning. We then conclude with three recommendations for how these long-term partnerships can be fostered.
Case study 1: Birmingham Rep
The Birmingham Rep is a long-established theatre in the centre of Birmingham. Its education team includes 10 permanent members of staff alongside 10 freelancers. At any given time they work with 15 educational settings full time, engaging around 1,600 young people each week.
What distinguishes The Rep is its almost sole focus on long-term engagement with schools. This involves going into an engaged school for at least one day a week for a whole academic year. This long-term approach is also highly adaptive to the needs of schools, taking on board a school's aims and supporting them to achieve them. For example:
- In their work with Robin Hood Academy, The Rep have worked with classes on the English texts they are studying to help reimagine them and bring them to life through drama
- In their work with SEND settings, The Rep have been able to provide tailored support helping targeted students with their social skills through role-playing of social scenarios and practising empathy
The Rep notes that their long-term approach has many benefits. In particular, they are able to develop close working relationships with staff and students that support effective delivery. The personalisation of their content also depends on their long-term engagement. It also allows The Rep to engage teachers with their online resources portfolio, allowing them to provide another channel of support to schools.
The trade-off for The Rep is that long-term engagement reduces their coverage. Working in depth with a smaller number of students means fewer students reached in total. However, the magnitude of their impact suggests this trade-off may be worthwhile.
Case Study 2: Ellesmere Port
Ellesmere Port is a town in Cheshire with several wards that are among the most deprived in the country. Nevertheless, the construction of effective long-term engagement between schools, a Bridge organisation, theatre company and local authority has resulted in high quality cultural learning for many young people growing up in poverty.
The long-term engagement in Ellesmere Port began with a partnership between a local theatre company, Theatre Porto, and a high-performing school in the local area. The theatre company’s focus on creativity and young people made them especially well placed to work closely with a school.
The engagement has lasted for eight years and has created a base for a more joined up system of local cultural education that now involves most schools in the local area. There are several features of this engagement that have allowed it to thrive:
- Anchoring activities in school-wide priorities: Theatre Porto delivered in-school activities that aligned with the school’s wider curriculum agenda. For example, one school had developing education in ‘British values’ as a priority, so Theatre Porto worked with pupils to write and stage a play on the experience of refugee children travelling to the UK
- Recognising and supporting each other with challenges: Throughout the engagement, schools and cultural organisations worked with their Bridge organisation to understand the respective challenges that each faces. This resulted in Theatre Porto providing schools with cultural learning staff to provide supply cover while teaching staff undertook training in cultural learning
- Funding from all sides: The Bridge organisation, school and cultural learning organisation had respective funding which allowed them to participate in the partnership as equals with a more even power balance
- Training schools in engagement: As part of the long-term engagement, schools were trained in how to work with cultural learning organisations and what they can ask of them in terms of content, ways of working etc. This supported the creation of new further partnerships between the school settings and other cultural organisations
- Regular meetings: A key feature of the partnership was meeting regularly to discuss the principles and pedagogy of effective cultural learning and to plan ambitious activities together. This maintained an active and engaged relationship from all sides, contrasting with the circumstances of many partnerships who may only do ‘crisis meetings’
- Succession planning: Given the inevitability of staff turnover on all sides (especially in schools), there was strong planning for handing over of roles, responsibilities and key information within and between partner organisations. This prevented the partnership weakening with personnel changes
If we want to support long-term engagement between schools and cultural learning organisations, then more needs to be done from a policy perspective. Three proposals include:
- The restoration of an ‘honest broker’ function: It is clear that the creation, maintenance and growth of long-term engagements frequently depends on an organisation which acts as the connecting tissue between cultural learning organisations and the schools they work with. While this has historically been a role satisfied by Bridge organisations, their recent defunding leaves a likely vacuum. Policymakers and funders need to investigate and pilot a successor to Bridges to support the quantity, quality and variety of long-term engagements
- A handbook or hub for effective partnerships: The government should support the circulation of knowledge on effective partnership building. This may include putting together a handbook or set of case studies (as the Department for Education has done for school business management), or using the Hub model to give settings that exemplify great partnership working the resource needed to share their practice with others
- Stimulate the growth of the cultural sector - As acknowledged by Birmingham Rep, there is a trade-off between long-term engagement with schools and reaching a large number of pupils with cultural learning. This is primarily due to the low number of publicly funded arts organisations proportionate to the level of demand for these organisations’ services from schools. In order to support long-term engagement of the kind discussed, it’s vital that the government stimulate the growth of more arts organisations with a focus on cultural learning and young people. This may involve investment in capacity building for current arts organisations, mobilisation of grassroots organisations and the organisation of local artists to contribute to growing local cultural education ecologies