Feature | Things we know about schools
We've pulled together some key observations about how arts organisations can best engage and serve school audiences.
It’s really important for schools that a cultural organisation’s offer is going to be delivered strongly against the national curriculum. If activities don't somehow support that, they are difficult for teachers to justify and prioritise. If you can deliver cross-curricular activities then even better. Remember though, it’s not all about the curriculum. The unique out-of-the-classroom environment, along with opportunities for long-term partnership working and teacher CPD are also valued.
Different schools, of course, have different needs. Our recent research looking at schools marketing reveals key differences in how early years and primary teachers respond to a cultural education offering. Primary schools place emphasis on learning through enjoyment and look for activities that creatively enrich and support what goes on in the classroom. Secondary schools are interested in offering young people experiences that might help build life or work skills, get them thinking about higher education or considering future careers.
Through The Audience Agency’s research with schools, teachers, pupils and younger people at large, along with regular analysis of various national data sets, including our own Audience Finder, some core considerations have risen to the fore about how cultural organisations can best succeed in engaging schools audiences
Bringing schools together with arts and culture
The reduced staffing effect of the school sector’s funding squeeze is particularly stark in arts departments, with resources for enrichment learning, including subsidised budgets for school trips, virtually disappearing. Feedback in recent research has clearly indicated that how well a venue can a) demonstrate its relationship to the national curriculum and b) offer prepared resources to support teaching and learning, directly impacts a teacher’s likelihood to book a school visit.
Cultural organisations that we have seen to do really well produce whole resource packs for teachers that include pre-visit preparation, activities to lead during the visit (self-led tours are particularly popular) and post-visit follow-up tasks, all relating back to the curriculum. Offering risk assessment sheets (an essential part of teachers trip planning) is also invaluable – health and safety is one of the biggest concerns for schools, so it’s important to alleviate, rather than add to, a teacher’s administrative burden if you want them to find the time and inclination to engage with your offering.
Establishing long-term links with a representative range of teachers to build valuable partnerships can be a key way to inform your programme development. Co-creating your offer with teachers is a must to ensure relevance and engagement long term. It’s also essential to be aware of wider networks that schools and other local partners are connected to. Local Bridges and Cultural Education Partnerships are seeing powerful collaborations - accessing funding, building capacity and offering insight.
Being aware of your schools’ ambitions around ArtsMark or ArtsAward can help build a picture of the overall cultural attitude, so it's worth thinking about how you can offer activities to support these targets. Our evaluation of the East London cultural education partnership Creative Schools Brokerage programme (in partnership with Sarah Boiling Associates) demonstrated just how much teachers and arts organisations valued partnership working.
Whilst outreach programmes are an expensive venture for cash-strapped arts organisations, they are an exceptional way of taking the potential financial burden of engaging with the arts off of schools themselves. Outreach work is particularly important for engaging whole schools via assemblies, larger scale mass participation projects, or some specific special educational needs (SEND) groups, for whom a venue visit may be impossible. The aim is to have a mixture of onsite and outreach activities available to enable the whole spectrum of schools to benefit and participate, regardless of resource levels or practical capabilities.
Even a single Local Authority can contain a mixture of extremely well-resourced schools and others dominated by families with low socio-economic means, hugely varying linguistic requirements and high percentages of children on free school meals. Our research tends to show that schools engagement is more successful when the cultural organisation knows its local area, knows its local schools and has built up relationships.
Top tips for engaging teachers
- Make things as simple as possible. Spell it out. Teachers don’t have time to read between the lines or do extra research.
- Provide supporting resources. Create learning packs, templates and forms to lessen their workload before, during and after engagement with cultural activities. This gives teachers a baseline from which to develop their own lesson plans and responses.
- Sign-post curriculum and career relevance. Really spell out all the ways that pupils will benefit from the activity, particularly around curriculum-based learning and developing work or life skills.
- Don’t just replicate classroom learning. Offer activity or engagement that enriches and complements core learning, rather than duplicating it. The teachers are the experts, so you want to support their role, not mimic it.
- Offer training opportunities for teachers such as private views or previews. Combine these with consultation discussions and a glass of wine to support the mutually beneficial relationships.
The challenges of a changing curriculum
Changes to the national curriculum can have a significant impact on how cultural organisations are able to engage schools. When focusses shift, cultural organisations with established offerings supporting that subject need to find new ways of approaching these relationships. Flexibility is the key to flourishing. Changes can open up new opportunities for venues and organisations whose offering is naturally better aligned with the new curriculum, but those cross-curricular approaches mean it always possible to find relevance.Asking teachers which part of the curriculum they are struggling to address in the classroom can also provide areas to focus on.
Overall, when planning your schools content it’s advisable to start with the curriculum first – and explore how your themes, curriculum or artistic content fits second. Secondly do your research to make sure similar organisations are not offering the same kind of activities and curriculum links, especially if their connections are stronger. Which leads to a final point about not being tenuous. Whilst it’s good to get creative with the curriculum, make sure the links are clear so teachers don’t have to think to hard.
Embracing educational diversity
Recent research flagged teachers’ concerns about how to manage and keep track of a school groups outside of a classroom environment as a potential deterrent. This is an extra concern for teachers are accommodating students with ADHD or behavioural issues, prone to over-stimulation. Cultural
organisations need to think about how they can support under-resourced teachers who want to embrace cultural opportunities outside of the classroom and instil the confidence to book the trip.
Interactive, self-directed learning, though, can be an invaluable way of engaging SEND pupils. A creative science initiative, carefully developed by a university programme in consultation with blind and visually impaired individuals and organisations, took a very tactile approach to learning about particle acceleration, using an interactive model of the hadron collider. This is a poorly served audience in general, but the dearth is all the more extreme in science education, where resources and collections tend to be visually based – a lot of diagrams and videos. Our evaluation of the initiative, delivered in a number of schools – some specifically for blind and visually impaired young people and other mainstream schools that hosted visually impaired students from across the area – yielded extremely positive feedback from pupils, who reported that, after interacting with the ‘tactile collider’ the scientific principles originally broached in class made much more sense – quite literally.
The Arts Council’s 2016 Now and the Future report that reviewed formal learning in museums suggested that, whilst c.15% of pupils in schools in England have SEND, only 6% of museums believe these pupils to make up a significant proportion of their school audiences. The flexibility that special educational needs schools have regarding curriculum and school-day arrangement, though, suggests that attendance from this group should be, and indeed is, on the rise.
“Teachers in our focus groups emphasised the importance of highlighting special needs provision in marketing materials and praised museums that go to extra lengths in accommodating children and young people with specific access requirements. With the latest DfE statistical release indicating that 15.4 per cent of all pupils in schools in England have special educational needs, this is a significant audience for museums. Support agencies consulted for our review suggest that museums, with their inherently stimulating and multi-sensory environment, have much to offer special education. But they also ask whether museums could go further in tailoring activities for children and young people with special educational needs and ensuring that teachers understand how flexible museum education can be.”
Now and the Future | Arts Council England