investing in drama and performing arts

This post is written by Lexi Earl. 

During my trip to Uxbridge High School Amy Walker, the drama teacher, was keen to show me their new performing arts building . This new space was opened in September. It features a large drama studio with long blackout curtains that has a wall of moveable windows that fold out to become an outdoor theatre, complete with lighting and sound; and a wing for music students to practice and attend lessons in. The building is aptly named the Orsino Building and features his famous quote from Twelfth Night, “if music be the food of love, play on”.

It is an impressive space indoors, where drama students can rehearse their productions, but it is even more exciting when you imagine the outdoor theatre full of people enjoying a play. Amy explained that they intend to put on a production in the space in the summer term when (hopefully) the weather will be pleasant.

I thought it was quite surprising (but very inspiring) for a school to build a space actively promoting drama and performing arts, given all the negativity nationally that surrounds arts education. I asked the students in Year 12 and 13 their thoughts about how the school values art and it was clear that they also saw the theatre and new spaces as proof that the school supported their work.

I’ve been here since Year 7 and between Year 7 and 8 there were a whole load of new drama teachers who came in and they’re the ones who teach here now, and since then I’ve noticed that drama was taken a lot more seriously and it became a more fleshed out department. Drama is taken very seriously by the department and thereby by the rest of the school because the stuff that is put on in drama like school productions; I have people who don’t take drama and have never taken drama, say that was really good, that was really amazing.

It’s the facilities as well. When I was back in Year 7 you had two little classrooms and they weren’t really good for drama at all and this building opened, the activities studio and the learning zone upstairs; and we’ve now got the Orsino Building which of course has the outside stage and the massive room in there, as well with state of the art lighting systems. It shows how keen not just of course the drama department are, but the rest of the school are to help improve not so much the facilities but also the perception of performing arts. Because if they show that the school cares then certain students are going to show that they already care and they might be more keen to get into it.

I then asked them what they thought the perception of drama and performing arts was within the school.

It’s a lot more accepted than what it was, five or six years ago. I think like back in Year 7 and Year 8 when we used to go round and you didn’t want to admit it. It was just oh I do drama and I like acting, but you never admitted it, whereas now loads of people come up to me and they know I do performing arts. You can be more open if you like acting or enjoy performing arts, because the school shows they’re invested in that.

At A-level, pretty much any performance that we spend a long period of time on, we like people – our friends – to come in and watch it. That helps with the perception because people realise it’s not just hours of playing drama games or pretending to be a tree; all those stereotypes about drama, because wow!, you’ve been working on a performance for five months and it was really good. I definitely think that helps.

The school’s investment in a performing arts space has clearly sent a signal to the students about the value of drama and performing arts, and this in turn, has boosted their confidence and willingness to share their passion with others. It was reassuring to see this valuing of arts, at a time when so much of what we read about arts education is negative.

 

inspiring future arts careers

This post is written by Lexi Earl on her visit to St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford.

In my conversation with Bernie Furey, the Assistant Head Teacher (Creativity and Research) at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford, she talked about the focus on giving students functional and useful art skills. This is to enable students to obtain jobs in the creative industries when they’ve finished studying. One of the ways the art teachers at St Ambrose do this is through developing a wide range of partnerships with creative organisations – from the Tate galleries to the Ideas Foundation to working with artists and design agencies.

The art department spends a lot of time organizing and taking their students to local galleries like Manchester Art Gallery and the Tate Liverpool so that students can see art on display and get ideas for their own work. These experiences have a long-term focus, extending the possibilities of what their students might aspire to be.

During our conversation, I asked Bernie if the department were conscious of the kinds of job markets that might exist when their students finished. 

Definitely and making sure that we are giving them those skills and we are working very closely with the digital industry in Manchester to make sure that our curriculum is fit for purpose.

One of the partnerships the department has is with McCann’s – a design agency that has offices in both London and New York City. In the weeks before my visit, the art department took a number of students from Year 10 and 6th form to New York City for 5 days. The packed schedule included a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Central Park and a show on Broadway as well as visits to MoMA, the Natural History Museum, and the Whitney.

The students spoke about their trip with enthusiasm:

Everything you could do in five days, we did.

[On the NYC galleries] They were all different I’d say. None of them were the same. In each one none of the art was the same. There was so much different art. So it was good for us to get ideas.

It was so big as well like. There were so many different types of art, to see them all, it was really good.

Some students also visited the McCann offices in NYC. One of the Year 12’s I spoke to there told me about her experience in the design agency:

I want to go into advertising and Ms. Furey has really helped me out with that. Because when we went to New York I went to visit McCann’s agency. […] We went to the 16th floor and they have the whole floor and it’s the creative side to it. They had different sections so we went round there. Then they were showing us how they create magazine covers and it was just really good to see how it’s all created. So they start off with a basic idea and then we moved on to how they edit it on Photoshop and then how they print it. They do loads of different prints to see which is best. It was just nice to see how it all comes together and how much work it actually takes to create something like that. It was just really good.

Rose Warner, one of the art teachers, explained about the importance of these kinds of experiences for their students.

It was great. The kids just loved it. […] We did a lot in five days and it was a really good trip and the kids get a lot from that for their sketchbooks. […] It’s an exhausting trip but it is brilliant because some of our kids haven’t even been out of Salford by the time they get to Year 10 and there were about four girls who had never flown before. That is a lot for them and it means to lot to them and they learn an awful lot from it even down to how to manage their own budget and money. […] I think for us it’s the chance for pupils to see us in a different way and a couple of years ago we took a girl who had completely switched off from art and when we took her to New York she returned a completely changed girl who wanted to get back to her art. We took a girl this year who is really quiet but creates beautiful art work but can’t talk about it and she came back with a much more confident side to her. I think it will help their confidence a lot.

Bernie and her team work to build these partnerships precisely so that their students are able to gain a lot of experiences whilst still at school. This, they hope, will help their students understand the wide range of job opportunities that exist, particularly in a creative hub like Manchester.

displaying and sharing art

This post is written by Lexi Earl, on her time at Welling School in Kent.

When I arrived at Welling School in Kent, I was immediately fascinated by the ‘mini gallery’ space in reception – a tall glass cube, filled with objects. It displayed work by Year 8 students, responding to work by American artist Judith Scott. These were vibrant, colourful balls that used thread and textiles to create new art from found objects. The wall next to this mini gallery was filled with posters advertising the school’s ‘alTURNERtive’ prize – a yearly art competition for students.

 

Welling is an art specialist school and there is a lot of opportunity to partake in art of various kinds, but what struck me in the first few moments was the clear importance of sharing and showing students’ work. In my few months on this project, I have noticed how students talk about sharing their work, and how comfort with sharing appears to develop over time – younger students tend to be more cautious about sharing their developing art works, whereas their older peers are sharing on social media and engaged in conversation with other young artists.

Students I spoke to clearly knew that their school valued the arts, their art in particular, and showcased this in various ways.

Art has always been very big in the school. I just think that it is appreciated.

They have an awards ceremony as well. The alTURNERtive prize they do that every year cause we have a gallery downstairs. And we have a lot of stuff around the room, like everyone’s work is displayed. Like last year, everyone’s final pieces will be up on the walls.

It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the school [the way it values art]. I used to go to [another school] and they’re into art as well but I thought that this was even more into art cause its what I want to go into so it felt like this was the right decision to come here.

When I asked how the school’s value of the arts made them feel they said:

It makes us want to do more big stuff and show it off, cause we know we can.

I feel less restricted cause you can make big stuff in this school.

One student explained about her experience in The alTURNERtive Prize:

So they choose a couple of people from Year 11, 12 and 13, art that they’ve done and they put it in the gallery and it’s like a show. Everyone comes in to watch it. And they choose an overall winner. […] It’s fun. It’s a good experience. You feel quite involved in everything and it feels a bit more real. And you feel like you get rewarded for the stuff you do, so it’s quite nice.

And what did everyone say when they came in and saw all the artwork?

It’s like not a community but like everyone’s joined together and everyone is like ‘oh, your work’s nice’, ‘and your work’s nice’ and you all give each other ideas. It’s a nice thing to do. It’s a good idea. It works.

Sharing art work at Welling was not only confined to formal gallery spaces or competitions. The teacher’s classrooms displayed student work, and the corridors of the art block were full of posters, art, photographs and notice boards showcasing recent plays or information on exhibitions students could visit.


At Welling I began to think about the role the school and teachers can play in creating spaces where students can share work in a gradual fashion – anonymously in the glass cube, with friends, family and other artists in the school gallery space, and eventually, on social media and in other public spaces. And through doing so, empower students to share their work with the world.

opportunity and art

This post is written by Lexi Earl about her recent visit to Archbishop Tenison School in London.

On our recent visit to Archbishop Tenison, Becky and I had a conversation with the Y13 art students. It was clear that they were taking advantage of the various opportunities they had been offered that connected them to art organisations and experiences outside of school – some were involved in Tate Collective, others in the October Gallery Youth Collective, and some had done work experience at Universal Studios. They supported each other’s efforts by attending events and going to exhibitions together, forming and creating their own art community.

october-gallery

By contrast, the Y10s were not yet involved in the arts community around them. In conversation I asked them whether they visited museums or galleries, either by themselves or with their families. They said no. They went on to say that it was likely that the only way they would visit such places would be on a school trip. This was interesting because ATS is a school in central London. The Tate is within walking distance. But these young people do not necessarily feel that they can access such places on their own.

Opportunities to become part of the art community, to participate in it, and to take up work experience do not happen by osmosis. The engagement of the Y13s in comparison to the Y10s is part of the work of Hannah King, their art teacher, and is an example of the role teachers play in connecting their students to wider opportunities and experiences within the arts and cultural organisations, either on their doorstep or more broadly in their communities.

Hannah explained the process through which she connects the students to opportunities they might not otherwise be able to access. She runs through her own personal contacts – friends and acquaintances working in a variety of industries that might be of interest to her students. She checks what opportunities might be possible with the organisations and businesses where she has contacts, looking at what is doable and realistic. She takes these opportunities to the Head of Sixth Form, to check whether the school can support the students to take advantage of an opportunity. Finally, she offers the various opportunities to the sixth form students – not only the art students, but anyone who might be interested. For example, students who are interested in the business side of arts organisations can also take advantage of these opportunities.

tate-collective

Hannah knows her students interests and future ideas, and is therefore able to tailor opportunities for them that will help them in the long run. As Hannah told us, it is not just the opportunity to gain work experience somewhere like Universal Studios, Apple, or Ministry of Sound. Having to put together a CV, and write a cover letter gives students practical life skills. This then supports their potential UCAS letters, and ultimately helps students once they start “thinking about how you apply for jobs”.

Teachers like Hannah King play an incredibly important role in connecting young people to the arts, widening the opportunities they may have, and exposing them to new ideas and people that they might otherwise miss.

ats-notice-board-outside-art-y2

where’s that going to get you?

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unspecifiedF62B22SWIn many of the schools we have visited, students complain about the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question. This question refers to their choice of art, drama, music, dance or photography as a GCSE subject. If we follow the question’s rather literal logic we might expect all students who have taken History to become Historians. Putting our collective understanding of the global employment context (or lack of it) aside for the time being, the ‘where’s that going to get you?’ question seems to have had an unexpected impact on young people. The 24 young people we meet in each of the thirty schools we are visiting, seem pretty clear about the value of the arts to their lives and refer to their own developing self expression, independent working, ability to take risks, collaborate and time manage. They also talk about personal growth and learning to empathise with the views of others in order to see the world from different perspectives. Whilst there is clarity and consensus about the value of art education, the students’ do not always have a similar breadth of knowledge and experience of the types of careers available to them as a result.

At Childwall School the range of partnerships with artists, creative and cultural institutions, such as the Tate, and universities directly addresses this issue. Students show an awareness of a wide range of future career possibilities and an awareness of the need to participate in creative communities in order to make important connections with art and artists in their city.

This ethos seems to emerge from the school, whose large scale public art and extensive murals create a sense of belonging as well access to art in the school itself. As Head of Art Chris Tyrer states:

We’re trying to get our pupils to buy into the idea of creating something and yet, if we are just telling them how to do it it’s completely different to them seeing something that is going to inspire them. For me if they are not inspired and they don’t see things in a real space then we are doing our pupils a disservice.

An appreciation of the wider ‘scene’ of arts practitioners in Liverpool has clearly made an impression on one student Alex Owens who describes himself as a Designer Maker and is a current student of Design at Liverpool Hope University. Alex works as an art technician at Childwall on a voluntary basis – he loves the place and is totally committed to it. I asked him why:

We once came up with the idea that it is a sense of belonging. That we should be here.

Alex also has a shared space at Bridewell studios which he says is great for students because it is so cheap. He describes how his teachers encouraged him to seek out interesting places to develop his ideas, as well as allowing him to retake exams and supporting him with university applications. Although he isn’t from an arty family he was often in a welder’s workshop with his Dad and is now already establishing himself as an artist. Alex finds Childwall an inspiring place to work and is unafraid of trying new approaches and materials:

I see new ways of making something every day. For example, digitally making via 3D rendering software and printing some ink via computer on to a T-shirt or piece of material.

To find out more about Alex’s work contact him on: alexowens13@icloud.com

The assumption in the question ‘where’s that going to get you?’ is that young people who do arts have little chance of ‘becoming an artist.’The impact of creating school spaces where young people work as artists and alongside artists therefore reflects and refracts this question in some thought-provoking ways.