the research

The project

Tracking Arts Learning and Engagement (TALE) was a three-year longitudinal research project funded by Arts Council England from 2015-18. The project partners were The Royal Shakespeare Company (Education), Tate (School and Teachers team), and The University of Nottingham. The research investigated four main questions:

  • What do teachers learn from deep engagement with cultural organisations?
  • How do teachers translate this learning into classroom pedagogies?
  • What do students gain from these learning experiences?
  • What do the different models of teacher professional development provided by the RSC and Tate offer and achieve?

Tate and RSC have adopted innovative but different approaches to teachers’ continuing professional development and learning [CPDL].

  • Tate Schools and Teachers team offers individual teachers the opportunity to engage in immersive experiences, either through a network, through single CPDL events or through an intensive Summer School that takes place at the gallery. Through encounters with artists and artist mediated materials teachers are encouraged to experience, as learners, the pedagogical principles of open-ended, critical aesthetic inquiry. They are supported to consider how they might curate learning in which pupils question, explore, challenge, play and interpret. Tate St Ives and Liverpool also focus on individual teachers but within the context of their schools.
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company offers school-focused professional development in which key teachers work alongside RSC professionals to embed RSC rehearsal room approaches to Shakespeare’s texts across a national network of schools. The RSC offer is rooted in the real-world work of actors and directors in the rehearsal room and explores the interpretive possibilities of the text. Teachers are encouraged, as learners, to get out of their seats and use their bodies, minds and emotions to get to grips with poetic and metaphoric language and the texts. They then take these approaches and use them in the classrooms. They are supported to consider how they can make the teaching of the only compulsory author in the national curriculum more vivid, accessible and enjoyable.

These two different models of teacher development – one focused on the individual teacher and the other on the teacher within their school setting – provided a unique research opportunity for investigating the different affordances and benefits of these models of CPDL, for teachers and for their pupils. At the same time, the research aimed to support the two organisations to learn from each other, strengthen their partnership and provide longitudinal evidence about the impact of committed arts teaching in schools.

The sample of schools and teachers

The research was conducted in thirty secondary schools[1], fifteen nominated by the RSC and fifteen by TATE, because of the long-term professional involvement of either a teacher (TATE) or school (RSC) with the gallery/company. The schools are spread across the regions of England from Northumberland to Cornwall. Three of the schools are special schools.

This was a purposive, not a representative, sample. We took the schools’/teachers’ involvement with the RSC or Tate CPDL programmes as an indication of (at least) a reasonable degree of commitment to arts and cultural education, so the sites were chosen for their potential to give empirical and theoretical richness to a critical but appreciative inquiry.  In fact, the schools are far from homogeneous; they serve very different communities and were faring differently in terms of Ofsted inspection ratings at the time when the research was conducted[2].

We aimed to follow 60 teachers over three years, two per school: Teacher X, who had been involved with the professional development offered by the RSC or Tate, and Teacher Y who worked alongside Teacher X. In the event, the final total of teacher participants was higher (80), due to staff turnover, and we did not quite hit our target of 60 teacher interviews each year (see table 2). However, there was a core of 35 teachers who were interviewed in each of the three years of the project.

Year Teachers interviewed Notes
1 54
2 59 Plus 3 additional teachers and 1 art technician
3 54 Plus 2 art technicians

Table 1: Teacher interviews

Because of the nature of the arts organisations involved, most of the teachers in our sample were teachers of art, photography, drama, performing arts or English, though in schools with Creative Arts faculties we sometimes interviewed teachers of design and technology, with textiles or food specialisms.

Each year we visited each of the schools for between one and three days. Research visits in Year One were conducted between November 2015 and July 2016; Year Two visits took place between October 2016 and June 2017; Year Three visits started in September 2017 and were completed by June 2018.

Wherever possible, in the early stages of the project we recorded and transcribed interviews with each school’s head or executive head teacher or an appropriate senior leader. We conducted 24 of these senior leader interviews in total in year 1 and supplemented them with a further six interviews in year 2. In these interviews we asked about strategic and contextual issues and the school leaders’ views about the role of arts and cultural education.

We recorded and transcribed interviews with Teachers X and Y each year. We asked the teachers questions about: their own participation in the arts, both recreational and professional; their perception of the benefits of the arts to their students and to themselves; their educational philosophy and their planning, preparation, teaching and assessment of their subject. We followed up different themes in these interviews each year, depending on the issues that were arising from our ongoing analysis, and building on/revisiting issues that had been raised in previous interviews. Broadly, in year 1 we asked about the teachers’ personal backgrounds, engagement in the arts and philosophies of teaching; in year 2 we focused on planning and partnership working, and in year 3 we asked about pedagogical practice and arts learning in and out of school. As our aim was to understand the teachers in their various contexts, we used semi-structured interviews that allowed us to follow up interesting individual differences where these occurred.In all of the teacher interviews we enquired about CPDL and any links with the RSC, Tate or any other arts and cultural organisations, and in years 2 and 3 we asked whether the teachers’ work or the situation in their school had changed since the previous year. We examined, took photographs and wrote field notes about their classrooms, their teaching programmes and pupil work. Where possible, we watched them teach.

Student data

We also tracked students across the three years of the project in each of the 30 schools.Each year we recorded interviews with students in years 10-13 (ages 14-18) who were studying the arts. We talked to focus groups of students from the same year group, in each of the schools.  The size of focus groups ranged from one-on-one, to seven students. Most were comprised of four students. We aimed for two groups per teacher per year group and to interview 24 students per school, each year. For logistical and other reasons it was not always possible to speak to the same students year on year, but in many cases we managed to do that. We spoke to students who had actively consented to be involved in the research, without teachers present. All interviews were recorded, coded and thematised after the visit, and key exchanges and quotations were transcribed. Through these focus groups, we spoke to almost 1500 students in years 10-13. (See table 2).

Year No of focus groups No of students interviewed
1 124 569
2 120 484
3 96 439
Total 340 1492

Table 2. Student interviews.

In 2016-7, year 2 of the project, we also conducted a survey of Key Stage 4 and 5 students in the sample schools to find out about students’ engagement with arts and cultural activities in and out of school.  The survey is designed to replicate some items from the annual DCMS/Arts Council Taking Part survey so that we can compare students in the TALE schools against a representative national sample. We also added questions about subject choice in school and career intentions. We began with an online survey and, when we found that some schools were having difficulties in organising students’ online access, we conducted a second wave of data collection in the autumn of 2017 using paper and pencil surveys. In the end, 4,477 questionnaires were completed with just over half (2,310) completed on paper. Females are over-represented in the survey respondents (see table 3) so a matched sub-sample of 14/15 year olds was created to draw comparisons with the Taking Part data.[3]

Male 35.7%
Female 59.9%
Non-binary 2.5%
Prefer not to answer 1.9%
Total 100.0%

Table 3. Survey responses by gender.

Confidential school level reports of the survey findings were created for and shared with each of the schools that made a statistically significant return.

Analysis, ethics and partnership working

We amassed a large amount of data about the case study schools over the three years of the study. We worked systematically using templates and schedules, cross-visiting schools and meeting frequently to share findings. To ensure that our processes were iterative, we transcribed and began to codify data as we went along, looking for emerging themes or issues that we needed to return to in the following year’s visit.  As patterns emerged, we shared them and discussed them across the university/RSC/Tate partnership team.

The University of Nottingham research team consisted of Pat Thomson and Chris Hall; Becky Parry worked as the researcher for the first year of the project; Lexi Earl was the researcher in years 2 and 3. Corinna Geppert joined the team in year 3 to work particularly on the analysis of the statistical data. The Tate team member was Emily Pringle, with Amy McKelvie deputising for Emily while she was on research leave. RSC Education, led by Jacqui O’Hanlon, was the lead partner in terms of organising and managing the meeting and reporting processes. This was important beyond the obvious need for administrative efficiency and accountability. We had identified from the outset that we wanted to work in a participatory and collaborative research partnership.[4]  We therefore devised a structure for sharing and discussing findings. Regularly timetabled ‘working group’ meetings brought together the university researchers with the Tate Learning team or the RSC Education team to discuss emerging findings in their 15 nominated schools. These discussions fed into scheduled governance meetings that brought all three partners together with an Arts Council representative. These meetings were a vital part of the process of making sense of the data we were collecting in the case study schools and through the survey.


Constructing the sample. The overall TALE sample consists of 1,693 14-year-olds and 1,477 15-year-olds. In the TALE sample 36% of students are male and 60% are female (3% identify as non-binary and 2% preferred not to answer the question). Nationally there is an equal distribution of males and females in state-funded schools and independent schools. The Taking Part sample reflects the national distribution of males/females (e.g. the 2015/6 sample was 49/51% male/female. To overcome the skewing of the TALE sample, a subsample was drawn, comprising 136 female and 139 male 14-15 year olds. This is the sample used to draw the comparisons.

2010/11 211/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 TALE-subsample
14 year-olds 224 152 182 157 148 126 152
15 year-olds 213 147 156 157 132 141 123
total 437 437 437 437 437 437 275


[1]29 in year one because of the late withdrawal of one school: 14 nominated by Tate and 15 by the RSC. Due to changes in schools’ circumstances, in Year 2 three new schools were recruited to the project.

[2]Ofsted ratings of schools changed over the course of the research but, broadly, the profile of the sample was: outstanding – 8 schools, good – 13 schools, requires improvement – 7 schools, inadequate – 2 schools.

[3]The TALE surveywas open to all students in years 10, 11 and 12 in the 30 case study schools. The Taking Part survey is a continuous face-to-face household survey of adults aged 16+ and children aged 5-15 years old in England. It collects data on engagement in arts, museums and galleries, archives, libraries, heritage and sport. For comparison with the TALE survey, we used Taking Part data relating to 14-15 year-olds from the 2010-2016 child datasets. Sample sizes can be seen in the table below.

[4]We found Durham Community Research Team’s publication Community-based Participatory Research helpful to us in framing this early discussion.

One thought on “the research

  1. I love what you are doing. I think that Shakespeare needs to be studied as a performance rather than a publication. Every Shakespeare enthusiast will agree that the bards work should be seen and not read.
    Even so, we have found through our workshops that some of the students we have worked with do not engage with the text as well as others.

    We have found our own solution. I wonder if this could be of any help to you?


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