How can school leaders support arts-based learning?

Published: 15 November 2023 
Author: Johanne Clifton 
Three school children in period dress take part in an drama-based learning session at Billesley Primary School. Credit: Billesley Primary School.
Pupils take part in arts-based learning session at Billesley Primary School. Photo credit: Billesley Primary School

Johanne Clifton, Teacher Development Fund Advisory Group Member and Director of Curriculum and Development for the Elliot Foundation Multi-Academy Trust, considers how senior leaders can develop a long-term strategic position around staff development, the arts and their vision for education.

Imagination keeps us curious and inspired within. It encourages us to daydream, create and shape the world we live in.

From We All Have Imagination’ by Thereza Rowe 

It is commonplace on social media to read posts that observe how everyone is busier than ever, but, in spite of this, life doesn’t feel any more meaningful. Yet speak to any headteacher and the reason they enter the profession and, indeed, step up to leadership is because they want to make a difference to the lives of children.

But there is never any time to think, and if you don’t get time to think you remain in reactive mode hoping that when you get to the bottom of the list, the really important, deeper stuff can get done. But, realistically, can this ever happen? There will always be another question, another emergency. Yet without time to think and reflect, longer-term systemic change is hard to achieve.

Investing time

In July, I received an email from a deputy headteacher in a school with significant challenges. They have been working in partnership with Open Theatre, a non-verbal physical theatre company whose tagline is Doing Difference Differently’. This school has a number of children with specific special needs and disabilities and has been struggling to find a way forward through classroom support and additional interventions, including one-to-one adult help. They were open to look at things differently. The email said that during a difficult moment, a child suddenly began to dance. The teacher began to dance alongside them, communicating with their hands and body just like the moves in the Open Theatre sessions. And so, teacher and child found a way forward together in those small steps that are so vital in school life. This is because that school collectively prioritised this work and the time it takes as important.

A new way of thinking

To take a step into arts-based learning, a leader needs to accept that this isn’t a quick win like buying a scheme of work and sharing resources. It is a way of thinking and being in school that reaps benefits over time. In the short term, we know that collaborating with creative practitioners will improve engagement and motivation, as well as child and teacher wellbeing, and even happiness. There will be those special moments when we see children who may not normally be chosen to take on a role suddenly shine and we learn something new that can help us in normal classroom lessons. Aren’t our best memories from primary school those moments of togetherness and celebration through performance, music and dance?

However, success in the arts is hard work. This is what makes it satisfying and ultimately rewarding. Sometimes, it needs resilience, for example, returning to a drawing that’s not quite right or refining an awkward dance move. But the ultimate result is worth it. I am thinking of two Year 6 classes I visited in Uxbridge both working with a local gallery. One teacher visited with their form as an enrichment activity and the other built on the visits within class working on a carefully constructed sequence of skills to create high-quality observational drawings. Although time-consuming, the rewards were a collection of stunning drawings, showing the individual flair unique to each child. It was worth that investment of time rather than going for the quick win.

Curriculum Development

As an academy trust leader, with responsibility for the curriculum and development, my focus is on helping schools to design and achieve the best possible curriculum for the communities they serve. To this end, I work alongside leaders to agree on the elements that create an inspiring and effective curriculum. Although school leaders are busy and often trapped within the day-to-day of school life, whether roof repairs or budgets etc, give them just an hour or so to reflect on what they want to achieve and they quickly regain a sense of purpose and clarity. They want to make a difference to the lives of their children — they want a rich, inspiring offer that includes every child. But they need time, space and belief to enact this with conviction.

Investing in Professional Development

This is where investment in staff professional development and learning is key. The teachers I work with can feel constrained within schemes of work and their worries about ensuring the curriculum builds on knowledge over time in a sequential way. This is so important of course and is the key to unlocking future learning. How can creating a Saxon hall in the classroom be meaningful without some knowledge of the Saxon hierarchy and the story of Beowulf?

I have been thinking about my experiences of working with aspirant leaders who have done the Golden Thread programmes, such as the National Professional Qualification in Senior Leadership or similar. They learn valuable skills and access wider reading. However, they want more than an expanded early career framework narrative that allows them to stand outside and reflect on their practice. They want to engage in professional curiosity and different ways of looking for themselves. What other opportunities do teachers have access to beyond these programmes and school-based CPD, which is often aligned to school priorities and improvements linked to core areas such as phonics and maths? Where else do they learn about different pedagogical approaches?

The arts-based learning approaches that the Elliot Foundation MAT have been investing in are based on meeting school leaders where they are. They involve professional dialogue and challenge, moving the conversation away from assessment and accountability to longer-term sustained impact. Through a range of partnerships, including the Royal Opera House Cultural Champions programme, we are investing in our middle leaders to learn broader leadership skills whilst anchoring the programme of work in the arts to give it meaning. The Performing Pedagogy programme (pilot round of Teacher Development Fund) is still a core part of the pedagogy at Billesley Primary School where I was headteacher until a few years ago. The teachers involved in the TDF learned new strategies that were then embedded across other classes year on year. The original cohort of pupils achieved a significantly greater proportion of depth in their Year 6 SATs outcomes. But what was more important was the impact on their confidence to think more deeply and use a greater range of vocabulary/​language structures. The prized outcome was deeper cognitive development and language development — and this in turn improved the classic measures of SATs outcomes. 

Strategic leadership and the arts

In summary, how do senior leaders move beyond sorting practicalities into a longer-term strategic position around staff development, the arts and their vision for education?

When developing any programme of work, time needs to be taken to explore the reasons why this work is needed and is valuable with trustees and governors, school leaders and staff within school. I would explore within these discussions how the arts-based approaches align and develop leaders’ ambitions, beliefs and expectations. Senior leaders need to be fully engaged from the programme conception, planning and reflection phases. If arts-based learning is worth doing, then leaders have to give it their time otherwise the learning cannot be embedded at a strategic level. Leaders need to understand that this is a long-term investment, not a quick win. Finally, leaders need to be part of networks or communities of practice to explore what they have learned and to observe and reflect on practice elsewhere. TDF cohort events and resources are designed to open up such a space. This is why time and space to think and explore are especially important, not as a nice to have’ but as part of the central conversation with wider Trust leaders or governors.

Arts-based learning isn’t an add-on to the work of the school; it’s what keeps us holding onto hope and reminding us of our core purpose, provided we give it the time and focus it needs to flourish.

No headshot