How the arts inspired confidence in our pupils with SEND

Putting our students with SEND at the forefront of collaborative arts projects has had a huge impact on their learning

If I had been asked last year how best we could develop confidence and social and communication skills among our students with SEND, undertaking collaborative arts projects probably wouldn't have been my first thought. While we wanted to create more authentic cultural experiences for our students, we never imagined they would have such an impact on their learning.

We became a founding member of Tate Exchange, an experiment exploring the ways that art can change people's lives, and the projects we've undertaken at Thomas Tallis School have had a significant impact on the quality of art education we can offer our students. Through the arts, we've been able to offer our SEND students opportunities for leadership, developing their sense of agency and control.

When we first set out on our Artsmark Award journey, one of our objectives was to develop a student arts council. Now we're in our second year, and one of our Tate Exchange projects is jointly led by staff and students in our art department and School Centre for Autism and Language Impairment. It's a huge step forward for our students, who get to see how collaboration and creative thinking activities can enhance their social and communication skills.

The theme of last year's project was, not surprisingly, exchange. The project began with a relatively simple question: 'Can we make an art gallery from a garden shed?" Inspired by Bob and Roberta Smith's Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art - a shed in Bob's garden - we transformed a rickety old shed into a gallery, the Thomas Tallis Centre for Contemporary Art.

Our team of Year 7 and 8 students, all of whom have statements for autism and/or speech and language impairments, had a weekly session with our art technician Yannik Eilers, a practising artist. In these sessions they are encouraged to think and behave like contemporary artists, noticing their surroundings, engaging with materials, responding to the world with head, heart and hands and exhibiting their work in the new gallery. It's remarkable to see the difference engaging in the arts has had on our pupils. The students take charge of their own learning, follow their own interests and develop their own ideas in the way that an artist would.

Through this project, we learnt that our students enjoy working outside the classroom, using their hands to make, do and mend. They developed a real sense of pride in their work and really wanted to share that work with others. On 5 April 2017, we shared our project 'Everybody should have their own gallery' with members of the public in Tate Exchange. We also shared our film of the project and were delighted that artist Bob and Roberta Smith was able to come along and join in the fun.

A year on, and having achieved our Artsmark Platinum Award, this year's project is entitled 'Where are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?' Students have again worked like contemporary artists, using a range of strategies to re-map the school. The corridor has become a huge constantly growing, open mind map, a space to collect and curate the evidence of the students' investigations.

Sharing best practice

As an Artsmark Platinum school, we enjoy sharing our ideas and practice with our network of schools. We've begun collaborating with colleagues and students from other Greenwich schools: Halley Academy and The John Roan School both have Designated Special Provisions (DSPs) for autistic students and they have been enthusiastic partners in this year's Tate Exchange project.

Victoria Hodgson, leader of our School Centre for Autism and Language Impairment at Tallis, is convinced of the benefits of this collaborative project for the students: "One student, who started refusing to talk to any strangers, now converses happily with many people and has started to join in conversations with unfamiliar adults"

It's not just the students that have benefited from the collaborative approach. Working together has helped our teachers to discover more about their pupils with SEND. Kate Ling, a lead teacher from The John Roan School, told me: "Our staff wanted to learn more about how autistic students notice. We wanted to consider access, communication, belonging, alienation, navigation, distance, engagement, ownership of a building and thinking like an artist. Our work in this project has enabled us to do this."

The students gain experience in thinking like an artist. One student, who has found the uncertainty of making art frustrating in the past, when asked to map what an artist is, said: "I'm drawing my brain". Being an artist has allowed students to explore other ways of being themselves. This project has been an important experiment in developing their sense of agency and control.

Engaging with our local and regional school networks through arts partnerships has been extremely valuable. Working together on Tate exchange has enabled DSP leaders to strengthen ties and working collaboratively in this way, through the arts, has really transformed the lives of our students.

Jon Nicholls is director of Arts & Creativity at Thomas Tallis School

Find out more information about the Artsmark Award here