Since the first national lockdown, there has been a surge of artistic spirit. From the making of TikTok videos and baking sourdough, to celebrity initiatives such as Gareth Malone’s lockdown choir and the abundance of digital resources produced by cultural organisations and freelance artists. People everywhere have been tapping into their creativity, discovering hidden talents and generating a sense of connectedness and boosting wellbeing.
This is especially apparent in schools; teachers are turning to the arts and creativity to boost engagement in home learning and to help young people navigate this challenging time.
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At Cheam High School in Surrey, the arts have always been integral to the school community, with students being given a range of opportunities to explore – whether they are studying arts subjects or not.
“We use the arts to help our students build resilience, confidence, self-esteem and courage,” explains the school’s Artsmark lead, Alexis Pelling.
“So, during lockdown, we were eager to weave the arts into online learning, allowing creativity to play a pivotal role in engaging, promoting and encouraging positive mental health and wellbeing during such an unsettling time.”
The arts faculty has set meaningful lessons across all year groups, achieving high levels of engagement, but whole-school projects have also been initiated.
“We ran a whole-school nature photography competition where students and staff were encouraged to take pictures on their daily walk or exercise to promote a love of nature – and we were inundated with entries,” says Pelling.
“Students were also invited to attend online theatre screenings, museum tours, art exhibitions and music events, and these were then discussed and reviewed with their peer groups.”
Other initiatives included inviting staff to take home a ukulele to develop a new skill; displaying student and staff artwork on social media; and creating virtual assemblies, lip-sync videos, toilet roll challenges and mental health and wellbeing daily tasks.
Cheam High School: Using the arts to boost mental health and wellbeing
And just before schools moved once again to home learning at the start of the year, student wellbeing remained a major focus of Cheam’s return-to-school programme. Initiatives included timetabled meditation and mindfulness sessions, ongoing discussion of positive mental health, and efforts to give students a safe space (as part of the Diana Award Anti-Bullying Campaign).
“We understand the pressures, anxieties, concerns and, in some cases, excitement about returning to school and we endeavoured to ensure that the transition was smooth, supportive and mindful," says Pelling. "Bespoke intervention packages have also been designed to support students, and the arts are used as part of this to build confidence and self-esteem.”
And staff are also included in the efforts to keep the school as mentally healthy as possible in unusually difficult circumstances.
“We have a dedicated member of staff who coordinates the wellbeing programme for staff, and the arts feature heavily within this,” Pelling continues.
“We offer a range of sessions, including time in the recording studio, art classes, photography, drama team building, mindfulness, reading and attending school productions.
“We are living in uncertain times; however, we are exceptionally proud of our students, their families and all of our staff for building such a supportive school community.”
Horningsham Primary School: How creativity promotes community
Horningsham Primary School has also kept arts and creativity at its heart during lockdown, and this has helped to maintain a strong school community, says the school’s headteacher Carole Andrews.
The rural school is in Wiltshire, with around 80 pupils aged 5 to 11, and it received the Artsmark Platinum Award in May 2019, long before lockdown closed its doors and the majority of its students began online learning from home.
“It’s interesting to be asked if we have been able to maintain our arts delivery during this time,” Andrews says. “For us, it would have been unthinkable not to.
“Creativity is a core value and expectation in our school and this unique time has challenged us to build on this to provide a supportive and workable remote and on-site learning community that is still vibrant, engaging and inclusive.”
She explains that working thematically and creatively has long been “a key approach” at the school and has continued to be during the pandemic, with topic-based creative tasks that have been enjoyed by students and their families.
“Creating arts challenges promoted widespread community engagement with all staff and families taking part. It also had a far wider impact on wellbeing and community identity that we had not anticipated, bringing us closer together during a time we were apart.”
And on the return to school, the task will be to keep creativity at the forefront when managing the changing guidance and challenges posed by the pandemic restrictions, Andrews explains.
“For us, it’s been about looking at what we can do rather than what we can’t – it may mean approaching things differently, but the arts will always be a wonderful vehicle for delivering a rich curriculum and supporting everyone’s wellbeing.”
As the challenges presented by the pandemic continue to be felt in schools, we know that wellbeing – of staff and pupils alike – will remain a major priority. And as the work at Hornsingham and Cheam demonstrates, the arts and creativity can play a major role in making these efforts meaningful and successful.
For more information about how Artsmark can offer support in developing arts provision, visit www.artsmark.org.uk/about-artsmark