How the arts can engage hard-to-reach students

A journey to become Artsmark accredited led this PRU to offer more arts-based education, resulting in a broader education for its students

Sue Parillon

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When I became head of school at New Regents College, the pupil referral unit for Hackney in east London, two years ago, we had the opportunity to make some changes. Our executive head, Richard Brown, suggested we try for an Artsmark Award, the Arts Council’s accredited quality standard for schools, but I felt it would be a bridge too far. We were only offering art on our curriculum at the time and much of our work focused on behaviour management.

But one inspiring quote attributed to WB Yeats was a constant earworm: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." With this in mind, I set out on our Artsmark journey with fantastic support from Sarah Conway, at The Urswick School (our partnership school) and Kim Matthews, our English teacher.

We started by reflecting on our current curriculum offer. It helped us to realise just how arts-poor it was. We started by devising a CPD programme to enable all staff to improve their practice and use the arts to engage and educate pupils. We set ourselves the goal of having an Arts Week in six months’ time. Within weeks, we had bought into Hackney Music Service and added drama to our weekly menu.

The most important thing was conducting a staff skills audit. This was an inclusive approach that enabled all staff to buy into our vision of creating a rich and culturally diverse Arts Week. As a result of this audit, we added music production, juggling, origami, SFX make-up and photography to our list of activities. Cooking was timetabled weekly and creative writing became a focus at our school with opportunities for spoken word embedded.

The more enthused the pupils became, the more the staff mirrored this. Our first Arts Week involved every teacher and all support staff developing a week of arts-based activities. We had a theatre trip, a public art exhibition and a host of enriching arts-based activities. It was a huge success, celebrated at the end of the week with a whole school presentation and feast of foods from around the world created by our young people.

Setting out on our Artsmark journey, our plans were focused on developing our creative approaches to teaching and learning just for Arts Week, more of a nod and a wink to the arts. However, the shift towards an arts-focused curriculum galvanised a feeling of pride in our school and our practice, giving pupils and staff a tangible sense of achievement and success. Pupils took pride in vibrant displays of their work. Previously, displays rarely lasted a week or two, being ripped from walls as a protest or simply a vehicle for frustration, but these remained intact - it became almost sacrilege to destroy a display.

Broader experiences

As a PRU, our cohort is made up of pupils who have previously failed in formal education. They arrive with the burdens and trauma of being rejected and permanently excluded. Many lacked the interest and self-belief required to be successful within school. Our new and improved arts-focused approach has enabled these pupils with complex needs, mostly manifesting as challenging behaviour, to access all subjects within the curriculum and begin to make real and accelerated progress.

As a result of their improved engagement, self-regulation and self-belief, we have been able to engage a wider range of visiting professionals into school and offer a broad range of external learning experiences, such as visiting First World War battlefields in France and Belgium, attending theatre productions and visiting art and museum exhibitions. We are currently planning a whole school residential trip.

Pupils have the opportunity to perform at our annual award ceremony in front of parents and carers. These exciting and engaging opportunities greatly enrich our pupils’ experiences. Many of our pupils had not left Hackney or been allowed on trips at their previous schools due to their behavioural difficulties. Our young people have now developed a respect and understanding of the positive opportunities life has to offer. 

All pupils are benchmarked when they start at New Regents College. One of these baseline assessments is the Pupil Attitude to Self and School (P.A.S.S.). This measures the more hard-to-quantify feelings of self-worth and attitude to learning and teachers. After three months we reassess and have data to compare progress. The results speak for themselves with pupils making outstanding progress in every element of P.A.S.S. This is powerful data when reintegrating pupils back into the mainstream setting.

Initially, our Artsmark vision was limited and insular. We wanted to improve our practice and pupil engagement during Arts Week. But our vision seems to have grown exponentially and now has a life of its own. This was cemented when we started to develop partnerships with outside agencies, organisations and the wider community.

This list now exceeds 30 organisations, including The Royal Academy of Dance, Pan Arts, Cardboard Citizen, Arcola Theatre and the Blesma Foundation. Our journey has been an organic process in which one successful experience has lead naturally to many more. Our confidence as educators has grown almost identically to our pupils’ confidence as learners.

I would highly recommend any school embark on the Artsmark journey. The outcomes have far exceeded expectation; we have grown as educators and as a direct result, pupil outcomes have also improved manifestly. As for our Artsmark status, we were awarded Gold in September 2017.

Sue Parillon is head of school at New Regent College in Hackney, east London

  • Find out more information about the Artsmark Award here

Sue Parillon

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