For many schools, artistic achievement and academic rigour may seem like polar opposites. With limited funds and time, schools often feel like they need to focus on one (academic) over the other (the arts). However, at The Victory Academy we’ve shown it’s possible to drive both cultural and academic success simultaneously. We’ve drawn inspiration from our Platinum Artsmark Award to offer an expansive, well-rounded education that unleashes the potential of every one of our students.
While our school has always been strong in the arts, I have made them a core part of the school’s overall vision and identity, and linked cultural education to academic achievement. When I first took over as principal three years ago, the arts were an island of excellence, providing great opportunities for students but not making connections with other areas of teaching and learning, and not enhancing students’ overall growth or improving their academic results as much as possible.
I knew that the school needed an identity, and that cultural education was going to be the backbone of this. One of the first things I said to myself when I joined was: “We are going to be an Artsmark Platinum school.” With my background in the performing arts, including running a drama school and organising and leading drama workshops in a variety of settings, I was determined to capitalise on the school’s existing arts specialism to drive whole-school improvement and academic success.
We have maximised artistic opportunities for all our young people, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and used this as a way to enhance our academic curriculum. The results have been superb: our students have achieved great things across drama, dance, music, art and design technology, and this has acted as the springboard to the record Progress 8 results in GCSEs last year. Our academy was ranked the best non-selective school in Medway by the Department for Education for progress, the government’s headline measure.
It’s important to celebrate artistic achievement in its own right. Our excellent cultural education, led by head of visual art Carley Dawkins and head of performing arts Hannah Couch, has enabled our students to score strong arts A-level results, with many going on to study arts-based higher education courses – something that fills me with great pride and excitement. One of our students has this year been accepted at the prestigious Urdang Academy in London to study musical theatre, while many more have featured in high-profile performances and shows.
Building links to the community
While art is good in itself, its benefits spread across the entire curriculum. Art is a voice and a form of expression, and engages students in the school community. When students feel empowered in this way, they grow in confidence, feel more comfortable showcasing their talents and skills, and perform better across the board. Art simply cannot be seen as an add-on to mainstream academic education – it should be an intrinsic part of a school’s ethos.
As well as being a driving force behind our own artistic and academic success, the Artsmark Platinum award has provided a fantastic platform from which to engage with the local community. This has given our students the opportunity to learn about Medway’s rich cultural heritage, and enabled us to share best practice with other schools.
We are passionate about making Medway’s heritage accessible to all, and to do this we make it our mission to engage with local bodies and share our expertise. For example, I am chair of the emerging Medway Local Cultural Education Partnership, which is collaborating with Medway Council on an innovative £50,000 project to enhance cultural learning. I also sit on the board of local arts charity Nucleus Arts, and have strong links with the Royal Opera House. In addition, we have members of staff on the Medway Music Hub board leading the hub’s teacher development work, and we’ve given workshops at the International Thinking Skills Conference, showcasing our leadership on how to dovetail artistic and cognitive learning.
What really makes a difference is when our students go out and help others to express their artistic personalities. For example, our Year 12 and 13 students recently helped deliver a summer arts programme for disadvantaged students, and Year 10 students collaborated with a range of local schools and community groups to produce a Christmas concert.
The next step for us is furthering our outreach even more. As an Artsmark Platinum school, we are part of a tiny group of less than 1 per cent of schools nationwide who are in a great position to share artistic expertise with others. I am determined to spread the word not only about the intrinsic value of art, but about its capacity to transform life chances across all subjects, be the basis for strong academic results and enable students to grow both as thinkers and as people – which is ultimately what education is all about.
Mandy Gage is principal of The Victory Academy, in Chatham, Kent. The school is part of the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, a family of 13 schools in south-east England