Janice Middleton, Head, Edlington Victoria School, South Yorkshire, writes:
In the past few years a number of studies have highlighted the importance of cultural experiences for young people’s academic and social development. Participation in cultural activities can reduce the attainment gap between rich and poor children, and the Henley Review of Cultural Education in England recommended that every child in the UK, whatever their background, should have access to a wide variety of high quality cultural experiences.
I couldn’t agree more. Edlington Victoria School, in Doncaster, where I’ve been head for over 20 years, is in a very poor area with 35-40pc free school meals. Many children joining nursery have very limited vocabulary and understanding of language – some barely leave the street where they live and their education is a real task. From the minute they walk in at the age of three we’re constantly striving to develop their language by balancing the lack of opportunities available to our pupils through a rich programme of after-school activities and trips, many with a cultural theme. We believe participation in these activities helps our pupils to do well in their Sats.
Learning outside the classroom is a great motivator and deepens children’s understanding of the world. It is also one of the most effective ways of engaging pupils who can appear disinterested or lack confidence in a subject. Also a variety of well planned after school activities which supplement often bleak facilities in poor areas can develop cultural awareness, confidence through wider experiences, friendships, strengthened relationships and effective citizenship.
Linked to the curriculum a trip can provide a memorable learning experience which gives pupils fresh insight into a topic. Our Year 5 pupils, for example, study the book 'Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief’ which starts in a museum; they visited Liverpool museum and then wrote an account of their visit in the style of the book’s author. Another group of children visited the city of Sheffield where they went to galleries and the Millennium Gardens, compared architecture and the variety of activities in the city compared to those which are present in their own small town community. These experiences support the geography, literacy and art curricula. They then watched the 'Horrible History - Tudors' play at the Lyceum Theatre which complements their literacy (writing playscripts) and history.
Participating in cultural activities can also encourage young people to think differently about themselves and their lives, particularly when the event includes the chance to learn from and interact with an expert. Whether it’s a writer, an actor, a film producer or something more obscure, involvement with creative professionals is an important element of child/youth development in terms of raising aspirations and providing information about careers that children may previously have considered beyond their reach.
If cash is a problem, then one solution is to spend the Pupil Premium ensuring pupils from poorer households have access to enriched cultural provision.
Finding a school trip that’s inspiring, affordable, safe and simple to organise isn’t always easy, and I’m greatly looking forward to the inaugural National Youth Film Festival (October 21st-November 8th), a three-week programme of free premieres, screenings, Q&A’s and workshops, all with an educational remit, open to schools and colleges all over the UK. Film is a medium that’s accessible and appealing, regardless of age or ability, and can deliver a variety of academic and social benefits.
At my school we run a film club where children discuss and rate films – the art of discussion has improved and the breadth of language used has been enhanced by the variety of films watched which, in turn, has had a significant impact on the quality of pupils’ written work.
Many of the children who attend have either never been or only occasionally go to the cinema. For all these pupils, and others like them, the new festival presents opportunities to experience films on the big screen that they would never otherwise see, including films from around the world that will give them an insight into different cultures. Equally exciting are the wide selection of workshops and masterclasses, and the chance to learn about film-making and enjoy short films made by other young people.
Involvement with high quality, age-appropriate cultural activities from a young age can create passions and habits which will enhance an individual’s life into adulthood, provide them with skills and contribute to the UK’s creative and cultural industries in future. For many children access to these opportunities is still limited; when they present themselves we must embrace them.