The RSA academies' Performing Arts Hub is a three year project to transform the way performing arts is integrated into teaching and learning. Through long-term, strategic partnerships with local and national partners from the performing arts industry, we want to develop a model that can inspire the creation of similar hubs across the country.
So, I’m in my first fortnight at the RSA, having just said a fond farewell to the Tricycle Theatre, where I’ve led their Creative Learning programme for the last couple of years. It’s a bit odd that none of my new colleagues are talking about putting a show on, but as if to assist my acclimatisation, my first project in the new role is to set up a performing arts hub that will serve the five RSA academies in the West Midlands. Thanks to a legacy donation (for which we’re seeking 100% match funding) we’ve been given an opportunity to create a new model for using the arts to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students, help teachers develop skills, integrate professional performing arts practice into the curriculum and build stronger, more strategic connections with arts organisations.
Having come from an arts organisation which does a lot of work with schools and now working on the other side of that equation, I do feel a little like a spy in the opposite camp. It’s not that the two sides are enemies; there’s a definite sense of common purpose and some great relationships already exist, not least at the RSA academies. Having visited almost all of the academies this week, I know that there are some incredible teachers, motivated to ensure that their students get a rigorous, vigorous and fun cultural and creative education that connects students to professional artists and arts organisations. But there’s a growing desire on both sides to collaborate more effectively to improve outcomes for students, teachers and the whole school.
Schools often complain that in spite of feeling inundated by marketing materials from arts organisations, the opportunities available to them aren’t always visible. Arts organisations complain that although they are reaching out to disadvantaged schools, they end up ‘super-serving’ the usual suspects, where need is less. When they do manage to connect, neither side is entirely used to the peculiarities of the commissioning relationship and it’s a familiar story that schools don’t always know exactly how much they can ask for and that arts organisations don’t know how (or don’t feel like it’s their place) to engage with school improvement objectives. Often, arts organisations have a selection of products (workshops, visits, talks) that are on offer for the schools to purchase and the relationship ends up being merely transactional.
I’m particularly keen to investigate how we can use the Hub to answer some of these problems:
- How can long-term partnerships lead to better targeted provision and better match arts organisations' offer to schools' needs?
- How can we get schools to work up an exacting brief and how can we get artists to feel secure in maintaining their unique and divergent thinking while working to someone else’s objectives?
- How can we use the RSA academies’ new Teaching Schools Alliance to embed performing arts pedagogy into teaching more broadly?
So, why focus on the performing arts? Like a lot of things about an English education system which has been changing more radically and more rapidly than at any time in living memory, the current map of performing arts provision in schools isn’t all that clear. There’s evidence from the last 4 years that it’s been both growing and shrinking, evidence that policy makers and schools themselves see it as a nice-to-have and other evidence that they see it as of crucial importance. (The Cultural Learning Alliance have just published this analysis, which is a helpful guide to the grey area.) What does seem to be clear is that since the introduction of the EBacc, a common response from schools has been to focus more of their attention and class time on the subjects it incorporates, making room by cutting others. Performing arts subjects have been feeling the sharpest cuts and this is impacting disproportionately on schools serving disadvantaged communities.
Does cutting arts provision in order to raise exam success in Ebacc subjects pay off? Evidence suggests that a high quality creative and cultural education can be a powerful tool in raising expectations and attainment across the curriculum, including in English and maths. When government seems to be a bit schizoid about this issue (championing creative and cultural education on the one hand, denigrating it on the other) we need school leaders to hold their nerve and take a radical route to improving student outcomes, through a focus on whole person development that includes the arts.
We’re not alone in developing a model for local partnerships between schools and cultural organisations in the wake of Darren Henley’s call to action a couple of years ago and there are some other exciting projects happening – including these in London and these in Barking, Bristol & Great Yarmouth. However, we’re in the unique position of having action research integrated with a family of academies aligned to the RSA’s mission and, crucially, with a Fellowship eager to mobilise for these kinds of changes in education. I’m still getting my feet under the desk, but as the curtain goes up on the Performing Arts Hub, I’ll be letting Fellows know how they can keep up to date or get involved, or help ensure that our model can inspire action elsewhere. Watch this space (and please do comment below!)…