Putting creativity at the centre of learning

What should families look for in a school if they have a child who is particularly gifted in the performing arts or has a special interest in it?

Merchiston Castle School

Merchiston Castle School

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Creativity has long been undervalued as a key skill for students, whether they are studying the arts or STEM subjects, with schools focussing on more academic, quantifiable outcomes. However, with global employers crying out for graduates with skills that meet the needs of the 21st-century economy – from innovation to critical thinking and adaptability – schools are placing a higher value on creativity and are looking for exciting and engaging ways to nurture this skill in their students.
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In a letter to the Guardian newspaper in 2018, several prominent artists, including Tracey Emin and Antony Gormley, expressed their concerns about the status of arts and creative subjects in UK secondary schools. Concerns were raised over the government’s drive for 90% of GCSE pupils to choose the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) subject combination by 2025, which does not include any arts or creative subjects.The letter said, “There is compelling evidence that the study of creative subjects is in decline in state schools and that entries to arts and creative subjects have fallen to their lowest level in a decade. Young people are being deprived of opportunities for personal development in the fields of self-expression, sociability, imagination and creativity.”
The creative industries bring in over £100 billion to the UK economy each year, but this is often little publicised in the drive to fill job vacancies. Schools around the world are realising the importance of STEAM, which takes the principles of STEM to the next level by incorporating that arts, and are working hard to promote creative subjects.

The global creative success of one UK state school

Kirsty Mehta, deputy principal at The BRIT School in Croydon, UK – a state-funded performing arts school that boasts alumni such as Adele, Amy Winehouse and Tom Holland – explains some of the keys to its success and why she believes that arts and creative subjects should be placed at the centre of the curriculum in order to help children thrive.
The BRIT School is one of just three state-funded performing arts schools in the country. Founded in 1991 by two musicians and investment from Richard Branson, it is a state-funded school with support from the British Record Industry Trust (BRIT).The school flies the flag for both the creative and vocational curriculum – 99% of its students go on to further education or employment and Ms Mehta believes strongly that the vocational subjects that students take at the school (which are part and parcel of the study programme) mean that they are work-ready and easily employable.Children can join at either 14 or 16 and – at 14 – study a core curriculum of GCSEs, which includes Maths, English and Science, but they also have five hours a week dedicated to working towards BTEC qualifications in numerous performing arts subjects such as Film & Media Production, Dance, Music, Visual Arts and Design. At 16+ students can choose BTEC qualifications, A Levels or a mixture of both.“Twenty per cent of our students go straight into the world of work after they leave our school because they’ve been vocationally trained,” says Ms Mehta. The hands-on experience also means that they can develop their talents. Esme, a BRIT student who has recently been accepted to RADA says, “I knew I wanted to do theatre and backstage work from a young age. The BRIT school gave me the opportunities to train in what I really wanted to do.”

A long road to success and the importance of business partnerships

Ms Mehta says that it has taken the school 25 years of hard work to get to where it is today, but it now generates global interest – Apple CEO, Tim Cook paid a visit to the school, which resulted in a £280,000 donation of Apple products. As a state-funded school, it has to rely on support like this to meet an additional £750,000 per year needed for its tech requirements.“The kind of educational provision at The BRIT School is normally something you have to pay for,” says Ms Mehta, “and I’ve often been asked how to bottle our success. The energy you feel when you walk through the door is immense and it’s difficult to provide a blueprint for that.”However, she did offer some advice to those looking to develop performing arts facilities in their schools or for families looking for a school that excels in creative subjects.

Traits to look for in a school that values creativity

“Exceptional facilities and equipment are vital. We are very relaxed and free – we have no bells, no uniform, quirkiness is celebrated. Kids feel like they can be who they want to be and are accepted,” says Ms Mehta.“They also know that we trust them – we have an open-door policy for all of our facilities. Students can use anything at any time, which gives them responsibility and enables them to practise. And we don’t have things stolen or ruined, which is exceptional in a school with 1,300 students.”“All these children are going into the world of work and you want them to be able to be successful in whatever they do – earn a salary through creative arts or wherever their talents lie, but schools are often so fixated on performance measures that creative subjects are side-lined.”

Opportunities at international schools

International and private schools have the advantage of financial support to be able to invest in facilities but with so many competing needs, they have to value the creative curriculum if they are to invest in it.Students at Nord Anglia Schools such as The British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park, benefit from an arts curriculum developed in collaboration with the world-renowned Juilliard School. Students participate in activities developed by Juilliard, teachers have access to the Juilliard Creative Classroom and Juilliard performers provide workshops, masterclasses and performances in the schools.“Through an over-focus – or obsession – with league tables, school curriculums have narrowed, limiting children’s education,” explains principal, Ed Pearce. “We believe that education should do more than this, and instead focus on educating the whole child.“Why begin with the performing arts when we know how much weight is placed on conventional academic performance? Because we believe that the performing arts can act as a key, unlocking many of those skills that inspire children to engage with all their studies and love learning. Skills, which can, therefore, support academic success.”Ian Robertson, head of Art at King’s College Madrid, agrees, “Art, music and drama are a vital and enriching part of any child’s education. They allow a child to develop alternative approaches and strategies for problem-solving and thinking. Even if children do not follow on to a creative career, they take with them the ability and skills to think differently and numerous studies have shown that employers value individuals with fresh viewpoints who can find alternative means to solutions.”

ACS International Schools

In 2015 ACS Cobham opened a multi-million pound Performing Arts Centre, which includes a 500+ seat auditorium, classrooms, music studios and practice rooms. It is one of the only schools in the UK to have a professional fly tower to move large scenery during performances.Andrew Vaughan, head of art at ACS Egham International School, explains why they channelled investment into their arts curriculum, “I could quote hundreds of statistics from the business world that demonstrate the importance of creative arts to the economy. But perhaps the most convincing argument for parents is the human one. Art is a doorway to open-ended creativity, it allows us to explore and express personal feelings and responses to the world.It is your view of the world, and how you convey it. It is perfectly, uniquely yours. We can help you develop your skills, but the inner vision and inspiration is your own.“We are extremely lucky at ACS to have robust, well-resourced art provision, and see it as a vital part of every child’s education. We embed art across the curriculum and consider it an essential partner with science learning.”

Shanghai Community International School (SCIS)

SCIS has also invested in its arts curriculum and offers a wide range of music, drama and visual arts subjects, as SCIS marketing and communications manager Mun Yee Choo explains, “At SCIS, the arts programme is robust, well rounded and fuelled by teachers who are as passionate as they are talented and knowledgeable about their subject. Our students are taught the whole creative process, from critical observation and thinking to reflection and presentation, while also being challenged to express their artistic selves.”SCIS has a rich music programme, which seeks to foster in students an appreciation of musical concepts and traditions. Yee Choo adds, “The music curriculum uses the truly international diversity of the school as a springboard for studying different musical styles and forms. Students will develop aural perception and understanding of music by learning about musical elements, including form and structure, notations, musical terminology, and context.The school's visual arts programme encourages students to challenge their own creative and cultural expectations and boundaries. “Students will develop analytical skills in problem solving and divergent thinking, while working towards technical proficiency and confidence as art-makers. Also, students are encouraged to develop an appreciation of art from different periods and cultural heritages,” explains Yee Choo.The SCIS theatre course is multifaceted and allows students to actively engage in theatre as creators, designers, directors and performers.“Theatre is a practical subject that encourages discovery through experimentation, risk-taking and the presentation of ideas. It emphasizes working both individually and collaboratively as part of an ensemble. Students will explore, learn, discover and collaborate to become autonomous, informed and skilled theatre-makers,” says Yee Choo.“The film course is to let students become adept in both interpreting and making film texts and allowing them to explore film history, theory, and socio-economic background. The course develops students’ critical abilities, enabling them to appreciate the multiplicity of cultural and historical perspectives in film.Students are taught to consider film texts, theories, and ideas from different individuals’ perception, nations, and cultures, to achieve an international understanding of the world of film.”

Nurturing a child with creative talent

And so what should relocating families look for in a school if they have a child who is particularly gifted in the performing arts or has a special interest in it?“You have to look at the curriculum,” says The BRIT School’s Ms Mehta. “What are the option choices available to students? Is there an emphasis on creative subjects within the school and do they offer peripatetic lessons?“Facilities are important but I would say that the school has to have the will to support it in the beginning – that’s where the drive should come from. Children may be able to develop their talents if the school’s extra-curricular opportunities within the arts are particularly good, even if the facilities within the school aren’t exceptional.”While many schools around the world recognise the importance of creative subjects and are ensuring their prominence in the curriculum, other schools struggling with the weight of performance measures are side-lining them for league tables. The huge benefits of studying creative subjects should mean that all schools ensure every student has access to an inspiring creative curriculum.
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