Schools get their own artist-in-residence

14 May 2019 | North West England

Arts Connect - Saskia Porter

Novel way to beat truancy and gets kids engaged in learning.

When it comes to truancy, it often needs an original approach to get children willing to come back to school.

But one pioneering project in Stoke-on-Trent has launched a unique scheme that is already recording fantastic results in the battle to transform pupils’ attitudes to education.

Eight schools around Stoke-in-Trent have been matched up with their very own ‘artist-in-residence’ - a professional artist who works to re-engage with children.

The aim is to encourage learning by getting them involved in creative pursuits such as photography, animation, drama, storytelling, performance poetry and music. Around 300 young people are set to benefit this year. And the artists are all volunteering their time for free in a brilliant example of when people help people, everyone benefits.

The 18-month scheme is being overseen by the local Cultural Education Partnership, developed by Arts Connect, part of Arts Council England.

One school that has embraced the project is the Merit Pupil Referral Unit, a short stay school for pupils with mental health problems or medical needs.

Their artist is Trevor Woolery who specialises in animation, illustration and digital media arts.

“We thought it would be appealing to many of our students, but in particular to those who were not engaging,” explained Assistant Head Sarah Whiteley. “It has proved invaluable as a form of art-based therapy and helped many of our pupils with mental and clinical health issues.”

She added: “We have definitely noticed that engagement from students has improved in all areas.”

Located in Bucknall, Stoke-on-Trent, the small school supports young people with a range of conditions which make attending mainstream school difficult. And for those in hospital, the classroom will go to them. They currently have 38 pupils, who have been referred from mainstream schools.

The new programme allows staff to build more creative opportunities into the curriculum to help teenagers improve their self-esteem.

Saskia Porter, 16, is working on a project about self-image with Trevor. The teen, who wants to be a fashion designer, said: “I have found it really helpful. It is really relaxing not being told what to do and being able to rely on my own imagination. Doing art calms me, and actually lifts me up. I don’t have to worry about getting it right. There is no pressure and I am able to be myself.”

She added: “When I am in Trevor’s class, time flies. It has proved quite easy to get the hang of it and my siblings are quite jealous when I tell them what I’ve been doing.”

Over the last year the school has overhauled their curriculum to make it more focused on the arts but also general well-being.

Alternative Curriculum teacher Kirsty O'Keefe explained: “We wanted to introduce outdoor learning for example as it’s been proved as being key to healthy mental health. A lot of students need that downtime away from the academic subjects and being outside gives them that. At home they might not get the chance, so at school it might be the only chance they get. They get to do forest school and learn bush craft for example.”

As a result Saskia and other pupils have been involved in various art workshops included ones in ceramics, healthy eating and cooking.

“I have loved it,’ said Saskia. “I recently turned vegetarian so the six-week programme helped me learn what was healthy but also how to put menus together as well as cost it all out. All good life-skills - and many of my friends have gone from frozen pizza dinners to actively going out and buying then cooking their own meals.”

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