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Co-creating a curriculum: what would children do?

Having agency and control over things that affect us is key to our sense of wellbeing. For children and young people feeling they are listened to and seeing things change as a result of them taking part is powerful. When students help shape their learning and feel agency in their learning, behaviour and outcomes improve.

It helps that bond between the teacher and children and how to work together.

Pupil, Banister Primary

Using arts and culture is a route to empowering students to voice their opinions and proactively contribute to shaping school curriculums.

What students want from education

Students know what they want to get out of education. The most recent Pearson School Report found that:

  • 94% of students say being happy and mentally and physically healthy is important to them.
  • 86% of students say being prepared for their future in a global world i.e. understanding and learning about different cultures is important to them.

Building pupil voice into curriculums

In the Better Lives Through Culture project we worked with four schools in Southampton to give students and teachers the tools to work together on shaping curriculums in Geography, History, English and Art. One outcome was students feeling more ownership of their curriculum and school.

In each school the process was shaped by the school needs and involved teachers working with an artist who then helped students to create schemes of work that fitted into existing curriculums.

Creative ideas

When we gave students the chance to shape their schemes of work and how the curriculum would be taught they embraced it.

At Oasis Academy Lord’s Hill a whole class worked with the artist to share their ideas on how to teach parts of the art scheme of work using poetry and writing. Susmita, the artist then created activities to use in class. The students were given an idea of what they needed to learn and then they came back with suggestions and solutions to turn it into activities. This included tasting foods like olives, which some children had never tried, and describing how colours made them feel.

My practice has changed as a result of doing this. Having the confidence in students to take ownership, create something and come up with something amazing.

Susmita Bhattacharya, ArtfulScribe, Better Lives Through Culture project artist

Confidence, ownership and belonging

At Woodlands Community College the students had lots of ideas about how they wanted to be taught in their lessons and were excited by the idea that they could use drama and music when learning about history. Students talked about how they valued the opportunity to come up with ideas for how they would learn about the history curriculum. They felt taking part in the work also increased the feeling of belonging in the school where before they had felt unnoticed.

One of the most wonderful things was when the students thought about all the ways they wanted to be taught in their lessons.

Abi Thommes, Arts2Educate, Better Lives Through Culture project artist

Pupils reported it was important to them to have a voice in designing the curriculum and the young people valued the opportunity to make a mark on the school by contributing to the curriculum. Teachers reported that the students also become more confident at speaking up and taking part in class.

At Primary level students were told they would be helping plan lessons and at the end of each session they provided suggestions about how the lesson could be improved for the next time. Natalie, the artist who worked with Banister Primary School noticed how pleased the children were when they saw she had taken on board their comments and changed elements of sessions.

What would children do?

When asked at the end of the project the students had clear ideas about how they wanted to learn about Geography, different cultures and literature and how Dance could help them to do this.

I think we could do Geography because different countries have different cultures and different ways of living so we could show that through dancing.

Pupil, Banister Primary School

I think we could also do literacy because we learn a lot of books and things… to help remember it, it might help to make a dance out of the books that we’ve been reading.

Pupil, Banister Primary School

I think science goes really well with dance because you can see how the different creatures can move through their lives.

Pupil, Banister Primary School

Ownership and understanding

By the end of the project students at Banister Primary were planning a whole lesson. Their teachers noticed they had much greater ownership and understanding of the work they were doing as a result. Like the secondary students, teachers also found that students’ confidence increased across the curriculum to speak up and answer questions in class and take part.

Most importantly, the children are enjoying the sessions. They are excited to be having an input in the planning process and those who are usually reluctant to answer and share are more willing since these sessions, which is fantastic!

Sarah Golden, Teacher, Banister Primary School

How Cultural Education can help SEND students

If we want equity baked into our education system, ensuring children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) thrive is a vital goal.

The former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield told The Times Education Commission in 2022 that “The talents of hundreds of thousands of children are being squandered”, including those of children with SEND.

Cultural Education provides an inspiring and engaging way to support students with SEND to access a mainstream curriculum and demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Promising results for SEND students

Our Better Lives Through Culture project, which worked with four schools across Southampton in 2023, found using the arts enabled:

  • Primary SEND students to demonstrate their knowledge and fully take part in lessons
  • Secondary students in Alternative Provision to build confidence, communication and teamwork skills while engaging in school work

Support for children with SEND

For children with SEND the current school wide issues of poor student mental health and attendance are severe.

In the Pearson 2023 School Report, teachers reported that support for students with SEND is expected to be one of the biggest barriers to learning over the next six months. Delays to Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), and lack of funding for specialist support are reported by schools across the region.

Using dance to demonstrate knowledge

One way to support students with SEND is to use arts and culture across the curriculum. Working with Banister Primary School, movement specialist Natalie Watson used dance to deliver parts of the Geography and Science curriculum.

When studying Butterflies in Science in Year 2, rather than asking children to create a mind map of what they knew about butterflies Natalie asked the children to move and behave like butterflies. This allowed students with SEND to express their knowledge and have it recorded by the teacher. Using dance increased access to lessons for children with SEND and lower achieving children in Key Stage 1.

Increasing engagement with complex vocabulary

Teachers also noticed that using dance helped lower attaining children engage better with more complex vocabulary. Pupils were able to retain and retrieve the words.

In Geography, children could show the different ways rivers moved and could recall geography vocabulary such as meandering to describe rivers. Classifying animals in science was also more engaging for the children using movement.

Natalie and the school worked together to refine their approach to using Dance. This was then rolled out across Geography at Key Stage 2 and Science in Reception and Key Stage 1 with supporting resources and a lesson plan. INSET training was provided to model how to use the resources with the classes.

Engaging students in Cantell’s Learning to Learn Hub

At Cantell School, SoCo Music Project worked with students within the school’s Learning to Learn Hub. Some students wrote song lyrics linked to their English text as part of their Key Stage 4 English Curriculum.

Attendance and engagement are key outcomes needed for the students in the Learning to Learn hub. The students who worked with SoCo’s artist Craig engaged in the project with Craig tailoring activities to the students each week.

Their teacher remarked the approach was very well suited to the learning to learn model. The students responded differently to an artist and respected their expertise. After building trust the students engaged in independent work writing lyrics and worked as a team performing on the drums together.

Working with artists is CPD for teachers

Teachers across all of the Better Lives Through Culture projects reflected that working with artists was a form of CPD for them. They learnt new ways to work and communicate with their students.

For teachers looking for strategies on how to support SEND students within their classrooms cultural learning offers important tools and approaches.

Southampton Cultural Education Partnership (SCEP) members have expertise in working with students with SEND and crafting arts-based interventions.

Join the SCEP to learn more and connect with arts colleagues who can help you support students with SEND.

Culture: a ticket to improved mental health and engagement in school?

The Pearson 2023 School Report revealed that teachers expect mental health, attendance and support for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to be the biggest barriers to student learning over the next six months.

Teachers say children in school post-covid are less resilient and struggle to work in teams. Mental health and wellbeing have worsened and, even back in the classroom, children are reluctant to speak up and engage.

We know arts and culture can be powerful. Could they also help address these challenges? Findings from our Better Lives Through Culture project suggest they could be just the ticket! According to teachers, the project has improved access, confidence, retrieval of knowledge, teamwork and engagement.

Mental health and learning

“One in six children has poor mental health which impacts learning.”

NHS England

Research shows unprecedented increases in children’s mental health needs from 2017 to 2020. NHS England reported a 48% increase in children with a ‘probable mental disorder’, rising to one in six children.

In The Link Between Pupil Health and Wellbeing and Attainment Public Health England explores how wellbeing affects learning and vice versa:

“Academic success has a strong positive impact on children’s subjective sense of how good they feel their lives are (life satisfaction) and is linked to higher levels of wellbeing in adulthood. In turn, Children’s overall level of wellbeing impacts on their behaviour and engagement in school and their ability to acquire academic competence in the first place.”

Public Health England

Children’s happiness and life satisfaction

Everyone working with children recognises the importance of wellbeing. We want our children to be happy, but the UK is failing badly at this.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Child Wellbeing Dashboard shows that 15-year-olds in the UK have the second lowest levels of life satisfaction in the OECD.

The Children’s Society’s 2022 Good Childhood Report shows a decline in children’s happiness over the last 10 years. Among findings, it reveals that 12% of children are unhappy with schools. Even worse, children experiencing disadvantage are far more likely to be unhappy with school than their wealthier peers.

Arts and Culture offer a solution

Arts and Culture offer many solutions to this wave of poor wellbeing. Taking part in arts activities has been shown to lower stress and improve our subjective sense of wellbeing. As such, we knew there was potential to improve children’s wellbeing, and thus their learning outcomes, through arts in schools.

For the Better Lives Through Culture project we worked with teachers to pilot one creative approach to improve children’s experiences of school and learning. The project used arts to develop cross curricular resources and schemes of work, designed in partnership with children.

Children’s confidence and engagement in school increased, along with their sense of agency in their own learning. Teachers saw improvements in retrieval at primary level. SEND students were more able to access the curriculum, share their existing knowledge and take part in whole class learning.

Better Lives Through Culture Project

Better Lives Through Culture ran over the 2022-23 school year. Four artists worked with pupils and teachers to use arts to deliver a co-constructed scheme of work across four schools in Southampton.

At Primary we worked on the PE, Dance, Geography and Science curriculum. At Secondary we looked at History, English and Art.

319 pupils and nine teachers took part in the project to design or augment existing curriculum work using arts to teach other subjects.

Increases in confidence, engagement and teamwork for pupils

The strongest project outcome teachers observed was an increase in their pupil’s confidence and engagement.

“Really boosted their confidence to the point where they were happy to share in front of the class where previously there had been tears when asked for that.”

Banister School Teacher

At Primary level, pupils who started the project reluctant to speak up in front of their classmates ended up confidently sharing performances to the whole school. This had a knock on effect in other subjects with more children answering questions in class and contributing generally.

In Secondary school, teachers noticed children’s confidence at speaking in front of each other increased.

Teachers noted that children were not so worried about the risk of not being successful and getting the right answer after taking part in the dance lessons. It was made clear in these lessons that there is not one right answer and refining and progress are as important as the final result.

“There has been a turnaround in the children’s confidence in wanting to have a go, be involved and to share.”

Banister School SLT Teacher

Teachers also noted the creative curriculum work improved teamwork with children getting better at working in small groups. This was something that had particularly suffered due to Covid absence from in person teaching.

Pupil voice increased

At the Secondary Schools, pupils reported that it was important to them to have a voice in designing the curriculum.

We know feeling a sense of agency has an important role in wellbeing. The young people valued the opportunity to make a mark on the school by contributing to the curriculum. The pupils who were in year 7 and 8 previously said they had felt unnoticed within the school. Taking part gave them an increased sense of belonging in the school and made them feel more established and recognised by other pupils and teachers.

At Primary level, the children were excited that their suggestions were listened to. They could see that changes were made to sessions because of their feedback to the dance teacher. The children were also asked to plan and take control of their last dance lesson, which they did showing a good understanding of the task.

Retrieval, and access for SEND students, improved at Primary

At Banister Primary School, a dance artist worked with teachers across all phases to develop resources for Geography and Science. Teachers were pleasantly surprised to discover their dance project improved retrieval of knowledge and enabled lower achieving pupils including those with SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) to access activities and learning. Movement rather than writing gave SEND children a route to achieve and be successful.

“I have noticed that it has helped those lower attaining children engage more readily with the more complex vocabulary and has helped them retain this information and retrieve it – particularly when talking about water sources.”

Sarah Golden, Banister School Teacher

One activity used movement to explain the different flows of rivers, for example meandering versus swift. Children were better able to produce the vocabulary at later sessions after moving in a meandering way in the previous lesson.

“The dance movements are hooks for the vocabulary. Children are being able to remember the vocabulary much better. Linking movements to vocabulary is really helping them to secure that language.”

Banister School Teacher

In a Key Stage One science activity about butterflies, teachers said they would previously have started with a written mind map. Working with Natalie, the dance artist, children shared their existing knowledge of butterflies through movement. Children with SEND, who normally would not have been able to contribute words to a mind map, were able to share their knowledge of how butterflies’ wings flutter through movement.

Hope for the future

The Better Lives Through Culture project has demonstrated the powerful role arts and culture can play in addressing current challenges.

Through the Southampton Cultural Education Partnership, we aim to increase opportunities to build young people’s confidence and engagement. Join us to help ensure all children and young people in Southampton have access to cultural education and the incredible benefits it brings.

New Steering Group to champion Cultural Education in Southampton

As we prepare for a new academic year, it’s time to introduce our new Steering Group members.

Following an open recruitment process, we welcome six colleagues who have volunteered to help drive forward Southampton Cultural Education Partnership (SCEP) priorities. With their support, we’re excited about the future of creative education in our city.

Steering group members Matt Brombley, Lynne Dick, Kristianne Drake, Louise Govier, Patrick O'Sullivan and Rosanna Sloan

Joining the Steering Group from September 23

Matt Brombley (He/Him) is Development and Inclusion Manager at Southampton and IOW Music Hubs, as well as Associate Lecturer in Popular and Digital Music at Solent University. He leads the South West Coastal Music Hub’s Youth Voice Network, chairs the South West Music Hubs EDI Working Group, and is a member of Young Southampton.

Lynne Dick (She/Her) is Head of Programme (Engagement and Learning) at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton and is committed to inclusion, diversity and community engagement in and through the arts. She was an artist and artist-educator for many years and has worked across the arts and heritage sectors in the region. 

Kristianne Drake (They/Them) is autistic and non-binary. They are the founder and Director of In Focus Education and Development CIC, which is a small non funded organisation that works with young people who are not in full time education, employment or training, or who are amongst our most at risk and vulnerable.

Louise Govier is Chief Executive of the charity Artswork, which empowers young people through creativity. Based in Southampton, the organisation works with partners across the South to develop new ways for people to discover the success, empowerment and sheer joy that the arts and creativity can bring to classrooms, communities and careers.

Patrick O’Sullivan is Head of Creative Learning at Mayflower and Mast Mayflower Studios. Originally from Tramore, Co. Waterford in Ireland, he has been working in theatre education in the UK since 2004.

Rosanna Sloan is General Manager of The Arts Development Company and founder of Unexpected Places, where she spearheaded many projects including growing the organisation’s Light UP youth theatre to 400 students and establishing Little Lights creative and sensory play classes for under 3s.

They join Kath Page (Chair), Louise Coysh (Observer of our fund hold) and Sam Cairns (SCEP Manager) to make up our Governance team.

The future of SCEP

Our larger Steering Group, who worked with us on our transition planning over 2022-23, steered us to incredible results – achieving Better Lives Through Culture. Transition recommended a smaller Steering Group to support the work of the SCEP and our members.

We had a strong field of SCEP members who volunteered to help run the SCEP. Thank you to everyone who applied. It was a fantastic show of support for the future of SCEP and our plans.

Sam Cairns, SCEP Manager

Over the next two years we will focus on:

  • Increasing Health and Wellbeing for children and young people through arts engagement
  • Pathways and progression: testing out new approaches to conserve capacity and resources including referrals processes
  • Building a workforce for the future: providing inclusive training and skills development opportunities for young people and the cultural sector

Join Us

If you want to help Southampton’s young people create a city worthy of their loyalty and pride, we’d love you to join the SCEP as a member. It’s free and we provide CPD, online and in person network meetings and monthly emails to keep you up to speed with the latest news.

Arts and Culture: an antidote to growing concerns over young people’s wellbeing

The Better Lives Through Culture programme launched in 2021, aiming to create better lives for children and young people through culture.  

At the time, children’s mental health was worsening. Confidence was low and inequalities were widening. We knew arts and culture could help. The need to widen access to cultural education felt urgent so, as a Cultural Education Partnership, we embraced that mission. 

Two years on, as concerns over wellbeing continue to grow, the evaluation and film of Better Lives Through Culture offer hope.

Better Lives through Culture Film by City Eye

Better Lives through Culture

Better Lives Through Culture aimed to enable children and young people, who weren’t participating in arts and culture, to access cultural education.  

It consisted of a Creative Curriculum project and a Creative Mentors project, both co-designed with young people. The two projects involved 325 children and young people, 40 teachers, 4 artists and 6 early career creatives.  

The programme, delivered in partnership with Artswork with Bridge Investment funding from Arts Council England, has delivered “life-changing” results. 

“My whole life has changed. I went from working one day a week in an art gallery. Now I’m working full time in a school that specialises in autism.”

Creative Mentor

Cultural Curriculum

Students worked with local artists to develop Creative Curriculums, offering new ways to learn different subjects.  

Banister Primary School explored Geography and Science curriculum through dance and movement. Oasis Academy Lord’s Hill collaborated with a writer to address literacy and oracy within Art and Design. Cantell School added music to the English curriculum, while Woodlands Community College introduced a multi-artform approach to History. 

“There has been a turnaround in the children’s confidence in wanting to have a go and be involved and to share.”

Banister School SLT Teacher

Teachers reported increased confidence, engagement and teamwork for all pupils. Learning benefits included improved retrieval for Primary pupils and access to learning for children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND). 

“Linking movements to vocabulary is really helping them to secure that language.”

Banister School SLT Teacher

Teachers have learnt new ways to work with their pupils that improve access for students with SEND. Primary age SEND students who normally cannot demonstrate the vocabulary they know through writing have been able to show their knowledge through movement. When studying butterflies, students could flutter like a butterfly or act out a life cycle when they could not write the terms. Teachers reflected it gave them a different way to support the students to be successful.   

“Most importantly, the children are enjoying the sessions. They are excited to be having an input in the planning process and those who are usually reluctant to answer and share are more willing to since these sessions, which is fantastic!”

Banister School Teacher

Creative Mentors

As part of the programme, Early Career Creatives also took part in mentoring training. Equipped with new skills they then mentored young people from Cantell School.  

The project nurtured creative talent across the city and helped shape career pathways for mentors and mentees. The young people who were mentored described how the process had helped them improve their knowledge of careers in the arts. 

The future

With the number of young people affected by poor mental health predicted to continue rising, galvanising cross-sector expertise to address wellbeing is vital.  

Better Lives Through Culture has shown the important role arts and culture can play in building confidence and enjoyment, enhancing learning, and equipping young people with skills for the future.  

Southampton Cultural Education Partnership is passionate about continuing to nurture creative and cultural education for all children and young people in the city. We are proud to have worked with so many Southampton students and artists. 135 have achieved Arts Awards in the process.  

With your help, there is so much more we can do to achieve better lives through culture.  

Thank you to

Our partners and funders: Artswork, Arts Council England, Artsmark, Arts Award, University of Southampton 

Artists and Organisations: Abi Thommes and Arts2Educate, Louis Duarte and SoCoMusic Project, Natalie Watson, Susmita Bhattacharya and ArtfulScribe 

Schools and Colleges: Banister Primary School, Cantell School, Oasis Academy Lord’s Hill and Woodlands Community College 

Creative Mentors: Issa Loyaan Farrah-Kelly, JJ Gale, Jilly Evans, Ellen Gillett, Aidan and Amy Spencer 

And all the brilliant young people who took part in Better Lives Through Culture.