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Empowering SEN children through engaging in the arts

Written by: Claire March and Jen Lord
7 min read

High-quality arts provision has the potential to build self-belief and confidence in young people (Royal Shakespeare Company, Tate and University of Nottingham, 2018). This article discusses findings from the ‘Young Arts Advocates Special School (YAASS)’ programme, which aimed to build experiences and self-confidence for students with special educational needs, through schools and artists engaging in a rich dialogue and practice around the arts. The programme aims were to:

  • develop arts accessibility and opportunities for children within Kent Special Educational Needs Trust (KSENT), enabling them to consider questions around their identity, self-awareness and confidence through the arts
  • develop the opportunity for each school to gain their Artsmark, the creative quality standard for schools, accredited by Arts Council England thus analysing the role of arts within the school’s wider curriculum
  • develop students’ opportunities to explore and access a range of arts experiences, leading to individual Arts Awards
  • engage in professional development and research into arts education involving teachers and artists to ensure a continued legacy for the project.

The YAASS was led by the Faculty of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University over two years, and was funded in partnership with Artswork (Bridge), KSENT and CLASS (Collaborative Learning Alliance Special Schools) and supported by Turner Contemporary, Jasmin Vardimon Dance Company, Drake Music, Marlowe Theatre and Kent Music. The programme consisted of 13 special schools in the East Kent area. Each of the schools is slightly different in designation but they mainly range in age from four to 18, thus the programme considered all key stages.

The programme consisted of the following key elements: auditing of expertise within schools and teachers; initial CPD for all involved, including senior leaders and governors; Artsmark training and initial statement of commitment; Arts Award training; working with artists and developing Arts Awards; exhibition and sharing; and then finally schools submitted their Artsmark case studies. Throughout the journey, the steering group – consisting of all schools and partners – met termly to shape the programme, share knowledge and identify CPD opportunities. The university researched programme impact through semi-structured interviews using a sample of six teachers and five artists, whilst triangulating this data through an analysis of the Artsmark statement of commitments and case studies.

Artsmark journey

From the analysis of the programme, the teachers identified that the Artsmark process had a clear whole-school impact. Curriculum development was a key aspect within this area. The use of Artsmark as a self-evaluation tool to reflect on and evaluate the schools’ current provision enables teachers and senior leaders to create clear development plans, focusing on all arts subjects and cultural engagement. These development plans ensured that the arts had a higher profile within school, leading to greater engagement within curriculum and community. Several of the schools identified within their Artsmark case studies that this process had led to whole-school curriculum development using arts as a central theme. The Artsmark process became an essential tool for teachers and senior leaders to continue to engage with a professional dialogue around current arts provision and aspirational curriculum offer, with several schools considering next steps after their case study submission. Teachers also believed strongly that due to the students’ complex needs, a conventional curriculum, as they perceived it, was not necessarily accessible or inclusive. However, an arts-rich curriculum enabled students to develop confidence in their skills, emotional understanding and regulation, knowledge and talents.

Working with artists

Throughout the journey, schools, teachers and students worked with a range of artists within the programme, including visual artists, ceramists, musicians, theatre practitioners and dancers. For example, the Wyvern Special School worked with international dance company Jasmin Vardimon Company. Considering the barriers to learning for students with complex needs, The Jasmin Vardimon Company developed a bespoke performance for the Wyvern School in their informal rehearsal space. Students engaged in excerpts of the live performance, so they could comfortably move, verbalise and interact throughout, without concerns for other audience members. For many of these students, it was the first opportunity to engage in a contemporary dance performance. This led into a rich opportunity for teachers and dancers to work collaboratively on workshops with students in school. Teachers and artists observed students develop their ability to express individual ideas through movement, working collaboratively with peers and developing confidence and enjoyment in their dance ability. One young man with complex needs, including communication, had been totally captured and inspired by the rehearsal space performance of Pinocchio, and subsequently totally absorbed and engaged with the work led by the dancers. This opportunity to explore and express movement through story enabled this young man to create and compose a dance piece independently, in which he played the part of the puppet, turning into a real boy. The impact for this student was clear progress in physical development, whilst there was also progress in his emotional understanding and empathy, as he started to understand the relationship between Pinocchio and his creator. This empowering experience of dance, and thus communication, enabled the student to reflect on and explore the personally distressing situation of the recent death of his grandfather. Thus, teachers and dancers observed the student’s development of emotional resilience, with increased ability to communicate his feelings in different outlets, alongside a love for the skills of dance. These transferable skills will impact on and shape this student’s and others’ future opportunities. As Eisner (2002, p. 35) identifies, the arts can support ‘complex forms of thought’ for this student and others, and the dance supported this enabling, meaningful interpretation of the feelings portrayed, with students also understanding that dance can be a valued mode of communication and expression for them.

Artists developing inclusive practice

Artist practitioners working within the programme were also positioned as learners. Artists identified that if the artistic processes were to be successful, the development of bespoke inclusive practice was essential, which could only truly occur where a rich dialogue with school and teachers was enabled. This constructive dialogue enabled the artists to adapt processes, resources, equipment and teaching methods. Teachers brought a bespoke understanding of their individual students, whilst the artists understood, changed and manipulated the arts process to ensure that an inclusive approach for all students was achieved. All artists also identified that the opportunity they received to observe school settings and spend time with students prior to the co-construction of arts practice was fundamental to success. Although this may seem an expensive luxury, it became apparent that, when working with students with complex needs, understanding students’ strengths, interests and engagement levels alongside the teacher impacted on the artists’ ability to shape and develop inclusive arts practice, ensuring rich, high-quality learning outcomes.

The importance of steering groups

Throughout the project, the steering group led by CCCU met termly; this became a central point to introduce the schools to other partnerships such as Kent Music and Turner Contemporary, adding value to the programme throughout. The Turner Contemporary embraced this opportunity, working with the steering group to support accessibility to the gallery for their students, and offering the generous opportunity for the schools to curate, with artists’ engagement, an exhibition of the students’ works. The exhibition – ‘YAASS: Empowered’ – was shown to the public in the Turner Contemporary from 13 November 2018 until 6 January 2019. For most students, they had not previously had the confidence or opportunity to visit the gallery space, but the exhibition developed a sense of belonging and confidence in the young people to visit the gallery and share their art within their community. Teachers also felt that the exhibition empowered an acceptance of the students’ identity, which in turn ensured that they felt valued as artists, which has a long-term impact on their self-belief and the way in which they perceive the arts. The steering group also became a key network for sharing opportunities, knowledge and peer-to-peer support, allowing teachers to share experiences, processes and knowledge, which all teachers stated that they valued.

In conclusion, where the programme was most successful, the following key elements were identified: firstly, where a successful arts-rich curriculum was developed or enhanced, it had clear support from senior leadership, including the governing body. Teachers articulated that the Artsmark process formulated a framework to initially evaluate the curriculum and then promoted ongoing conversation with teachers and teaching assistants but, most importantly, also senior leaders and governors.

Secondly, teachers and artists felt that students were most empowered within the arts when both teacher and artist were positioned as experts within the programme, with time to invest in collaboration to develop an inclusive process, such as developing and exploring new mediums. Artists strongly advocated that time to observe and understand the different student cohorts was essential for quality provision. Therefore, teachers and artists truly constructed innovative arts processes, and students were able to make significant progress across a range of skills linked to personal expression, communication, physical development and emotional wellbeing. This also enabled the richest continued professional development and the greatest legacy for teacher, artist and school, changing and developing future practice.

Finally, schools that embraced all aspects of the programme have developed lasting relationships with arts organisations such as the Marlowe Theatre, Turner Contemporary and Kent Music, whilst also building the network of knowledge and arts experts within KSENT. These schools have also embraced the opportunity to offer Arts Awards at a range of different levels, ensuring that all their students can obtain an arts accreditation.

This project was jointly funded by Artswork and Kent Special Educational Needs Trust and co-ordinated by Canterbury Christ Church University.


Eisner E (2002) The Arts and the Creation of The Mind. London: Yale University Press.

Royal Shakespeare Company, Tate and University of Nottingham (2018) Time to listen. Available at: (accessed 29 July 2019).

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