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Insights into inspirational arts practice in schools: Improving expressive arts at Siddal Moor

Written By: Kieran Briggs
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6 min read
Improving expressive arts at Siddal Moor

Siddal Moor Sports College is a comprehensive secondary school with 900 pupils on roll and 50 per cent pupil premium. The expressive arts department has six teachers: two drama teachers, three art teachers and one music teacher. Some of them teach across subjects and the drama staff also deliver creative media and dance. The number of peripatetic teachers varies depending on student interests.

The expressive arts at Siddal Moor had suffered a decline up until 2016, with results putting the subjects in the bottom quintile within the school and uptake not allowing for GCSE music to even run at Key Stage 4. The school had no choir and little opportunity to showcase students’ talents.

A review in October 2016 brought into focus the reasons behind this decline, as a variety of areas were identified as lacking in quality. Provision at Key Stage 3 needed to be improved significantly, alongside extra-curricular opportunities to raise the profile of arts subjects and encourage children to become involved.

With such a small department and only one music teacher, this would be a challenge without the proper support and a clear single-minded approach to improvement. With a relatively new head of faculty it was key that the appropriate support was in place to allow for subjects to improve, whilst providing the new leadership with the skills required.

It is always challenging  to build enthusiasm within a department when external feedback in negative. To enable this to happen it was agreed that they would carry out an internal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis prior to the release of the review recommendations. This was carried out with a great deal of integrity and honesty, thus allowing a clear alignment between the requirements of the review and self-identified areas for improvement. The next stage was to develop a rapid improvement plan that was realistic, without being onerous for any individual, particularly with workload in mind.

The plan was divided into pedagogy, curriculum and extra-curricular areas. Through a typical SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-related) plan each area was addressed, with monitoring occurring on a regular basis. Individual teachers took responsibility for leading their own development, supported by the head of faculty. This allowed for the development of leadership as the head of faculty could practise the skills of mentoring and coaching to bring out the best of each individual.

As line manager, I was very aware that I could not micro-manage the faculty and I needed to enable the head of faculty to lead the improvement to ensure it was sustainable. This involved mentoring in the first instance as weaknesses and threats from the SWOT analysis were turned into actions to be addressed. This developed into coaching to give the head of faculty autonomy in the decision-making process, but with the confidence that all eventualities had been considered. This confidence, along with the buy-in of the faculty members, allowed the head of faculty to be more decisive and ensure any concerns were dealt with swiftly, before they could develop into larger problems.

The monitoring of the actions planned was a key ingredient in the success of the faculty. This is because much of the monitoring was in-house rather than top-down and came from feedback provided by peers within the faculty. To ensure standards were high enough, I ensured that I was available to quality assure a range of areas regularly. This included the usual drop-ins and work scrutiny tasks, but actually focused on regular conversations with staff and observing feedback to ensure that advice was moving the department forward. The staff themselves attribute the honesty and integrity of their feedback to the ownership of the issues they were given at the start through the SWOT analysis.

With challenge as a core theme to improving standards within the faculty it was also important to use external support where it was deemed necessary. This came from within the school through other departments, as well as accessing support from other schools, both locally and further afield. Introducing the head of faculty to other schools was a key role that I as line manager undertook, to ensure that the right standard of advice was accessed. With this in mind I also spent time quality-assuring the external support provided. As both the head of faculty and I were then able to agree on the most suitable approach, there was a united methodology to each stage of the improvement.

Having focused on ensuring that Year 7 received a significantly more challenging curriculum and Year 11 received targeted and impactful intervention through 2016-17, it was pleasing that results in all subjects improved, with drama and dance leading the way across the school.

Throughout 2017-18 there was a more consistent approach to improving pedagogy as individual issues had been addressed the previous year. This led to a focus on questioning and assessment for learning, which tied in well with whole-school issues following a change in headteacher in January 2018. At this point we started looking at succession planning and developing leadership within the faculty to allow the head of faculty to develop more strategically. This involved the use of pairs formally supporting each other to develop an area of practice without threat of judgement. Through this approach one member of staff developed their leadership sufficiently to gain a significant external promotion. Internally, the quality of teaching within the faculty was praised in the re-review; particularly the music teaching, which was described as ‘significantly improved’ and ‘clearly focused on improving the music experience for students at this school’ by an external school improvement officer.

Over the course of 2017-18, the second stage of the plan around extra-curricular activities was developed, starting with questionnaires as part of the transition programme. With these results in mind, a choir was formed, mostly consisting of new Year 7 students. The choir was given the chance to perform at every opportunity, from the Year 11 leavers presentation evening to external competitions. It is in the latter that the real success story of improved teaching in expressive arts can be seen, alongside the improvement in results, with all students passing every subject since the review in 2016. And in 2018 the results put the school top of the Local Authority in performing arts (drama and dance) for progress and attainment. 2018 also brought the first year that all expressive arts departments achieved positive progress 8 scores, despite the challenges faced by the school.

In 2018-19 the success of the school choir led to other opportunities for performances within music, and particularly in external competitions. For the first time in many years, the school was in a position to enter a range of categories at the Rochdale Music Festival. The dedication and hard work of the expressive arts team paid off as the school gained medals in the following categories:

Pop vocal – gold medal (Year 11)

Pop vocal – silver medal (Year 8)

Musical theatre – silver medal (Year 8)

Soloist – gold medal (Year 7)

Soloist – silver medal (Year 8)

Most pleasing of all, the choir was awarded the Walter Dykes Rose Bowl for Year 11 and under. The celebrations did not stop there as the choir, along with two soloists, were invited to perform at the presentation evening at Rochdale Town Hall.

In 2018-19, the school put on its first arts showcase, involving the full selection of subjects. This involved performances from dance, drama and the cheer stunt team, as well as a gallery of work from all year groups from the art, photography and creative media departments. With the hall full for each performance and feedback from parents and visitors exceptionally positive, we will build through 2019-20 to further raise the profile of the arts as all students will have experienced the new curriculum and stronger pedagogy.

The key driver throughout the journey so far has been the teaching staff buying into the need to improve and identifying the next steps themselves. Without this, the process would have taken much longer and would be less sustainable. New staff in the faculty have bought into the culture and all staff are proactive in asking for feedback from each other and developing ideas for improving the opportunities for all our students.

Steve Hardicre is Assistant Headteacher at Siddal Moor Sports College

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