Why and How? 2016 – Engaging children with Special Education Needs in creative experiences and art, Royal Academy

Education is changing, it always has done and it always will do. We are always striving for the best way to teach our children, to give them opportunities, experiences and prepare them for life. It is with this in mind and with real expectation and excitement that I have returned to the Royal Academy of Arts for the second – Why and how? seminar organised by Molly Bretton their access officer. 

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The day is focused on engaging children with Special Education Needs (SEN) in creating art and cultural experiences, and whilst I mention the chameleon like nature of education in the first paragraph, when I look back at my notes from the 2015 conference it seems a number of themes are repeated. It is with much sadness that both the keynote speeches from last year from Lorraine Petersen and this year from Heather Stack, SEND consultant, voice concerns that the value of art in education is being undermined.

With the new education landscape, where it seems the Academy is the future, it is easy to see where the concern comes from when articles by Nick Gibb – the Schools minister – (referenced by Heather) places increasing focus on a core curriculum of english and maths. He seems to imply art is something that can be accessed outside of school. All well and good for the financially stable parents who can pay for after school classes and children in the mainstream, but for some children, like mine, this rich extra-curricular opportunity is out of reach. For parents with children who have special needs; clubs, opportunities, a social life and friends can seem like a distant pipe dream. Taking art out of the classroom is tantamount to excluding art from the lives of children who arguably need it the most.

“It is worth considering that opportunities to participate in the arts, unlike other subjects, can exist outside the formal school curriculum. Pupils appear in school plays, sing in choirs and play in orchestras even if they choose not to study a GCSE in music or drama” Nick Gibb – Schools Minister, Jan 2016


But today is not all about what is wrong with the system, it is about celebrating and sharing what is right too. It is about highlighting best practice, drawing strength from one another, inspiration to keep doing what you are doing and providing guidance on how to do more.

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Heather Stack kicking things off

Heather Stack began with an inspirational lecture that was so detailed and thorough, I feel lucky to have a copy, so many references to give me further reading and examples to use for my own writing. She highlighted how many children are being left behind by the Academy system, she spoke of one education authority where 52 children with, or pending, an autism diagnosis are supported in a specialist unit designed for 48. Taught exclusively by 6 teaching assistants, whilst often fantastic they are not trained as teachers, she called it containment not education.

She spoke of how many children with SEN lack self belief and self worth, they may have a hidden talent or passion but if not give the chance to experiment how will they find it? She told us how art can build self image and self belief, raise self esteem and a sense of worth. Activities to bring joy, art can simply be a safe harbour. I know this so well from my own personal circumstances.

It was good, if hard, to hear of Heather talk of the seclusion parents feel, the options for social interaction and learning are so limited and hard fought for. How parents carry guilt and shame and sadness, the heady mix of the SEN parent’s cocktail of choice. Heather balanced this by talking of ‘magnetic moments’ those breakthrough times when everything comes together. I have had a few of those myself, our first trip to the Science Museum, our first trip to the Globe theatre, all made possible through specialist autism early openings and relaxed performances. Beautiful moments of light and laughter that I will never forget.

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Jo Grace talks through Sensory Art

There were a number of sessions on offer on the day. I plumped for Jo Grace workshop on ‘Structured Sensory Art’. A great way to get the sensory juices flowing with tables full of objects to entice sight, hearing, touch, smell and even taste with a jelly bean challenge. Jo worked with children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD), the aim for the project was for the children to independently create art. Art is something that is so often ‘done to them’ and not ‘by them’, it was great to hear Jo’s advice and experience from the sessions.

colour wave
The Structure Sensory Art Project – copyright Jo Grace

There are some great videos on Jo’s website for you to get a sense of the project. The aim was low cost and I was particularly impressed with the crucial intention of setting up a legacy of engagement in the settings where she worked. A key lesson from her workshop is that sensory engagement doesn’t have to be expensive, the array of objects on the table proved that to us. But facilitation is key, you can have the most expensive sensory room that money can buy, but you can get an equal outcome from cheaper interactives with an experienced facilitator. Jo highlighted the importance of structure and repetition for the sessions, particularly for children with PMLD. Repetition can build confidence and wake up the senses for children to get the most from each gathering.

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Illustrating a journey of engagement with children with SEMH, Matthew Johnson, Jhinuk Sarkar and Robin Johnson

Next I had really fantastic session with Matthew Johnson, Museum Outreach Officer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, Robin Johnson, Cultural Learning and Development Officer at Kedleston Schools and artist Jhinuk Sarkar. The team worked with children on the ‘edges’, at risk of exclusion, children with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH)  who were in year 9 and 10.

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Love, love, love Inuit snow goggles

Nuneaton Museum is a local authority museum and I am very familiar with the type of collections, shall we say a little random that don’t always have a direct connection to the local area. Matthew took the Inuit collection at the museum to engage the children, he brought some objects on the day for us to handle. I just love the Inuit snow goggles, it is so important not to forget the power of objects and handling to bring people in. It certainly worked well on us on the day. The children used the objects as inspiration to make their own art, what begun as a literacy project developed into something much bigger.

What struck me from this session was how important the trust element was for these children, Jhinuk and Matthew visited them at their own setting to ‘sell’ the project to them. Meeting them on their own ‘patch’ as a first step was crucial, then treating them as ‘VIPs’ when they came to the museum, with special access and handling sessions that made all the difference.

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We had an opportunity to make our own art work in response to the objects, can you guess who made this one?

Matthew and Jhinuk provided positive role models for the children too, they welcomed them into the museum space, these are kids that are not going to visit the museum in their own time. There was a wonderful story of one child who bought his friend back to the museum after the project had ended to share what he had been up to. It was work he could be proud of and he had the confidence to return to a space that probably wouldn’t have been on his radar before.

Prepping the Front of House team was key to the success of the project, letting them know the visitors might not be the regular type of visitors and their behaviour might be a bit different but that was ok. The welcome has to extend to the whole museum not just key staff. It was clear a lot of planning and thought went into the project, Jhinuk highlighted a flexibility of approach so if some children were finding a session difficult they could change the tempo or activity to work with the mood of the group. They aimed for a display of work in the museum at the end of the project but children didn’t have to do this, taking the pressure away from having to produce an end product, it was the process that was more important. I will end on this quote below from feedback that really struck home for me.

“J may have seemed not to be trying but when he got back to school he created more and was pleased with them”

Sometimes it is the little steps that mean the most.

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Cash Aspeek (centre) and Mary Lemley (right) take us on a holistic visit

My final session was with artists Cash Aspeek and Mary Lemley – the visit was a holistic approach to understand how we feel and what we experience when we go to a museum or gallery. I have observed one of Cash’s family SEN session before and they are fantastic – you can read more about them here.

Cash and Mary got us to breathe, take time to look, feel and sense the world around us. At the end of a busy seminar this was a welcome moment of reflection. We were then sent out to different areas of the Royal Academy building to just stand and observe, to listen and feel. I stood in the entrance foyer and we recorded out thoughts, some with pictures on their camera phones, others with drawings. For me words came first –

busy, hubbub, transition, questions, instructions, coats on coats off, phone ringing anxiety, knocked by a visitor

Standing in the entrance I noticed the noise levels, the feeling of busy intention, people coming and going. With an autistic daughter who struggles in crowds I feel very attuned to the sounds around me and what might cause her problems. Next we were told to walk through the ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ exhibition not to look at paintings but experience the people and what a ‘visit’ feels, sounds and even smells like. The rooms were incredibly busy and again I wrote down my thoughts.

Quieter, movement slower, like a dance, people move backwards and forwards, a smell of strong perfume in one room, a baby crying the sound feels out of place, the final room the noise levels rise

This exercise gave me an awareness of the Royal Academy on a completely different level and I highly recommend you try it for your own setting. For those with sensory sensitivities this awareness is often so heightened that it can become a barrier all on its own.

On returning from our ‘visit’ we shared experiences and were invited to create our own artwork in response to Ann Christopher’s exhibition– the lines of time. I so rarely get creative it was a really enjoyable 7 minutes! (no pressure) but I was amazed at how an opportunity to create can focus and still the mind. Our resulting artwork was so different it gave us another visual cue on how we experience art so differently. We discussed issues surrounding visits with children with SEN, from the use of social stories to giving free tickets out to families to encourage return visits, it was a perfect session to end on.

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I made this!

It was another fantastic day, thought provoking and enjoyable. As the seminar drew to a close we got together again to discuss the political landscape that we must all work within and how best to extend and preserve the great work that is going on. Evaluation was a key focus, it ‘need not be a dirty word’, decision makers need the numbers but the stories are important too. It is so hard to evaluate art and the importance it brings to children when words and a voice are not an option for communication. Heather Stack emphasised the value of the personal narrative – photos and videos can be as powerful as words. The trick is telling those stories strategically and influencing policy makers.

What resonates with me after a day of meeting new people is the call to use those connections, visit other settings, learn and share, build on your network. Heather called us a room full of pioneers and professionals who have faith in the promise, potential and significance of art to change lives.

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I have written far too much but you can see it was a day that calls for lots of words, perhaps it would have been easier to paint a picture for you! It was Jo Grace in her sensory session that summed up things best for me. She said she often asks artists why they do what they do, why do they paint and sculpt and create? They never answer because they want to make a picture or an object. They create art to make sense of the world around them, to find their place in this world, for their mental health, for their peace of mind. For children with SEN this need is even greater, that is why days like this one are so important, to make sure children who struggle to find a voice can find a way to express themselves. It is why we need to be ever watchful and vocal to make sure that opportunity is never taken away.



You can read about 2015 Why and Conference here 

More on Royal Academy SEN sessions here

Speakers on the day –

Heather Stack, SEN consultant – http://www.thelocaloffer.co.uk

Jo grace – Sensory Stories http://jo.element42.org

Matthew Johnson – Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery https://www.nuneatonandbedworth.gov.uk/info/20038/museum_and_art_gallery/160/museum_and_art_gallery

Jhinuk Sarkar – artist http://cargocollective.com/paperfig

Cash Aspeek – http://www.redstartarts.com

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