Why every child should feel at home in an art gallery

  • Why every child should feel at home in an art gallery

SLiCE wants children to be able to walk into a museum or theatre and feel like they belong, as Lloyd Burgess discovers

For some, the thought of ‘cultural education’ will conjure up fears of struggling to explain high art to 30 disinterested children. It’s understandable; teachers can’t be experts on every element of dance, drama, music and art, just as cultural organisations can’t be expected to keep up with every detail of the curriculum. This is where SLiCE comes in.

Developed by Curious Minds, the project has created a network of schools and experts in order to deliver sustainable cultural education. Twenty-nine teachers were initially inducted as Specialist Leaders in Cultural Education fellows, and partners included theatres, galleries, music venues, museums and libraries.

“I’ve always been a music coordinator in schools,” says Robbie Fortune, who was teaching at St Bernard’s Primary in Ellesmere Port when he was introduced to SLiCE. “But when you’re working with these cultural experts, the inspiration rubs off on the staff. Teachers can see, ‘This is new, this is fresh. I want to know more’.

“We’re very much taking part in the learning process with the children,” Robbie continues. “There’s no hierarchy any more. I’m not Mr Fortune, I’m Robbie. And that is incredible because children can see staff value the subject, rather than using music or drama as time to do planning or whatever.”

Kathryn Quigley was at Park Road Community Primary School in Warrington when she joined the SLiCE project, and found it was great for helping colleagues less confident in cultural education. “It’s can be a real stumbling block for teachers, knowing what’s out there, so my role has been developing that confidence,” she says. “I was lucky as a child because my parents really engaged with culture, but some might be too scared to visit an art museum, for example, as they feel it’s not something they can access. So, as a school, we’ve been really proactive in making children feel that they can go to any organisation and belong, that art is for everybody - not just certain people.”

This idea is also at the heart of good practice at Ladywood Special School in Bolton. “A lot of our pupils’ behaviours mean it might not be practical to go into public spaces to have regular drama or dance clubs or to go to the theatre, so it’s really important that we bring those opportunities to them,” says Yvonne Heywood. “Our children learn when they’re engaged, when they’re doing and when they’re challenged. So, we’re using cultural education as a thread that weaves through everything. We’ve had a couple of children show a real aptitude for drama, so it was up to us to signpost them to organisations like the Octagon Theatre in Bolton. It’s a really good, inclusive place, which has a group for children with special needs.”

Seeing professionals, either in school or at an exhibition or performance, also helps inspire children to see how these skills work in the real world, as Kathryn Quigley discovered. “We did some work with an artist about representing their aspirations for the future through art, and the children were absolutely mesmerised. They wanted to be able to do the work she was doing,” she recalls. “And they’d never thought of that being an option to them before, so it really widened their hopes and ideas of what they could go on to achieve.”

The Year 6 students at St Bernard’s Primary were set a target to have an arts festival at the end of the year. Having worked with a music specialist, they were challenged to come up with their own composition.

“We looked at other songwriters and had a couple of come in, we went and saw a band, so we were drawing in all of these skills from different areas,” says Robbie Fortune. “Then the students came up with their own song and performance, which they did at the Chester Arts Festival.”

Ultimately, the project is about helping children grow into rounded citizens, and offering everyone that opportunity. “You’re not doing it to create actors or artists necessarily,” says Yvonne Heywood. “You’re doing it to create young pupils who in the future will be forward thinking. They’re not little calculators. What we want is young people who are willing to take risks, to try new things, to think outside the box, and that’s what cultural education does.”

Pie Corbett