SEND Schools Network and Young Cultural Ambassadors

Sharing and developing best practice in creativity with and for children and young people with SEND

Cultural Ambassadors creative work
Credit Ross Bolwell-Williams

This case study describes the journey of empowerment, inclusion and voice for young D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent Londoners through the work of a network of cultural leaders from SEND schools. Written and led by A New Direction.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

A New Direction’s SEND Schools Network was initiated in 2014 by teachers from Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) settings participating in our Cultural Leaders programme, who wanted to be able to develop and share best practice in creativity and the arts with peers and partners working to meet the needs of D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent children and young people.

Through a partnership initially with Tate Exchange, we work with schools to deliver the I Am Festival, an annual week-long event showcasing the creative work of students from the participating schools in partnership with cultural organisations, and increasing the participation and visibility of the schools and their students in the galleries.

In recent years, the network and festival have by necessity been delivered online but are now returning to in-person and hybrid delivery. A partnership with charity AFK has also enabled us to involve disabled young people in the design and delivery of the festival through a work experience programme, connecting them to progression routes into the arts.

What worked well

Throughout all strands of our access and inclusion work we develop partnerships with schools, freelance artists, arts and cultural organisations, drawing on others’ expertise to improve our own offer and therefore improving the impact on young people.

Through our ongoing partnership with AFK, we have developed a successful work experience programme for disabled young adults now known as ‘Cultural Ambassadors’. Through the latest iteration of the programme, we collaborated with AFK, disabled-led arts organisations and organisations developing their offers for disabled young people, drawing on each other’s experiences and expertise.

Cultural Ambassadors gained confidence, connections (to one another and to arts organisations) and new skills. The ability to meet and get to know artists, and experience art of different kinds and in different places, has undoubtedly raised awareness and reduced some of the psychological barriers to choosing a career in the arts.

For arts organisations, it has been a chance to see for themselves the very real talents that young people have, and has also raised questions about their recruitment and work experience offer. Reducing barriers for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent children and young people across the sector is a longer-term undertaking that this programme is one contributor to.

One participating young person reflected that: “The programme has helped me build up my confidence. It is what the Cultural Ambassadors have helped me the most, because before I started this I felt a bit low and working as a Cultural Ambassador with A New Direction has built it up back up again. It has been nice to work with other people and lead on one or two activities.”

Through our SEND Schools Network we have introduced and brokered relationships between schools and arts organisations (both disabled-led and non-disabled led). Many of these partnerships have developed over several years, with schools testing and providing feedback on new resources and programmes.

What was challenging

The recruitment of new settings and maintaining engagement of current members over a time of significant change has been a challenge. We have addressed this by being flexible with timescales and responding to schools’ asks. For example, as part of the I Am Festival 2021, schools expressed a desire for their students to feel ‘care and love’ from those outside of their schools, having been isolated throughout the Covid 19 pandemic. This developed into us working with a group of five disabled young adults on a short work placement in partnership with AFK, through which the group planned, curated, ordered and packed personalised care packages for a group of 12 schools. Each contained creative materials based on students’ interests which were then used for creative activities during the I Am Festival. Schools reported that this connection from beyond the school community was very meaningful and supportive of wellbeing for their students.

Developing meaningful partnerships that have lasting impact on young people takes time. For cultural sector partners which are not disabled led/focused, long-term learning is needed for institutional change. Over the years that we have delivered the network and festival, we have partnered with many new organisations but also maintained longer relationships with some to both learn from and support their development. For example, over the four years of being a Tate Exchange Associate we were able to work with the Tate staff team to advocate for better training for their front of house staff. Front of house staff, including security, received disability awareness training, creating a better welcome for any disabled visitors to the gallery, not just festival participants. Through our partnership with AFK we are learning ways of improving our work experience offer every year and will continue to develop and shape the programme to better support the young people.

To ensure the network was able to continue connecting with each other and with the cultural sector during the pandemic, we moved the meetings to an online model from March 2020 until July 2022. Whilst these meetings were a success, there is more value in meeting in person where there are more opportunities for connection and relationship building. Transitioning the online meetings back into in person also presents a challenge, with the added pressures schools are facing since the pandemic started. To ensure there is added value to the in-person meetings we have arranged for meetings to be hosted by different cultural organisations who will deliver short talks or CPD.

A strength of our programme is the multi-organisational approach, with each partner bringing their own expertise. Often there will be schools, young people, arts organisations, facilitators and venue hosts involved. The logistics involved with working with multiple partners on one programme and the different timescales and priorities each can be challenging. Where possible we build in as much time as possible into planning, development and delivery phases to mitigate for any moving schedules ensuring clear communication between all.

What can others learn?

The delivery of this programme and particularly the development of our work with young Cultural Ambassadors and cultural partners has underlined for us the importance of listening to and learning from multiple stakeholders – young people, teachers, disabled led organisations and artists. We do not approach this work from the position of an expert, more a willing listener and convener, aiming to create connections and build opportunities. Delivering in the long-term has been a huge advantage: it has enabled us to build relationships of trust with schools, to understand the needs of the teachers and their students, and to reflect this back to the partners with which we work. Wherever possible, aim to be led by schools and, in turn, their students: understand their needs and ambitions, advocate for them and support them.

Flexibility, as always, is key when working with multiple partners and schools, to allow for programmes to develop in a way that is valuable for all partners and puts the needs of students at the centre. Listening and adapting has enabled the programme to thrive.

Ensure as much extra time as possible is written into plans to allow for the flexibility needed. This can be challenging when integrating different funding streams around one piece of work as deadlines and availability of funding does not always align.

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