Collaborative change-making: what does it take?

Researcher Sarah Davies shares some top tips on how to support collaboration between schools and artists

7 November 2017

Tip 1: Recognise and appreciate different areas of expertise

Tip 2: Think of yourselves as learners

Tip 3: Ensure all partners share a common understanding of the project

Tip 4: Be realistic (but ambitious!)

These tips on how to support collaboration between schools and artists are a gift from last year’s My Creative School cohort to this one. There are 11 tips, for now - along with an option to create a 12th tip. This feels valuable, a gift from peer to peer.

The tips represent learning and change, which is the focus of My Creative School. Many of us in the arts and education are confident that early experiences of art at school are impactful. Putting artform-specific processes aside for one moment, what change is possible if teachers can draw on the creative strategies of practicing artists in approaching curriculum delivery, or even school-wide development priorities? This is the territory My Creative School places itself within.

In year one of the programme, teachers spoke of their increased confidence in using creative or arts-based activities to tackle challenging areas of the curriculum. We recognised a greater willingness to try things out and even get things wrong. This was true of teachers, artists and pupils. In pupils, we also saw better engagement by those who were seen as ‘hard to reach’.

Read the executive summary of the year one evaluation

In year two of the programme, we’re clearer than ever that the partnership itself between artist and teacher contains the essential shared competencies needed to create change. The need to support and nurture the initial forming of these partnerships becomes ever more necessary to increase their effectiveness and elevate these partnerships to the role of change-makers. We’ve also focused even more on the creative project as a catalyst for school change, aligning projects with school development priorities for maximum benefit and impact, both now and in the longer term.

Tip 5: Good communication is everyone’s responsibility

Tip 6: Engage in an open-ended process together

Tip 7: Explore together the school’s areas for development

This year we have teachers from nine schools across four south London boroughs and ten professional artists on the programme. We refer to our artists as ‘creative practitioners’ to shift the emphasis from a particular artform – whether music, dance, drama or visual art - to the broader creative strategies they employ through their work.

There is a lot of advice and literature around the value of partnerships and how to support collaborations. Within My Creative School, we have observed a greater need to nurture early acts of partnering; the emphasis is as much on the management of the way in which people come together and how the partnership will function as it is on planning what these partners will be doing. When the new cohort met for the first time on 4 October, this session placed everyone in an open neutral space with activities that asked teachers and practitioners to collectively consider the role and relevance of the arts in fostering and supporting the aspiration, resilience and wellbeing of children and young people. There were no wrong answers; difference was celebrated as much as alignment. This, we hope, sets the scene for the partnerships that are soon to form.

We are committed to building moments throughout the programme to continue to support and scaffold the act of coming together. We are exploring and testing, aiming to react to the needs of each partnership in the way each partnership will need to react to the needs of its school and pupils. Teachers, we will immerse ourselves in your school. Artists, we will translate and share the knowledge of each school to support you. In walking this journey with you both, we will learn alongside you.

Tip 8: Make time for reflection and evaluation

So what have we learnt so far about nurturing new partnerships?

  • There is power in facilitated joint discussion around definitions, priorities and perspectives in gentle yet provocative and creative ways to create a starting point. In our first CPD session, we employed silent negotiation in mixed groups of practitioners and teachers, open space style discussion, and ‘snowball’ activities to share reflections and challenge thinking.
  • There is value in creating a space for cross-cutting communities of support and learning to expand partnership work. We are trialling regional meetings for schools in the same borough, bringing them together in small groups to facilitate the planning process and we are seeing the sparks of new peer relationships between teachers from different schools.
  • There is value in prompting teachers and creative practitioners to think about their individual priorities for how the partnership will function. We developed a partnership card game activity using these 11 tips, asking both teachers and artists to prioritise them on their own and we aim to repeat the activity playfully throughout the year. At a regional gathering, it was through conversation with a small group of teachers about concerns for the forthcoming partnership work that many priorities were reset. The tip 'Recognise and appreciate different areas of expertise' rose to the top of the list.
  • Facilitated creative challenges can help free people of preconceptions and creative barriers within a partnership based around ‘art’, creating a valuable common ground. At our first regional meetings, we used an activity where participants were asked to draw a monster whilst blindfolded, which immediately opened up the potential to explore arts beyond ‘I can’t draw, but they can’.
  • It is important to provide time and space to celebrate people as individuals, their expertise and their areas of learning. At our regional meetings, we did a playful SWOT test (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) to consider what we love about our chosen profession, what we dislike, what we feel confident in and what we wish could do better.

We have now paired creative practitioners with schools based on our observations and considerations. The next phase of the programme will be marked by the first meeting between schools and their creative practitioner in this second half of winter term.

Tip 9: Give your views honestly and listen to the views of partners and pupils

Tip 10: Consider early on how you might share the partnership’s learning with the rest of the school community

Tip 11: Constantly ask yourselves if each project session is aimed directly at supporting project goals

These 11 partnership tips are based on our collective learning. As we enter the next stage in the My Creative School Programme where project plans start to form, we will continue to apply our learning around partnerships. We offer these tips as our gift to others beyond this programme, as something we continue to trial and test.

What would be your 12th tip...?

The title is borrowed from a quote by Sian Bird, Strategic Partnerships Manager for the East London Cultural Education Partnership, who said that ‘At its best, partnerships are collaborative change-makers.’ (From the Collaborative Cultures event, Barbican, 31.10.17)