Roundtable on Education and Training: Creativity for Health and Wellbeing in the Education System

Roundtable on Education and Training: Creativity for Health and Wellbeing in the Education System

In the first of our two roundtables on the theme of Education and Training we focussed on creativity in schools. In the context of the crisis in children and young people’s mental health, explored in our previous roundtable, we looked in particular at the role of the arts and creativity in the education system to support mental health, wellbeing and emotional development.

Creativity in the school curriculum

In introducing the session our Chair and Creative Health Review commissioner Estelle Morris, Baroness Morris of Yardley, formerly a teacher and Secretary of State for Education and Skills argued that the whilst most people understand the association between creativity and wellbeing, and would welcome further opportunities for young people to engage, we have perhaps not argued strongly enough to guarantee its place in the school curriculum, and consequently the arts are being squeezed out. Baroness Morris noted that ‘exceptionally good things are happening, but we are nowhere near making them available to everyone.’

In this session, we were able to hear about some of those exceptionally good things. We also discussed the challenges, and what we need to do to embed creativity into the education system and make sure it is available to all.

“The power of creative exploration and expression through the arts should be central in helping to address the current crisis in young people’s mental health” – Sally Bacon OBE

To provide the context Sally Bacon OBE, Co-chair of the Cultural Learning Alliance, drew on research carried out for a forthcoming report for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation investigating the current situation in relation to arts in schools and learning from the last 40 years. She finds that whilst there is very good evidence that the arts lead to positive outcomes for children, there is a lack of value placed on the arts in state education, compounded by a focus on accountability criteria and exam results, which ‘prioritises learning to count over learning to create’. Mental health and wellbeing featured prominently in the research for the report. For Sally, a rethink of the purpose of our education system is necessary, and a whole-child approach to education, incorporating social and emotional development, should be emphasised. Expressive arts, which are so valuable in developing these skills, should be given equal weighting as part of a broader curriculum.

This opinion was echoed by headteacher Sarah Williams who noted that although the curriculum can be broad and focus on individual development, schools will be judged by exam performance. Sarah would like to see more acknowledgement that the arts can not only improve the mental health and emotional development of children, but can also help them to perform well in exams.

Bringing creativity into the education system

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s In Harmony programme provides music education in schools serving some of the most disadvantaged areas in North Liverpool, enhancing life chances through orchestral music making. The programme provides free music education for 1650 children and young people per week, and is embedded into the curriculum across four primary schools. Head of Learning, Zoë Armfield explained how the project aligns with Marmot principles, acting on the social determinants of health to reduce health inequalities. Through a long-term commitment at neighbourhood level, evaluation has shown that In Harmony not only improves the life chances of children but has a positive impact on family life, improves the culture and learning environment of the school and can build stronger communities. Sarah Williams, headteacher at Faith Academy, one of the first schools to join In Harmony, feels that whilst the opportunity for children to learn to play an instrument is important, an equally valuable impact is the improvement in children’s mental health and wellbeing and the development of skills such as resilience, teamwork, self-esteem and emotional regulation.

“There are skills that we might take for granted as adults, that our children just do not possess, and they have to be taught this in a school setting. One of the best ways to do that is through enabling them to be creative.” – Sarah Williams

The opportunity to spend time in nature is also known to be beneficial for the mental health of children. Professor Nicola Walshe introduced her work on Eco-Capabilities, which provides opportunities for primary-age children to engage in arts activities outdoors. The combination of the arts and nature has led to improvements in mental health and wellbeing and the development of essential social skills, as well as a fostering a connection to nature. Branching Out, part of the Mobilising Community Assets to Tackle Health Inequalities research programme, looks at how such work could be scaled up so that all children, particularly those in disadvantaged areas, can benefit from the impact. According to Nicola’s research this will require a different approach to addressing mental health in schools – one with takes a multi-agency approach and utilises community assets.

Martin Wilson MBE and Heather Corlett introduced South Tees Arts Project (STAR) which delivers dance and health projects in primary schools in some of the poorest areas of the North East. The programme also takes a multi-stakeholder approach. Heather, who is programme lead at the North East and North Cumbria Child Health and Wellbeing Network explained that the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care Board (ICB) encouraged and supported the development of a programme that prioritised children’s mental health, and addressed the impacts of poverty. Delivered by TIN Arts, the programme brings together cross-sector partners including Northern Ballet, local public health teams, mental health services, schools and several universities that support evaluation. As well as improving the health and wellbeing of pupils as they take part in the programme, Martin highlighted the discovery of dance as a key success. Evaluation found that 30% of children hadn’t taken part in a dance activity before the programme, but on completion 60% wanted to continue.

Music Education Hubs bring together organisations such as local authorities, schools and community organisations at a local level to provide music education. According to Yogesh Dattani, Head of Ealing Music Hub, the renewed National Plan for Music Education provides good opportunities for inclusive music education and whilst funding remains a challenge, engaging with music hubs can help schools provide a diverse musical offer ‘for everyone, not just the few’.

Creative approaches can be particularly beneficial for children who are not able to access mainstream education. Alex Evans, Artistic Director and CEO of Kazzum Arts explained how creativity and arts-based activities are central to Kazzum’s trauma-informed approach to working with young people in setting such as pupil referral units and alternative provision.

“We see creativity inside pupil referral units and alternative provision as vital protective factors to support a child or young person through adverse experiences” – Alex Evans

Children who have experienced trauma, who are from disadvantaged backgrounds, have special educational needs, are from minoritised communities or are care experienced are more likely to be excluded from mainstream education and this has a lasting impact into adulthood, including in relation to mental health and wellbeing. Kazzum’s artists work with small groups over a year and use creativity to facilitate relationship building, whilst allowing the young people the freedom to decide how they will use creativity to meet their needs. Co-production is key. Alex noted that the long-term nature of the intervention was essential to build relationships, and that consistent funding from across arts and education sectors is required to make this work.

Cara Verkerk is Art Room Project Manager at Place2Be. Place2Be is a children’s mental health charity with a focus on prevention and early intervention, working in 600 schools across the UK. As well as providing creative therapies in school settings, they provide workshops, resources and staff training to support schools to use creativity to support health and wellbeing as part of a whole school approach. For Cara, schools are an ideal setting for creative wellbeing activities. A large proportion of mental health conditions are established by age 14, and given the time children spend in school, this is an opportunity for prevention and to spot the early signs and provide support.

“Creative wellbeing work, if it is really integrated into schools existing support systems, can be a tool to spot mental ill-health and for a whole school approach to mental health to flourish.” – Cara Verkerk

Creativity for young people’s mental health and wellbeing

Throughout the session our speakers cited numerous benefits of engaging with creativity and the arts in the education system that they have observed through their programmes. These include improved overall wellbeing, the development of life skills such as confidence, resilience, teamwork, and the ability to perform in public and deal with nerves, as well as emotional skills including empathy, self-esteem, agency, emotional expression and regulation, and the ability to form relationships. In sessions focussed on mental wellbeing, creative activities provided a safe space for self-expression, without the need to use words. In alternative provision settings, creative activities helped children to build a sense of connection with the education system. Arts activities in the outdoors additionally provided children with a sense of connectedness with nature.

Benefits were also felt across the school environment, and by the families of children taking part. Evaluations of both In Harmony and STAR have shown that families have developed an increased interest in local creative and cultural opportunities, and this will help to address health inequalities over the long-term.

Despite the clear benefits, we still face challenges, notably in curriculum pressures and funding restraints, that prevent all children from accessing creative opportunities. STAR is working to adapt the programme to make it more widely available without increasing the cost, exploring digital options and incorporating local community assets. Similarly Branching Out looks to establish local partnerships in order to replicate the programme across more schools.

Recommendations from panellists

We asked our panellists for their own recommendations to Government on this theme, and they made the following suggestions;

  • All schools should have a focus on creativity for health and wellbeing, and this should be integrated across the curriculum. Arts and creativity are also essential in the early years and should be a vital component of how we support children to have the best start in life.
  • All primary age children should participate in one session of arts in nature activities per week to support health and wellbeing.
  • Schools should be supported to build in psychological safety in the school environment, and this should be part of school assessment criteria
  • Creative practice for health and wellbeing should be incorporated into teacher training and professional development
  • Schools should be required to engage with music hubs, or other local creative initiatives that ensure programmes are accessible to all
  • Funding should be provided to allow schools to bring creative programmes and professional artists and musicians into schools. More programmes such as In Harmony should be available nationally, with a focus on the most disadvantaged areas. These programmes should be long-term to help tackle health inequalities.
  • A systems approach, spanning health and education systems and local authorities could help with funding pressures.
  • There should be a national conversation about the purpose of our education system – a new curriculum recently introduced in Wales, which takes a broader approach, could provide a template for this discussion in England.

We are grateful for all our speaker’s contributions and we are looking forward to working with our commissioners to develop a final set of recommendations, incorporating these ideas.

The roundtable is available to watch back here and we welcome your own perspectives and experiences through our open call for contributions – find details of how to submit here.

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The Rt Hon Baroness Estelle Morris of Yardley