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Creative Writing through the Arts: BERA prize leads to ‘more and better’

Geraldine Davis Paulette Luff

In September 2014 teachers in primary schools in England began the academic year with a new National Curriculum. In this statutory framework there is a detailed 70 page programme of study for English in Key Stages One and Two (for 5-11 year olds) whilst the comparable booklets for Art and Design and Music are both just 2 pages long. Amongst many critics, Robin Alexander [] described the new curriculum’s: “deeper than ever divide between ‘the basics’ and the rest, its cursory treatment of the arts and humanities and its abbreviated inclusion of spoken language”.

“Our aim: to provide early career teachers… to develop music, drama and visual art activities to use in the classroom to support pupils’ attainment in writing.”

It was against this unpromising backdrop that we, at Anglia Ruskin University, began working collaboratively with Royal Opera House Bridge and Billericay Teaching School Alliance.  Our aim: to provide early career teachers with specialist training and the opportunity to work alongside arts practitioners to develop music, drama and visual art activities to use in the classroom to support pupils’ attainment in writing. The teachers undertook action research in their classrooms and this contributed to an overall evaluation of the benefits of creative writing through the arts for pupils, teachers and schools. A Summary Report [] and full Final Report [] for 2014-15 are available and the project is also showcased in the Royal Opera House Bridge publication ‘The Paths We Take’  []

We were delighted to be awarded the 2015 British Educational Research Association / British Curriculum Foundation Routledge Taylor-Francis Curriculum Journal prize [] for this first phase of the ‘Creative Writing through the Arts’ project. The money linked to this BERA award was invested in continuation of work to develop and embed arts across the curriculum (together with further funding from Royal Opera House Bridge). In 2015-16 the teachers experimented with film literacy and stop-motion animation and a pupil voice element was added to the research and evaluation.

Throughout the two year initial project, the teachers gained inspiration from creative practitioners and built up a tool-kit of strategies to encourage children to write. They also acquired skills in action research, supported by university academics. We developed ideas and processes for data collection.  How could we measure progress when the school based assessment measures were changing? How could we capture good practice across the schools? Participating teachers identified ways in which pupils could voice their views about their progress with writing and we considered ways in which careful measurement of pupils’ achievements in writing could occur.  The teachers were clear: the project made a difference to the children, so that the children wanted to write, they wrote more and they included much greater description in their writing.  The teachers stated that they had gained a skill set which could be used across their teaching, they also benefitted from the community of practice which developed as the teachers met during the year at the different development activities.

As a result of the original work, through a successful bid by Royal Opera House Bridge for a ‘More and Better’ grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Arts-based Learning Fund, we now have the opportunity to carry out a longer and more detailed study, with closer analysis of samples of children’s writing and greater consideration of pupil voice.  Our three-year (2016-2019) collaborative project with Royal Opera House Bridge and forty-five primary schools from five Teaching Schools Alliances in South Essex is well underway.  Fifteen primary school teachers joined the project this academic year.  Teachers have been attending Inspiration Days with follow-up school visits by creative practitioners from film literacy and drama, and next term they will explore the use of dance.  Once again, the teachers are co-researchers gathering evidence and reflecting upon the effectiveness of classroom activities that they have put in place to develop children’s creative writing; whilst we are supporting and collating the teachers’ research and gathering further data to evaluate the effectiveness of the project.  The project is not just about the individual teachers and the children in their classes, headteachers have signed up to the project for whole school development.

“Initial samples of children’s writing demonstrates increased quality and quantity of writing”

Initial feedback from the participating teachers, who joined the project in September 2017, is very positive.  Children want to write, and they write more.  The children include more detail in their writing and are more imaginative.  Assessment of initial samples of children’s writing demonstrates increased quality and quantity of writing inspired by creative activities, when compared with an equivalent baseline piece. Writing samples from a cross-section of pupils within each class are being collected and analysed throughout the year. The first full data set will be available in July 2018, and reports will follow.

The current project team at Anglia Ruskin University Department of Education includes: Geraldine Davis, Paulette Luff, Mallika Kanyal and Faye Acton.