Guest blog: Arts Award and Artsmark: One big journey at The Duchess’s Community High School

11 October 2017

Arts Award in schools across the North East

by Ruth Brown - Head of Art & Creative Arts Faculty, Arts Award Bronze, Silver and Gold Adviser

I was recently asked to explore how Artsmark has impacted upon the young people at DCHS and the value we afford it in the day to day running of our Creative & Performing Arts Curriculum in our new school. It would be fair to say that for us, Artsmark has taken us on one big journey, and we’ve committed across all our arts areas and wider partnerships, to progress, grow, and embed the impact, importance and value arts teaching and participation gives our students’ emotional and cultural wellbeing. We’re passionate about the arts, the skills offered and the cultural enrichment value to our students. To explain where we are in our current journey, it’s best to share where we’ve come from.

In 2014, we were awarded Artsmark Gold, with a clear core ethos which stated a commitment to offering the highest quality arts provision for our students. A strong emphasis is placed on extracurricular and student involvement within the curriculum offer, providing students with opportunities to develop skills in theatre, drama, art, photography, music and film. Teaching and learning within the arts has been, and continues to be, firmly focused on enhancing and broadening students love and understanding of the arts. Subjects are taught in purpose-built environments, both in school and within the community, to fully embrace and understand the nature of the subject. Curricula have been built with the arts firmly at their core, with teaching staff encouraged to broaden and strengthen their understanding and skills across a wide range of disciplines.

Achieving Gold status really helped us get to grips with the possibilities not only of Artsmark and the doors it would hopefully open for us but also Arts Award could hold within our setting, and we began to think how it could be used to help our students gain a greater understanding of, and love for, the arts, while exploring their own personal interests and passions. I think this was a key point; for students to invest, they had to feel able to genuinely respond, exploring what they enjoy without it feeling like school work! 

A novel investment

DCHS has itself embarked on a new chapter and with it a new Artsmark bid for July 2017. September 2016 saw the opening of a brand new school, with facilities which better suited our needs as a creative arts faculty. We are now at the heart of the school (this is no coincidence) and arts engagement is stronger than ever. More of our teaching staff are now trained to deliver Arts Award up to Silver and Gold level, and across a wider range of disciplines. 

Head teacher Maurice Hall perhaps best summed up the significance and importance of the impact felt within our school community: “Artsmark Gold has given DCHS a clear focus and commitment to being a centre of excellence for Creative and Performing Arts within the local and wider communities. 

"It recognises the cultural impact on our students within a rural setting and has opened doors which for many of our students, may have remained closed. Our broad and vibrant curriculum for Years 7 to 13 has provided outstanding learning opportunities and excellent outcomes. The addition of extra curricular opportunities such as experiences of site visits to museums, theatres, galleries, music venues, cinemas, working with external and industry practitioners, opportunities to participate in regional and national arts experiences, public performances and exhibitions, have given our students the skills, confidence and drive to seek opportunities, employment and university options which previously may have seen unobtainable. 

"As a school we view every student as a unique young person, and we want to give them the opportunity to grow and expand into someone quite extraordinary. Artsmark allows us a framework with which to measure, grow and facilitate that and something we are immensely proud of."

From inspiration stems aspiration

Our initial Gold Award expired in July 2017, and our next application has been made. We remain Gold until the re-awarding later this year. We feel we have moved on hugely since our last award, and are therefore aspiring to become Platinum - our aspiration would be a flagship award. The changes made to the new Artsmark application made it far more straightforward than before, and far more about measuring your journey; with all its diversions, twists and turns; than about providing statistics. The process is now much more centred on your progression to deliver culture and the arts, which very much mirrors the ethos and beliefs shared by colleagues delivering in this school and beyond. 

One question I get asked a lot by colleagues in other schools is why do we bother to have and continue to apply for Artsmark. I answer that in terms of impact; having Artsmark Gold status has opened doors to opportunities which would have ultimately remained hidden to us otherwise. Staff have spoken at arts conferences about the importance of arts education, made strong and lasting links made with arts practitioners, arts organisations, galleries, museums, theatre groups, careers services, organisations in industry, charity groups, and universities.

The curriculum offer has grown and been largely supported by outstanding results and these opportunities to engage in a wide range of arts disciplines. Cultural and enrichment opportunities are offered from outside agencies to our students and they respond well to the input and teaching styles from each area.

With Arts Award and Artsmark, there is a much broader understanding of the positive influence of the arts within the community, and the wider community actively supports arts ventures, which helps to raise the profile of the arts under the collective banner of Artsmark Gold. 

Head of Music Susie Cochrane explains the significance of Artsmark for her students: “Having the award has  made the community much more aware of the school and the pride it places on the arts. Organisations wishing to book bands or groups are reassured by the award and the high calibre of performers and performance. It is often commented upon in introductions that our students are from an Artsmark Gold school; it really has had such a positive reflection on the work we do.  

"On a personal level, I feel it has opened doors for working with outside agencies, brought opportunities into school, has increased awareness and participation across the whole student body (in terms of participation in the annual musical, uptake in students opting for music or learning an instrument), the result of which has created a positive environment and rich learning experience for students.”

Feedback from departments very much mirrors the heightened sense of pride and achievement Artsmark status gives the school, and the drive to continue to improve and expand the creative offer. It is and continues to be a privilege to have such an award and it’s viewed with pride by all those involved. It has inspired staff to continue to stretch and challenge our young people to expose themselves to the value, merit and diversity of culture and arts practice, to make them more effective communicators and facilitators in life.

Our journey is by no means at an end; in fact I’d say it’s still in its infancy. Arts Award opens doors for our students and Artsmark opens them for the school and teachers - together they combine everything that’s enriching, rewarding and soulful about the arts, culminating in more worldly, rounded, empathic and culturally aware young people. What’s not to love?!