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'We still have a way to go' - Irish organisations pioneering a creative approach to arts in education


Shane McKenna doing a music workshop with pupils  at St Peter’s Primary School, Bray, Co Wicklow

Shane McKenna doing a music workshop with pupils at St Peter’s Primary School, Bray, Co Wicklow

Kids taking part in a Kids' Own experimental drawing workshop

Kids taking part in a Kids' Own experimental drawing workshop


Shane McKenna doing a music workshop with pupils at St Peter’s Primary School, Bray, Co Wicklow

Arts education can often be seen as a luxury, but a recent landmark study found that pupils who engage with arts and culture feel happier and cope much better in school.

The report, by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on behalf of the Arts Council, followed children aged three, five, nine and 13 over a period and measured the impact of activities like reading, drama, singing, dance and painting on their cognitive development and emotional well-being.

It found that, by age 13, children who participate in artistic and cultural activities have an improved "academic self-image", along with reduced anxiety, better academic skills and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.

Arts Council director Orlaith McBride says that from their perspective, "this report very clearly confirms that the arts are not just the icing on the cake - there are genuine benefits to teachers introducing the arts in their classrooms".

She believes that key to the successful provision of arts in education is integration across the curriculum, rather than isolated periods of music or drama. The term "arts in education" is crucial, as it refers to a cross-curricular approach dedicated to freeing the arts from "the silos of the subject".

"It's at post-primary that we have a lot of work to do. It's seen as a subject area and, if you don't do that subject, you don't do the arts at all. We need to find new ways to bring the arts into school, so it's released from being purely about the subject," she says.

Ms McBride is also a member of the implementation group for the Arts in Education Charter, an initiative of the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

One of the charter's objectives was to set up an online resource to share best practice and, in 2015, the Arts in Education Portal was established. The portal contains reports from teachers and artists on projects in schools, a directory where users can see cultural assets in their community, and a selection of written and audio-visual materials on various art forms.

It is edited by the Kids' Own Publishing Partnership, a Sligo-based arts organisation that runs book-making workshops for children and projects connecting students with artists across the country. Creative director Orla Kenny explains that the portal aims "to build an informed community of practitioners", including artists, arts organisations, pupils and teachers.

"The arts are seen as something that's an added extra rather than something that's core or integral to how we think and learn," she says.

"We were interested to see how an online space could support practice on the ground, and the audience has really grown. We can see from the statistics that we are engaging artists and teachers.

"During our consultations, we were speaking to teachers and artists around the country, and a lot of them said they wanted to be inspired and they wanted to learn from others."

Creative Engagement is a National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD), programme that pairs local artists with second-level schools to produce projects on everything from dance to sculpture. At last week's annual exhibition, held in IMMA, there were 43 projects on display, with 85 projects nationwide.

Creative Engagement administrator Dermot Carney says: "The big push now is to put the arts into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Multinationals know that they need creativity to get ahead, and you see companies like Cisco and Microsoft in the US advocating for more arts in education."

Even as stand-alone school subjects, he says the arts have "a way to go".

He points to art and music teachers on part-time contracts, and argues there are "serious problems" with an out-of-date Leaving Cert art syllabus, as well as art ranking lowest for the number of A grades handed to higher level students.

"The idea of modular, project-based arts in education programmes is the way to go. A lot of good kids are packing in art after Junior Cert because of the CAO grind - they take a look at the stats and they know they're probably not going to get an A1 in art," he says.

The Arts Council/ESRI report identified significant differences in levels of participation across socio-economic backgrounds and Ms McBride notes that, for some children, school may be the only place where they have access to the arts.

"If you come from an advantaged community, your parents can afford to send you to violin classes. If there are no arts in schools, then maybe children from lower socio-economic backgrounds aren't having any arts experience, because they can't afford it," she says.

One of the programmes dedicated to broadening access is Music Generation, co-founded by U2 and which operates under the auspices of the Department of Education. It now works with local music education partnerships in 12 areas around the country to offer tuition in singing, songwriting and a wide range of instruments, providing access for 38,000 children.

"Our mantra is all about access. We want to open the door to give children these vibrant, rich, meaningful experiences and the opportunity to engage with professional musicians," says national director Rosaleen Molloy.

"We're trying to reach children who would not otherwise have the means to pay for tuition, so it is highly subsidised.

"It could be free, it could be something as modest as €2, or if there is a child who wants to progress further, they might be part of a small group that could be €5 to €10 per lesson. It varies so much, depending on the programme, the child's circumstances and what's on offer locally as well."

Ms Molloy notes that the barriers to access go far beyond the socio-economic.

"There is a very strong focus on providing access for children and young people who wouldn't otherwise have the choice or chance. But there are also geographic barriers. If you live in a very rural part of the north-west of Mayo, the nearest tuition centre might be in Castlebar, and you're a two-hour round trip from that," she says.

"There are other barriers as well, such as if your interest is in rock and pop but the only option available is piano. If the child's parents value classical music education, but don't see the value in rock and pop, you're trying to counteract that kind of barrier as well."

'I wanted to make it easier for teachers and kids to make music in the classroom'

Teachers may wish to bring music into the classroom, but many lack the confidence or training to do so.

To tackle the problem, TCD music graduate Shane McKenna launched DabbledoMusic, a music education service that teaches primary school teachers and pupils a form of music notation that aims to be much simpler than the traditional staffs, crotchets and quavers.

"I wanted to make it easier for teachers and kids to make music in the classroom. My experience from working in classrooms was that traditional notation wasn't designed for teaching children, and it wasn't practical enough for teachers to use every day," he says.

"The notation that I developed is a colour-coded, animated system of music technology. It's all delivered through our website and can be used on interactive whiteboards."

DabbledoMusic's website offers free learning resources and, as well as classroom visits, Mr McKenna and his partner Killian Redmond deliver professional development workshops for teachers.

Last week, they received a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Award.

Next September, DabbledoMusic will launch a subscription model, where teachers will receive weekly lesson plans via email.

Mr McKenna says there will be a variety of subscription options to cater to a range of schools, including DEIS schools and individual teachers.

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