Guest Blog: Learning about culture
Last week we announced five new trials to finds out how different cultural learning approaches can help boost primary pupils' achievement. The trials are being funded through a partnership between the EEF and the RSA and form part of the RSA's Learning About Culture programme.
In a blog that originally appeared on the RSA's site, Mark Londesborough, Associate Director of Creative Learning and Development at the RSA, introduces the programme and the five projects.
This month marks the start of a two-and-a-half year investigation into the role that cultural learning in schools plays in improving educational outcomes for children.
It’s intentions are two-fold: to build the evidence base for what works and to improve the way that evidence of effective approaches is used by practitioners in schools and the cultural sector.
Our belief is that by strengthening the evidence base for impact and building capacity for evidence-informed practice among cultural learning practitioners, we can improve the status, quality and long-term sustainability of the arts in our schools.
A couple of years ago, Matthew Taylor wrote a blog asking ‘what if schools spent 10% of their pupil premium funds on arts and cultural activity’. It was a provocation to encourage new thinking about how to ensure that more disadvantaged young people could get a chance to participate in the arts. When Matthew and I discussed the idea with Ministers at the Department for Education and Department for Culture, Media and Sport in 2016, we quickly realised a sticking point: pupil premium funding is expressly intended for activities expected to help close the attainment gap.
Unfortunately, in spite of many studies in this area, the evidence to demonstrate a causal link between arts activity and improved attainment is slim. Rather than dissuading us, this seemed like an obvious opportunity to close that evidence gap; to get more information about how the arts help pupils make progress, in order to help schools identify more funds to make provision accessible.
The programme we have launched is a partnership between the RSA and the Education Endowment Foundation, a ‘what works’ centre established with the express purpose of researching how to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Together we were certain about the project’s first aim, which would answer the need for more robust evidence for how arts activities improve a range of pupil outcomes linked to raised attainment:
Aim 1: Build a stronger evidence base for cultural learning
However, as we developed the programme together, consulting closely with arts practitioners, funders, strategic agencies and schools, we understood that just having evidence couldn’t ever be the answer. We had to make sure that it made its way into practice.
The challenge here is two-fold. One of the important features of the cultural sector’s partnerships with schools is the distinctiveness of different artists, organisations and projects. Any evidence of impact would need to speak to a diverse sector, looking not to replicate the success of others, but to incorporate and adapt successful approaches into new ways of working. It would also need to overcome what the RSA’s early research has revealed to be a gap in effective use of evidence and evaluation in the sector. In order to ensure that our research could make a difference to children, we would need to find out how to increase capacity in the sector for turning evidence into effective practice; to move away from using evidence primarily as a tool for advocacy, to seeing it as a tool for self-improvement. That’s why Learning About Culture has a second aim:
Aim 2: Improve the use of evidence in cultural learning
The programme methodology is wide ranging, including (but not limited to) a series of randomised controlled trials to test the effectiveness of cultural learning activities in improving a range of pupil outcomes. We’re excited to be working with five promising programmes, all providing arts and culture-rich activity, designed around well-evidenced approaches to improving learning outcomes. The trials start September 2018, and will be evaluated by a joint team of independent evaluators from UCL-Institute of Education and the Behavioural Insights Team. Beyond that, the RSA will lead qualitative research to improve understanding of how contextual factors can improve the impact of successful projects and pilot a series of interventions to increase the use of evidence in the cultural learning sector. You can read the detail in our project prospectus and sign up to keep up to date with progress over the next two and a half years.
In keeping with the RSA’s developing methodology for achieving social change – think like a system, act like an entrepreneur - the programme is supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders including the Department for Culture Media and Sport, Arts Council England, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, the Bridge organisations’ network, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Foyle Foundation. Over the next few years, the RSA will work with all these partners and a growing network of evidence champions across the country, in schools and cultural organisations to develop mechanisms for cross-sectoral sharing of best practice and to enable more individuals to spot the opportunities for further practice improvement.
The five Cultural Learning Fund trials - all currently recruiting schools.
Teachers work with author-illustrators of children’s books to develop their understanding of the craft of picture book creation and illustration as a way of raising children’s achievement in literacy.
Residential writing courses supporting teachers to develop their identity and craft as writers and to transfer new pedagogical approaches to the classroom. The project aims to improve children’s writing skills and motivation to write.
Small group drama for children who lack confidence in communicating, have difficulty communicating and/or have poor attention and listening skills. Children act out their own stories together. The project aims to improve communications skills and confidence.
Newsrooms are created in school in which children work with industry professionals to research and write news stories, produce films and radio content. The project aims to improve children’s literacy, confidence, communications skills, and collaborative working.
A structured music education programme involving whole classes participating in daily singing and musical games. Students will learn the basics of music, develop their literacy, and social and emotional skills.
Mark Londesborough is Associate Director of Creative Learning and Development at the RSA.