The Inspire project: using the arts to reach out to disengaged students
Drama teacher Josie Maitland on how she devised an intervention strategy through photography, art and music
The Inspire project: an intervention programme of activities for disengaged young people has seen attendance increase by 30% at Josie Maitland’s school. Photograph: Alamy
When I first proposed the idea of setting up an intervention programme to tackle disengagement, I was told by a lot of people that it was “risky”. It was a risk because we didn’t know how the students, who had been identified as either underachieving, having low attendance, or presenting challenging behaviour, would react and whether it would work. I was no expert, but from my research for my master’s in education into engagement I had realised the enormity of the problem of disengagement and I wanted to do something about it.
This year’s figures reveal that there are 1.09 million not in education, employment or training (NEETs) aged 16 to 24 in the UK, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. NEET figures tell us how many children and young people leave education, not how many are in education and disengaged from it.
The students who are still in school are the students we can still reach, who we can help find their way, prevent them from becoming ‘lost’. I began to think that there wasn’t a risk in running the intervention, the real risk, was not intervening at all.
Disengagement has many different causes; peer pressure, past experiences of school, home circumstances, lack of confidence in ability, sibling experience of school to name but a few. Plus, disengagement presents itself in an equally diverse range of behaviours and in a range of abilities. A student who is boisterous and attention seeking, for example, is no less engaged than a student who quietly removes him or herself from the lesson, shrinking into the background and becoming invisible.
But there is one thing all disengaged students have in common, they all need us, as teachers, to work harder in order to ensure they don’t slip away from learning.
I set about utilising all the information gathered in my own research about disengaged students, and best practice in existing schemes both in and out of my school, and I created an intervention programme called Inspire. Delivering art, photography, drama and music, the workshops were tailored to the needs of the specific group of students selected by the head of year and student support staff. Initially delivered to year 9 boys, the project has now been extended to year 8 and 9 boys and girls, who continue regular mentoring throughout year 10.
Each unit gives students new and creative skills such as lyric writing, graffiti stencil making or photo editing alongside developing key personal qualities, such as building trust, social relationships, organisation and self-motivation. Students naturally begin to express themselves via the art mediums and consider their presentation of self to others, their ambitions and their fears. Each unit culminates in an exhibition or event which students organise and run. They are asked to dress smartly and serve food and drinks to the invited parents, staff and peers. These events are as transformative and eye-opening for staff as they are for students and have proven to be a powerful catalyst for change.
We regularly track the behaviour, attendance and achievement data on each member of the group because these are our three indicators of engagement. We share this data with students at the start of each session and use it to set targets for the following week.
The Inspire outcomes are overwhelmingly positive. For example, in our first cohort, 50% of students had an attendance below 85%. At the end of the course, 80% of the students had an attendance of above 90%. By the end of the programme, seven out of eight pupils had significantly decreased their behaviour points. Many of the outcomes are not measurable in statistics but in staff reports of “nicer students” and “better attitudes” and students “feeling more confident” or “more focused”.
Inspire continues to develop in response to the interests and abilities of the students on the programme. This year I have delivered both a sports and a creative writing themed unit, for example, and in taking advice from other departments in the school, the project is fast becoming both cross-curricular and a collaborative way for staff to share best practice. I am also working alongside other departments in school to bring my research into engagement into mainstream classroom teaching so that we balance the reality of whole class teaching with these students’ unique needs.
Broadly speaking, if the content of the lesson is pitched at the right level for the student, if they can grasp the concept and is interested by it, the head is engaged. Our next job is to coat the learning experience in emotion. By building a relationship of trust, mutual respect and security, we encourage the student to feel confident, valued, energised, and wanting and needing to learn in order to achieve a real and tangible goal. By instilling confidence, employing a playful, no fear of failure, laddered experience, where the student falls in love with the process of learning, and sees that getting it wrong is actually a vital part of getting it right.
In his recent TED talk on Education’s Death Valley, Sir Ken Robinson recounts his visits to countless alternative education programmes, which, he says, have a number of things in common: “They are personalised, have strong support for teachers, a broad diverse curriculum…they work.” Robinson goes on to argue for fundamental changes in the way we educate our diverse and creative young people, because, as he says: “If we all did that, there would be no need for the alternative programmes.”