Creative Schools initiative: A new way to learn

Programme aims to enable children’s creative potential

The  project aims to explore the idea of creative engagement in schools

The project aims to explore the idea of creative engagement in schools


What does creativity mean? The answers are as varied as the creative arts themselves. According to four-year-old Jamie Cozma “it’s painting rainbows, twisting in dance class and making up songs”. For Nicolás Rodgers (7), “it’s when you use your imagination to make something when you are bored”. Nine-year-old Lily McDonnell says it’s about “being yourself and having no limits”. Liam Hurley (16) thinks it means “being free to do what you are not told to do”, while for Emma Walsh (6) it is simply “being magical”.

This question has marked the starting point for Creative Schools, a new programme being piloted in schools across Ireland, as part of the Creative Ireland project, which aims “to enable the creative potential of every child”. As Tania Banotti, director of Creative Ireland explains, “the best way to reach every child is through the school system”.

The scheme, which consults young people about the school environment, their experience of arts education and the way in which they learn, is being led by a team of creative associates, who work with schools to support the development of a creative school plan that is designed to deepen opportunities for artistic expression and enable students to develop their creativity.

As Banotti explains, however, that plan is “not necessarily bounded by the arts: creativity is important to heritage and science and technology, as well. The big distinction that needs to be made is that the creative associate is not just going in [to schools] to talk about architecture or music or, even, say, biodiversity or coding. They are going in to explore the idea of creative engagement. They are asking: how can we help develop ways of creative engagement across the curriculum, across the environment of the school as a whole?”

Banotti gives an example: “One of the themes that has come up for pupils and teachers in a few different schools, for example, is food. So the job of the creative associate is to help the school find ways of approaching that creatively, extending it beyond cooking, say, to look at sustainability, nutrition, climate change; to use the creative seed that the school would like to develop to talk about other things in the curriculum.”

This kind of expansive learning, Banotti says, “is not just about artistic expression” but “encouraging critical habits of mind: imagination, empathy, inventiveness, persistence. This is the bigger picture of creativity. These are the critical competencies of the future”.

Critical thinking

Joanne Brennan is a French teacher at Beech Hill College in Monaghan. As a trained actor, Brennan was very keen that her school should participate in Creative Schools initiative, but not just because of her own love of the arts. Speaking on behalf of the school, she says, “we are looking at the role the arts can play – not just in creating artists, though hopefully we will inspire some [to] realise it is a valid career – but in helping us create imaginative thinkers, who can use these skills for whatever role they might serve in their careers. We are very aware that economic future is very turbulent for young people coming out of school; 65 per cent of the jobs a primary student will have after leaving school are not yet invented. So we know we need to make our learners creative and independent”.

Brennan welcomes the fact that the education system is slowly changing to acknowledge the role that the arts can play in developing tools of critical thinking, as well as the value of the arts in their own right. The new Junior Cycle, for example, “sets out creativity and wellbeing as key skills across the curriculum”, and initiatives like Creative Ireland “allow us to develop different ways of integrating that across the school.”

‘Durational nature’

Artist and architect Blaithín Quinn is one of 47 Creative Associates contracted to the Creative Schools scheme. Quinn has a long history of working on collaborative projects across a variety of educational settings. The Creative Schools programme, however, is something radically different than anything she has done before. Firstly, the job draws on her expertise but doesn’t necessarily engage her practice. “Usually,” Quinn says, “when you are engaged in an educational context, you work with the school for a couple of weeks to complete a specific project. It might be an artwork created with the children that would be left at the school or a performance parents would attend or an intervention in the school’s architecture.”

However, the “durational nature” of the Creative Schools project, which runs over two years, “allows you to get much deeper than that”. The core goal of the creative associates tenure at the school is to help create a “bespoke plan” for deepening the school’s experience of the arts and situating creativity at the heart of the classroom.

Quinn is working in four different schools across the Dublin area. As each school has different needs, Quinn explains, the initial approach of engagement must be tailored to suit their specific requirements. “Firstly, you have to work to understand where the school is, in terms of its artistic and creative development and experience.” One of her schools, for example, Monkstown Educate Together, has a solid 20-year history of engagement with the professional arts. However, two – Shellybanks Educate Together in Sandymount and Dún Laoghaire Educate Together – are new schools without permanent homes. Quinn’s final engagement, meanwhile, is at Ballymun Youthreach, a second-chance centre of education for early school leavers.

A creative space

The initial process of consultation involves all stakeholders of the school: staff (what skills do they need to become more confident creatively?); parents (what skills do they have that they can share?); and students (what does creativity mean to them?). The student voice, Quinn says, is of particular importance: “the general consensus is that in order to do this authentically, it is vital to take on board what the young people want. Their voices are vital to creating a sustainable plan for the school. What would they like more of? What would they like to explore?” She describes the strategy as a “bottom-up” rather than a “top-down” approach. “Children should be consulted at every stage. Their opinion, their desires, their needs, should be considered first.”

This is a time-intensive process, however, as Quinn elaborates. She has been working with her four schools since September, but the initial phase of consultation is only drawing to a close now. The announcement earlier this month of a second year of funding for schools enrolled in Creative Schools, as well as funding for an additional 150 schools to participate, was a welcome relief. “It is not until you know the school, understand their needs, that you can really move forward to the development stage, where you can help the schools create and implement a Creative Schools plan.”

Beech Hill has just published their plan, in collaboration with their creative associate, sculptor Joanne Behan, and the student council. So far, they have committed to an arts celebration day at the end of May, which they hope to grow into an annual week-long celebration, a series of devising workshops with theatre-maker Declan Gorman, and – at the suggestion of their students – the development of a creative space, with access to arts resources, for use during recreation time.

It sounds exactly like what Quinn describes when she explained the ultimate goal of this innovative project. “It is about embedding creativity in the everyday life of the school. The legacy you want to leave is not a piece of art but a different way of looking at the world.”

The Creative Ireland project

Creative Schools is only one part of the Creative Ireland project, which aims “to enable the creative potential of every child”. Only 10 per cent of schools are currently represented, although the initial success of the first year has enabled another 150 schools to be added to the initiative next September, with the idea that it will be eventually rolled out in every school in the country.

In the meantime, Creative Ireland are also running 15 youth projects outside of the education system, to try and reach children that might not otherwise have access to the arts and creative expression. These include an orchestra for young disabled musicians at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a research and development project to design an Intercultural Schools Programme at the Chester Beatty Library, Song Seeking, a Limerick-based project that will explore and enhance musical participation amongst asylum seekers, and an initiative to get people from Direct Provision centres singing in local choirs. Also instrumental in their vision is Cruinniú na nÓg: the only dedicated day of play for children in the world. It takes place on June 23rd.

What does creativity mean to you?

Marcus Rennicks, 8: “Creativity means you draw your own picture instead of copying it from another picture.”
LouElen O’Donnell, 7: Creativity is coolness and funness.
Juno Beirne (9): “It’s letting your brain go wild.”
Leo Pearlman Spencer (11): “Creativity is not copying someone else and doing your own thing.”
Siofra Deasy (9): “It’s taking anything that pops into your mind that is ordinary and making it extraordinary.”
Cal (9) and Moss Hurley (7): “Creativity is seeing and thinking and doing things that other people don’t.”
Adam Pearlman Spencer (16). “Creativity is the ability to use initiative and think in your own way.”

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