building a City of Literature

Joanna McIntyre and Susan Jones of CRACL have been awarded funding from the University’s ESRC Impact Accelerator fund for a project called ‘Building a City of Literature’.

The project builds on over a decade of educational research in the Centre on the most effective ways of developing sustainable partnerships between schools and local cultural organisations.  It extends our work on the signature pedagogies of creative practitioners and uses arts apprenticeship and mentoring models which have been explored in CRACL research in order to develop local knowledge amongst pupils and teachers, using the arts as a means to develop a sense of value about place.


Teachers from three Nottingham city schools joined us at the School of Education to launch the project. They will be working with creative practitioners from local arts company Sheep Soup to support their pupils in researching, writing and performing plays about the communities in which their schools are located.  They will start by exploring some of the resources which have been developed as part of CRACL’s long-standing research partnership with community arts company Excavate.

These include the scripts of two community plays, written by local playwright Andy Barrett.  The first play, Road to Bilborough, is a spy story about the friends and neighbours who migrated into a local council estate in the 1950s.  The second, A Lifetime Guarantee, was a play which resulted from a project which examined the history of the site of Nottingham’s former Raleigh factory (now the Jubilee Campus).  Performed by a community cast, both plays toured local venues to packed out audiences.  Both were based on the oral histories of those who lived and worked in the places they are about.  The oral histories generated as part of the Raleigh project have been archived on a website, and this will provide further material for pupils and teachers to explore.

IMG_0765.JPGWith these two plays and the website as a starting point, the Building a City of Literature project will support teachers and pupils to explore the processes involved in researching, writing and presenting stories about the places in which they live and learn.  One of the outcomes of the project will be playscripts, which will be published as a resource for schools to use.   Work from the project will also feature on a website, developed in collaboration with the teachers involved, which will support other teachers with practical strategies for developing place-based approaches in their schools.

By working with local creative practitioners, the young people involved in the project will also be made more aware of the possibilities available to them to engage with creative organisations in the city, whilst the development of place-based approaches to teaching and learning of literacy offers strong support to Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature status and to the Arts Council’s initiative on Cultural Education Partnerships, both key aspects of Nottingham city’s agenda for engagement with the arts in the city.

telling stories, producing evidence

Frances Howard is researching the Arts Award with ‘disengaged ‘ young people. She writes

Pat and I are working to support The Mighty Creatives (TMC), the East Midlands Bridge Organisation, to run Artsmark Support Workshops based around ‘Evidencing the Impact’.


The Artsmark award was re-launched in 2015 and is a mechanism for helping schools to enrich, develop and strengthen their arts and cultural provision. Schools accredited with Artsmark embed the arts in whole school planning and improvement and enable access for their pupils to high quality resources and networks of cultural organisations.

The workshops are designed to help schools explore how they can best capture evidence of impact on children, staff and the wider school. Teachers undertake practical planning exercises which ensure they consider how best to capture the evidence of impact as they go, in order to be able to reflect on the wider impact of their Artsmark journey in the final case study.

The key questions that we have been posing in these workshops are based around the nature of evaluation: What are we hoping to do? What do we expect to see as a result? And what evidence can we gather to see if this has occurred? Key messages we hope to communicate on telling your overall story include thinking small, incorporating a variety of data and thinking about the analysis of data.

Alongside these theoretical considerations and practical exercises, CRACL postgraduate researchers, myself included, have been presenting empirical examples of data gathering and analysis on their research with schools, arts programmes and children and young people.

These workshops are on-going, taking place twice termly, across the East Midlands region.

We are looking forward to continuing this relationship and developing the work further.


circuit conference

Conferences. We all get to go to them and sometimes we present. Sometimes we even organise them. This year Nicky Sim got to organise a very important conference – the first of a series of wrap-ups of the Circuit programme. It was held at Nottingham Contemporary on March 10th.

Circuit is/was a four-year programme funded by Paul Hamlyn. It brought art galleries and youth organisations together to provide cultural programmes and festivals for young people who might not typically be engaged with an art museum.

We are connected with Circuit in two ways – Nicky has conducted ethnographic research into ‘partnership’ through a TATE – Nottingham AHRC funded studentship, and Becky Coles and I are doing a longitudinal study of 21 people engaged in the ‘youth’ programming/curating collectives. So Becky and I were there, as well as Nicky of course.

The conference theme addressed the possibilities, risks and challenges of developing democratic practice between young people, youth organisations and galleries. (Young people are defined as 15-25)

The attendees came primarily from the ‘youth’ and ‘gallery’ sectors with a few other people, researchers and arts administrators, added in.


The proceedings were a mix of presentations and discussions with some time for ‘table’ conversations.

Some of the learnings of Circuit were clearly on show, both as displays and in the discussions. Youth Collectives have taught galleries that

  • successful programming for young people is inter-disciplinary – film, music, visual and performing arts together
  • young people need to see themselves represented in gallery activities
  • there has to be something for me, something that is relevant to me
  • activities have to offer something – personal development, the opportunity to socialise, new connections
  • activities have to be free and accessible.

Difficult questions were raised and some of the more obvious tensions emerged – the terms ‘young people’, ‘diversity’ and ‘hard to reach’ were an ongoing issue. The hierarchies of power within galleries, the continued attacks on the youth sector and informal education, the possibility of institutional critique becoming a programme of concrete activity challenged all of us.

Becky and I were both pleased to discuss the gallery as a ‘gig’  economy and the parlous state of employment in the arts in general and for young adults in particular; this is a major issue emerging from our research.

conference line drawings by @askthefaces, a Nottingham based artist

Nicky and Rachel from Circuit did a great job in organising the conference. Nicky’s commitment to ensuring that a wide range of views were on the table was enacted through the programme. The process and the topic were congruent.

I’m sure all of us left with some key things to think about and  even perhaps with a concrete action in mind.

Youth Forum: democratic participation through the arts

We have just completed our second interim report of the Serpentine World without Walls programme. This featured research into the first stage of Youth Forum, a programme conducted with Westminster Academy high school students. The artists commissioned to run the programme are Barby Asante and Teresa Cisneros.


We report that:

In this project, young people were encouraged to draw on their own experiences, resources of knowledge and skill to develop ideas, to plan, to make and to show and share artefacts they had made. If the ‘discipline of form’ provided a framework and required the patient development of craft skills, it also allowed the young people to draw substantially on, and to contribute to, their ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll, 1990).

Observation, discussion with the young people, Education Curators and the commissioned artists gave clear evidence that art-making activity was greatly valued by the young people. Levels of concentration (or distraction from some) were indicators of levels of engagement and involvement in the project. Overall, a palpable sense of purpose and progress was evident in the various 8 studio spaces at the Cockpit when the young people were making things. They garnered opinions from others, negotiated and reflected. The young people generally felt that they permitted to give voice to their ideas, opinions and concerns.


The full interim report is here as a downloadable PDF


I, Daniel Blake reveals the rich complexity of literacy – and why it matters

This post by Susan Jones is re blogged from The Conversation, Feb 9, 2017.


The Bafta nominated film I, Daniel Blake portrays the often brutal experiences of those attempting to navigate the British welfare system. Director Ken Loach has said of his film, however: “It’s for those people who are struggling against the cruelty of bureaucracy, whatever country.”

The film gives us insights into the ways in which today’s world can be particularly alienating for those without the specific skills it demands. Viewing the film through the lens of literacy, we see how letters, booklets and forms accrue as pillars of a system decried by Daniel Blake as a “monumental farce”.

Within a knowledge economy, literacy is bound up in a wider suite of policy based on an economic/financial model of human development and a narrow view of how people make use of literacy in their everyday lives. As is shown in the film, this both compounds the challenge for those in need of access to vital resources and renders their everyday experiences invisible.

Daniel Blake is not “illiterate” – he is resourceful, creative and willing to work, and we see him using his skills and sharing his knowledge. He is told that the benefit system he is forced to navigate is “digital by default”. Daniel’s riposte that he, as a craftsman, is “pencil by default” reflects one of his key challenges. The pencil is associated with versatility and being open to change. However, it can also be rubbed out and replaced, like the generations of workers Daniel represents in post-industrial society.

When he is asked to “run the mouse up the screen” of the computer in his local library, where he has sought help with his benefit form, he tries to do so physically. When he is told his screen is “frozen” he replies: “Can you defrost it?” The unfamiliarity of these processes place this man, who has never before needed state support, in an alien world.

A world moving on

New technologies may be moving on, meaning people like Daniel can be left behind, yet the film demonstrates how digital technology is a key resource for creative and collaborative responses to economic challenge. Daniel’s neighbour has been forced to use his initiative to supplement a meagre income from a zero-hours contract by ordering counterfeit trainers through a contact in China.

Daniel is left incredulous at the Skype conversation he witnesses – his disbelief at the fact that this conversation is taking place at two different ends of the globe emphasises how the world is moving on around him, leaving him without access to resources, recognition or the means to participate in society. It is this neighbour, China, who is finally able to complete the Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) form online for Daniel, after days of his thwarted attempts in more official institutions.

Despite the stranglehold placed on claimants by the bureaucracy depicted in the film, the two most powerful texts in Daniel’s story are his own. His spray-painted graffiti makes public the individual struggles that take place within a hidden maze of official texts. The note Daniel prepares to read at his appeal, handwritten in pencil, also challenges the system he has been forced to navigate. Announcing himself as “I, Daniel Blake” in both of these texts, Daniel is defiant in reclaiming his identity from those who have sought to define him.

Insecure times

The benefits system with which Daniel grapples is the result of the most significant reform of the British welfare state in half a century: that is, in the time since Loach directed Cathy Come Home. However, the challenge for those made vulnerable by poverty is even more acute today than it was five decades ago, and media-friendly epithets of “skivers” or “strivers” hark back across centuries to notions of the feckless and undeserving poor.

Researching for his Bafta nominated screenplay, screenwriter Paul Laverty heard stories across the UK of insecure housing, zero-hours employment contracts, inflexible fitness to work assessments and punitive sanctions. Katie’s desperation at the food bank is one of the film’s most powerful depictions of the impact of recent welfare reform on personal dignity, and it reflects the reality of an eight-fold increase in their use in the last five years.

A close focus on literacy in I, Daniel Blake highlights the impact of welfare policies which are based upon a narrow view of people’s lives. It also shows how this impact is compounded when such policies rely upon narrow ways of viewing literacy and the rich complexity of its role in everyday life. Literacy education and research can and should continue to challenge reductive models of what it means to be literate, and to critically explore the implications of this for social justice. This can provide valuable space for voices, such as that of Daniel Blake, to be heard


CRACL news

CRACL is pleased to report two staff changes.

Dr Becky Parry was the researcher working on the Tale project, She now has a permanent Assistant Professor position in the school. She will be working on the new B Ed programme and the MA CALL.

Dr Lexi Earl has been appointed to the position of researcher for TALE for the remainder of the project.

We will soon be advertising a shorter term position for a researcher specialising in statistics.


Roma Patel, who is partly supervised in CRACL, conducted her final PhD research ‘experiment’ at Lakeside. Roma is a theatre designer and she is researching how digital technologies can be used to create immersive theatre environments for very small children.

She staged, with the help of an artist, a one hour performance which was attended by volunteer research families. The performance was called The Runaway Hare, and it featured a tree that responded to sound by making light patterns, a talking grassy patch, a magic flower that laughed and boats that twinkled.

new books

CRACL members have recently published two new books. As if thats not enough, one of our PhD graduates has also published the book from her thesis.

Alex Southern (2016) The Ministry of Education Film Experiment. From Post-War Visual Education to 21st Century Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Becky Parry, Cathy Burnett and Guy Merchant ( Eds) (2017) Literacy, media, technology. Past, present, future. Bloomsbury

Pat Thomson and Christine Hall ( 2017) Place based methods for researching schools. Bloomsbury

learning with Serpentine

We have been conducting an evaluation of learning in the Serpentine’s World without Walls programme. We have just reported on our interim results from an examination of two projects. One was the first instalment of Changing Play, a project conducted in partnership with the Portman Children’s Centre.

Anton did this first set of research. His investigation of the work that artist Albert Potrony did suggests the following benefits for children:

  • awareness and understanding of a range of materials and objects, manipulative skills in handling large and small materials and objects, and ability to conceptualise them in form and use
  • imaginative development in the interaction with materials, objects and other children, allowing experimentation in applying and combining of materials.
  • linguistic development in the use of words, utterances and in the construction of narratives accompanying play and reflecting on it afterwards is essential in early conceptual development.
  • the richness of children’s narratives incorporated their understanding of social relations and responses to immediate and mediated culture – many instances of children making references to familiar media characters (notably Power Rangers) and to their experience of social and cultural life (home life, rockets, putting people in prison)
  • the ability to ‘read’ materials and objects – to name things in their playworld and to construct complex narratives ­­adapting them to their imaginative purposes – are powerful precursors of literacy development
  • looking at the images the artist had taken of the children in play and then reflecting on them later, interpreting them and making narratives assisted the development of memory
  • continuity and consistency in working regularly with a particular group of children – the original plan was to work both with the Nursery and with a drop-in parent and toddler group, ‘Stay and Play’, but after reflection and discussion with staff this was modified to concentrate on working with the Nursery children
  • particularly apparent was children’s increasing sense of autonomy in the playworlds they created, affording them a clearer sense of their own developing character and personhood for themselves and in relation to others. Children were able to lead adults into and through their imaginative worlds, involving them in their play

There were also benefits for nursery staff and children. You can read our full interim evaluation report  here as a downloadable pdf. worldwithoutwalls_interimresearchreport_final-copy

primary arts are in trouble

This is a piece that Pat has just written for a forthcoming NUT publication on primary assessment.


The national curriculum guidelines affirm the value of cultural education for all children. The arts – including art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts, design and technology – are an integral part of the national curriculum up to age 14. The guidelines for art, craft and design for example begin by stating that these subjects “embody some of the highest forms of human creativity” and that a “high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works of art, craft and design” (Department for Education, 2013).

The four domains of cultural education – knowledge, the development of analytic and critical skills, skills based in particular arts forms, and the development of personal creativity – are to be fostered through a formal school programme, as well as informal opportunities. Influential arts advocates John Sorrell, Paul Roberts and Darren Henley argue that a commitment to cultural education also means that all children should, for instance, engage with artists, visit a wide range of cultural institutions, enjoy extra-curricular arts activities and experience the pleasures of being audience, participant and producer (Sorrell, Roberts, & Henley, 2014).

There is research which shows that cultural education offers even more than subject-based learning. The arts support children to build a wide range of communication skills, to exercise responsible leadership, to learn and practice team work and to take initiative (Thomson, Coles, Hallewell, & Keane, 2014). Research also suggests that primary schools with robust cultural education programmes have improved attendance (Cooper, Benton, & Sharp, 2011; Durbin et al., 2010) and a more positive school ethos (Bragg & Manchester, 2011); teachers and students alike have a greater sense of well-being (McLellan, Galton, Steward, & Page, 2012).

There seems every reason for primary schools to embrace the arts enthusiastically. Cultural education is part of what they are meant to do, and has well evidenced positive benefits.  Yet a comprehensive primary cultural education offer is not the reality.

The regime of national tests, with their overwhelming emphasis on particular types of literacy acquisition, makes it very difficult for schools and teachers to offer the broad and balanced cultural learning experiences envisaged in the national curriculum and by cultural education advocates. The most recent survey by the National Society for Art and Design Education (2016) for example showed that

89% of primary teacher respondents in all state schools indicated that in the last five years, and in the two terms before key stage 2 National curriculum tests (year 6), the time allocated for art and design had reduced. In contrast, a decrease in time was reported by only 54% of independent school art and design respondents.

In practice this meant that:

35% of key stage 1 respondents in state primary schools and 63% in independent primary schools said pupils in their schools access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

 31% of key stage 2 respondents in state primary schools and 70% in independent schools said pupils in their school access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extra-curricular arts activities for their children (The Sutton Trust, 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting & Ipsos MORI, 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlement to arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Some primary schools of course have not reduced their emphasis on cultural education. They make sure that time for the arts is not eroded by test preparation. They employ a primary arts specialist as part of their core staff complement. They use Arts Mark as a framework to manage time spent on creative and cultural education, commissioning artists and arts organisations to work in partnership with them. They employ arts specialists to provide programmes which then release teachers for planning time. They use their pupil premium funding to ensure that children from low income homes are able to participate in extra-curricular activities and excursions. They are in regions or cities where there is additional support for cultural and creative education, perhaps one of the fifty Cultural Education Partnerships recently established by Arts Council England [1].

But cultural education should not be left to accidents of geography or the commitment of individual schools, governors and teachers, any more than it should be the gift of parents who can afford it. Education policy-makers in England must do better and do more to ensure that all children, regardless of their situation, are able to “participate fully in cultural and artistic life’. This means, as Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children puts it,  that government must take deliberate steps to “encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”[2].

The national curriculum expresses the learning that is important for the next generation, it spells out the kinds of learnings that are fundamental to our society and are an entitlement for all children. As imperfect as the national curriculum now is, it still has the arts as foundational learning. Policy-makers must do more than set out guidelines – they must make the outcomes achievable. Testing regimes and care-less policy are currently pushing schools away from ensuring that cultural and creative education is available to everyone. This is both inequitable and unacceptable.


Bragg, S., & Manchester, H. (2011). Creativity, school ethos and the Creative Partnerships Programme. London: Creativity, Culture and Education.

Cooper, L., Benton, T., & Sharp, C. (2011). The impact of Creative Partnerships on attainment and attendance in 2008-9 and 2009-10. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Department for Education. (2013). Art and design programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2. National curriculum in England. Department for Education.

Durbin, B., Butt, S., Saltini, F., Sharp, C., Teeman, D., & White, K. (2010). The impact of Creative Partnerships on school attainment and attendance. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

McLellan, R., Galton, M., Steward, S., & Page, C. (2012). The impact of Creative Partnerships on the wellbeing of children and young people. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education.

National Society for Art and Design Education. (2016). NSEAD Survey Report 2015-2016. Accessed August 24, 2016: NSEAD.

Sorrell, J., Roberts, P., & Henley, D. (2014). The virtuous circle. Why creativity and culture count. London: Elliott &Thompson.

SQW Consulting, & Ipsos MORI. (2013). Evaluation of the Find Your Talent programme: Baseline quantitative findings from ten Find Your Talent patfinder programmes. DCMS.

The Sutton Trust. (2014). Research brief: Extra-curricul inequality, . The Sutton Trust.

Thomson, P., Coles, R., Hallewell, M., & Keane, J. (2014). A critical review of the Creative Partnerships archive: how was cultural value understood, researched and evidenced? Swindon: Arts and Humanities Research Council.