Licence to learn


The performing arts can play a central role in the education of children with SEN.

We are living in a time when the Government is squeezing the arts out of the education system to focus on the EBacc, which measures pupil performance in core academic subjects, and channelling children into a predominantly academic education. For a country that makes a lot of money through its creative industries, this seems to me to be very short sighted. At the same time, the Government is pushing for more students with SEN to attend mainstream placements. I believe that they run the risk of alienating and disadvantaging thousands of students and damaging the future UK economy in the process.

In Vygotsky’s Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, first published in 1930, he argued that play formed the early basis for creativity. He believed that learning was achieved first through cooperation with others in a variety of social settings and second through “symbolic representatives” of a child’s culture. Art, language, play, song, metaphors and models are part of a two-way process that structures a child’s intellect. Many students with SEN do not have the opportunities to engage in group activities at nurseries, playgroups or other settings before attending school, as provision outside the education sector increasingly does not exist. So it is vital that opportunities for all pupils to participate in performing arts are offered as part of their education.

In all performing arts there are three main strands: appreciation, performing and creating. Each of these strands supports learning beyond the discrete subject being studied. Whether the performance art is dance, drama or music, many of the skills acquired through these three strands are transferrable beyond the subject and education into everyday life. In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Howard Gardner identifies seven forms of intelligences:

  • bodily-kinaesthetic
  • musical
  • spatial
  • linguistic
  • logical-mathematical
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal.

These all are beyond the rote-learning style of education, that schools seem to be encouraged to adopt to simply gain exam results, and focus more on the development of the whole person. This kind of approach is hugely beneficial and far more pertinent in SEN environments, as much of the focus is on development of the whole student, beyond just the acquisition of facts.

Art and development

Rudolf Laban believed that our first language was movement and that basic effort actions were often a window to the state of mind of an individual and therefore important for everyday life. Subsequent practitioners have also recognised the benefit of dance as a tool to help reorganise the central nervous system, improve emotional competency and support development of social skills. These are all vital components in aiding a student’s cognition and helping them to fulfil their learning potential, and hugely important to students with SEN, who may have missed out on early movement experiences.

Many of the students I teach are wheelchair users and spend most of their time “contained” in these vital pieces of equipment. It is, therefore, hugely important to give them access to dance and other movement experiences to allow for vital and often missed movement development opportunities and to give students opportunities to explore their own physicality and creativity, so they can relate to the world around them. I completed an action research project last year that incorporated Sherborne Developmental Movement principles into a “dance as art” model of delivery for students with profound and multiple learning difficulties. Although this was only a small study, the results showed that students not only improved in the skills expected in dance but also took a greater stake in their own learning and engaged more with activities and with those around them.

Mind and body

Tia De Nora discovered that there is an intrinsic connection between sound and motion, evident from the time a child spends within its mother’s womb. The regular pulse of the mother’s heartbeat surrounds an infant and helps to regularise processes such as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat and sleep. Many students with SEN have often been born prematurely and are plunged into a world of machines all working at different speeds and creating alien sounds. Steven Mithen’s research has shown that the singing of lullabies to neonatal infants improves their sucking abilities and as a result their weight gain. This idea, that the body can attune to an external beat (entrainment) is being recognised and used as a tool in medicine, rehabilitation and athletics training. When people respond to music, it is often in a visceral way, and music has been shown to have associations that not only reveal a physical response but an emotional one too. It has also been revealed in research by neuroscientists Daniel Levitin, Steven Mithen and Oliver Sacks that music links to the rhythm of language and speech. For students with SEN, this could be hugely beneficial as active participation reinforces the mind-body connection vital to aid learning.

Gunilla Lindqvist carried out research that looked at child’s play and discovered that much of a child’s relationship with its surroundings is dramatic and conflict is hugely prevalent. Themes relate to fear/safety, weakness/strength, restrictions/freedom and power/equality. This resonates with Vygotsky’s theory from 1971 where he related child’s play to drama and the aesthetic form of the fairy-tale. Most children have opportunities to interact with other children when attending pre-school but for many students with SEN, this opportunity has not existed and so the inclusion of drama as a discrete subject is vital as it allows students the chance to interpret experience to create meaning. A chance to practise situations in a safe environment, and to suspend reality so that all involved can enter a common world to establish communication and meaning, provides a base for abstract thinking and creative ability. Drama offers an opportunity to distance oneself from an actual situation by creating a fiction and in doing so it allows expression. Thought, imagination, language and bodily action occur simultaneously. Drama links to play and play creates meaning. Drama is a vital discipline that can extend beyond the studio to all aspects of learning.

In the current rapidly evolving work and employment environment, the need for adaptability, creativity and interpersonal skills is perhaps greater than ever. The performing arts are currently leading the way in providing opportunities for integration using a creative approach to working practices and how society is represented. For students with SEN and the schools that support them, there could be very exciting times ahead.

Further information

Belinda Ellicott is a dance teacher and music leader at Victoria School, Poole, a non-maintained school providing specialised education, therapy and care for young people aged three to nineteen:


  • DeNora, T., Music in everyday life, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press (2000) 75 – 108.
  • Gardner, H., Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, New York, Basic Books (1983).
  • Laban, R, Modern Educational Dance (2nd edition), London, Macdonald and Evans Ltd (1963).
  • Levitin, D., This is your brain on music, London, Atlantic Books (2008) 57 – 82.
  • Lindqvist, G., The relationship between play and dance, in Dance Education 2 (1), (2001) 41 – 52.
  • Mithen, S., The Singing Neanderthals, London, Phoenix (2006) 69 – 84.
  • Sacks, O., Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, London, Picador (2008) 254 – 269.
Belinda Ellicott
Author: Belinda Ellicott

music and performing arts Victoria School (LIvability)

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music and performing arts
Victoria School (LIvability)


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