A passion for creating art

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Let’s offer ALL students the art education experience they deserve, says Rebecca Bromley-Woods.

As the UK education system has become increasingly narrow and focused on exam results in academic subjects, art has been squeezed out of the mainstream. But for many students who are neurodiverse or have specific learning needs, it is a lifeline.

Art can bring inspiration and success where other subjects bring frustration and failure. It can support SEN children to be more confident, happy and successful.

We’re a specialist college for creative learning for neurodivergent students, and we re-engage young people who have conditions including autism, ADHD and dyslexia back into education. Teaching them everything from illustration to model making, textile techniques and animation, has hugely boosted their social skills and employment prospects. Many students who come to us have missed several months or years of mainstream education.

■ Artistic expression and interpretation stimulate the brain.

Many of them have been thought of as rigid thinkers who can’t appreciate varied perspectives or engage properly with learning, but our courses show that they often have an unbelievable capacity to be creative.

Art and design can harness SEN students’ often tremendous attention to detail, allowing them to carefully research and craft something beautiful. Creating a model or elaborate painting requires the enormous, focused passion these young people can have, becoming utterly absorbed in what they are doing.

There can be a lot of repetition in creative arts, such as with digital processes in animation or print making, and this can suit a neurodivergent mind. The ability to touch materials, from clay to wool, and work with them by hand can be far more fruitful ways for SEN students to operate than dealing with random academic concepts, too.

Projects like creating a piece of art in response to a poem, or collages as a group, require discussion and collaboration with tutors and other students, in ways that solving a maths equation or writing an essay might not. This need to engage with others builds social skills and confidence. The artwork itself is also a fantastic way for young people with SEN to express themselves, where they may struggle verbally.

Art allows for freedom of the individual and to reveal their identity and self. We recently partnered with University of Manchester researchers for the Beyond Words project and exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery. This venture saw our students create artistic responses to voice notes by other neurodivergent young people who were demonstrating their struggles to communicate and cope in a neurotypical world.

■ Creativity grows with persistence and effort.

The art studio tends to be a calmer, less strict and pressurised atmosphere than normal classrooms. This allows SEN students to feel safer, less stressed and more trusting of staff. An art room is a safe space. Even something as simple as being able to reset their brains by not being behind a desk and being able to move around can be very helpful.

Artistic expression and interpretation stimulate the brain’s processes associated with long-term memory, concept construction, and the activation of neural networks used in processing information and the highest forms of cognition.

When students create art, they show remarkable improvements in problem-solving abilities, stress levels, emotional well-being, personal expression, self-awareness and memory. Creativity grows with persistence and effort. Work can be revisited and developed over time—a vital thing to learn for life. Our students have become more motivated and focused on long-term goals. They have achieved qualifications such as Art GCSE and A Level and gone on work placements in museums, galleries and other cultural organisations.

Art and design courses in schools and specialist colleges are excellent education pathways for those who aren’t being well served by ordinary mainstream offerings. However, we must not underestimate the importance of qualified, well-trained educational leaders, SENDCOs, learning-support staff and specialist teachers, who are up-to-date on practice, and who embed SEND strategies into their delivery. Too often students who require an alternative education route are offered substandard environments and varying degrees of expertise.

Rebecca Bromley-Woods
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Rebecca Bromley-Woods Principal of Pinc College

Social media: @pincollege

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