How the arts can help young people with learning disabilities develop the skills they need for adult life.
The move from school into the big wide world is perhaps one of the most difficult and challenging times of life for any young person. However, if you have a mild or moderate learning disability, the odds of “making it” seem to be stacked against you much more heavily than for any other group in our society. For example, it has been widely reported that one in five young people are currently out of work. While this figure is worrying enough, for those with mild or moderate learning disabilities, at least four out of five young people are likely not to get a job when they leave school.
How can we explain this disparity in the employment statistics? Is it because young people with mild or moderate learning disabilities are not able to hold down jobs? Do they simply not have the skills or abilities needed in the workplace? In 2009, the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) identified the need “to develop resilience in young people with learning disabilities in order for them to contribute in a meaningful way to society as young adults”. So maybe there are other more complex factors at play here. Maybe we are not equipping these young people appropriately enough to enable them to make a contribution to society.
In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, published in 1998, Guy Claxton makes the distinction between a “content curriculum” and a “learning curriculum”. A content curriculum is about knowledge and know-how whereas a learning curriculum is about skills that enable us to make full use of that knowledge and know-how to learn more effectively. Claxton talks a great deal about resilience but also about other skills or qualities, such as resourcefulness, determination, imagination, creativity, cooperation, mindfulness, problem-solving, willingness to experiment and take risks, and the ability to reflect. Our education system in general tends to be heavily weighted towards imparting content rather than cultivating skills.
These learning skills are also, arguably, exactly the skills that any young person needs once they leave school in order to compete in today’s challenging employment market; they are what might be called, in this context, survival skills. We expect that young people will develop these much-needed skills somehow as they mature into adults, even though they are not taught explicitly within our education system. For all sorts of reasons though, these commonplace skills are not generally seen as relevant for people with learning disabilities to develop. This group of young people have just as much right to these skills as every other young person and they may even need them more than others in order to ensure they can compete on a level playing field.
How the arts can help
Claxton highlights the need for a learning curriculum but there is also a real need to create effective ways of developing these survival skills in young people more formally and thoroughly. Participation in the arts, mostly through the strong tradition of community arts in this country, has long been recognised as an effective way to gain new skills and tackle a wide range of social and personal issues. The arts encourage the development of confidence, self-esteem, team-work, communication skills, self-management, relationship building and so on. There are many reports and countless personal anecdotes that testify to the ways in which involvement in the arts have changed people’s lives for the better.
Within the education system itself, the power of the arts to improve the way teachers teach and pupils learn has been validated many times across the country. Creative Partnerships, introduced by the Government in 2002 (but sadly no longer funded), supported thousands of innovative, long-term partnerships between schools and creative professionals. One of its guiding principles was that children’s creativity needed to be encouraged in order for them to be fit for the challenges of the modern world of work. There does seem to be a growing recognition of the need to focus more on the learning curriculum and of the significant role that the arts can play in this.
But where do young people with learning disabilities fit into this? A widespread concern within all secondary special schools is about what happens to the young people they have worked with for so many years when they leave. The statistics show that the prospects for most of these young people are bleak. Arts practice in special schools is not often seen within that Creative Partnerships principle – as a way of equipping young people for adult life – although it may be viewed favourably for all sorts of other reasons.
A recent symposium in Birmingham was organised to look at ways in which the arts, and in particular theatre practice, can support the transition of young people with learning disabilities into adult life. The inspiration for the symposium came from a variety of sources, but it was essentially in response to a challenge set down by the Deputy Head of a Birmingham secondary special school who said, after his students had experienced this theatre practice several times: “If we are to really address the problems that our young people face and enable them to lead meaningful, fulfilled lives where they can really make a positive contribution to society, we must recognise that this type of work should be commonplace in all special schools.”
The symposium was the first step in examining what this theatre practice was, why it could be effective in supporting transition, and what support structures need to be set up between schools and employers to ensure the best possible outcomes for young people with learning disabilities.
Theatre is perhaps the most powerful of all the art forms through which to explore human interaction and develop the learning curriculum and the skills associated with it. By its very nature, it is a group activity and simulates and models real life in many ways. However, most of theatre in this country is dominated by words and scripts, which is a fine tradition but is, by its very nature, potentially fairly inaccessible to people with learning disabilities.
The theatre practice that the symposium was examining has been developed by adult actors with learning disabilities working with theatre practitioners keen to make theatre-making more accessible. Through an exploration of a range of more experimental theatrical techniques, a unique practice was developed that released and harnessed the creativity of these actors and led to the creation of a range of powerful theatre productions. Unlike most of the theatre in this country, the essential elements of this practice are non-verbal and not script-based; physical, gestural, visual and music-based ways of developing imagination and story-telling are at its heart.
When this practice was then promoted within a number of special schools, it was found to have a significant impact not only on creativity but also on the learning and development of the children and young people involved. It seemed to be addressing many aspects of the learning curriculum that Claxton advocates. A closer examination revealed that what the practice was allowing, through its emphasis on non-verbal techniques, was the development of a range of communication and interactions skills that are beyond words. By allowing these young people to communicate and interact in ways that are more appropriate to them, the theatre work enabled them not only to engage more effectively in developing essential survival skills, but also to discover much more about themselves in the process.
David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, says that none of us develop in isolation as human beings; from the moment we are born “we become who we are in conjunction with other people becoming who they are”. If this is true, then communication and interaction between human beings is a vital part not just of understanding each other but of self-development. Within our society, we rely far too much on words as the primary means of communication. This excludes many people with learning disabilities for whom words are not necessarily the most effective means of communication. However, as a society, we are under-skilled in other means of communication.
Following Brooks argument through, then, if we limit the means of communication and interaction to the solely verbal, we are implicitly limiting the development of a significant number of people in our society (and potentially all of us). The theatre practice concerned here opens up other means of communication and interaction and develops skills in these areas for all concerned. In this way, it creates a powerful combination of survival skills, self-development and becoming. As one young person, aged 12, said after just six theatre sessions: “you get to show who you really are”, and that is a liberating experience.
Empowering all learners
Young people with learning disabilities remain at a disadvantage in our society because of low expectations. We have low expectations not just that they can learn content, gain knowledge and know-how but also that they can learn how to develop the survival skills that they need to compete in the world. We have low expectations of what they can achieve because we haven’t developed satisfactory and effective means of communication and interaction through which we can all engage more fully with each other.
One of the principle findings of the symposium was that in order to support the transition of young people with learning disabilities, a wide range of adults need to work together in partnership. This partnership work needs to be informed by the enhanced understanding of what these young people can really achieve, what contribution they can make to society and how theatre practice can help realise this potential.
There’s much that needs to change out there in the “real” world but it is possible that this kind of theatre practice can give a group of young people still marginalised in our society more than a fighting chance to earn a living like the rest of us and to make the contribution they are well able to make.
Richard Hayhow has worked as a drama practitioner in special schools for more than ten years. He is Director of Open Theatre Company (formerly shyster.inc), a charity which develops cultural opportunities for young people with learning disabilities principally in collaboration with Birmingham Hippodrome: