Shaftesbury School’s headteacher says arts subjects can transform pupils’ lives and help their mental wellbeing. Tim Farrer spoke with Alfred following a Royal Society of Arts (RSA) report into the challenges and successes of his plan to create an arts-rich school.
In 2017, the RSA launched a research project to help educators and policymakers understand the value of arts-based learning, particularly for disadvantaged children. Shaftesbury is the only Westcountry town included in their study of eight schools or academies following an arts-rich approach.
Headteacher Tim Farrer explained what the term means. “It’s how the subjects are placed in the curriculum – the amount of time they’re allocated and whether they’re included in homework, how they’re resourced by the leadership team and whether they appear in conversations and dialogue as much as the other subjects that a lot of people tend to talk about, like English, maths and science,” said Tim, who added that arts-based lessons are ‘on a par’ with all other studies.
The term ‘art’ may encompass a broader range of subjects than some adults remember from their school days. It’s no longer limited to drawing or painting. “You include textiles. You might include graphic design, photography and multimedia work. Media studies will be considered as arts as well. Anything that has a cultural or artistic background,” said Tim, who believes that widening pupils’ arts-based learning will help the children develop valuable skills for life.
“What I’m pursuing is my fundamental belief that young people should have access to the broadest range of subjects and opportunities. I’m just pursuing balance and breadth and experience,” he said.
Tim has been the headteacher for three years and he has personally driven this initiative. “It is a passion of mine, because I’m an arts-based teacher and I have been for 28 years. But whatever role I’ve played in a school, whether it was deputy head or assistant head or a teacher, I’ve just always believed in the transformative power of the arts in the lives of young people. I didn’t expressly arrive at Shaftesbury and say, ‘I’m on a mission to develop the arts’. But while there is breath in my body, I will promote, defend and deliver the arts where I can,” he enthused.
Tim says Shaftesbury School is currently ‘arts-enriched’ but it’s not yet ‘arts-rich’. He says that there’s more work to be done. “The arts are constantly evolving with new media and new technologies,” he said.
Some locals might disagree with this philosophy. Tim has heard the arguments that schooling should be about the traditional subjects, once termed ‘the 3Rs’, of ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’. “Those people have always existed in my 28-year career and they very possibly always will,” Tim responded. “I say the same now as I did before – the arts provide a fundamental understanding of self and the world around you. They develop confidence, communication, and cooperation skills that are essential for employment, but more importantly, to be a better citizen. They provide an insight into the cultural world that is all around us. Most importantly right now, in a world where mental health issues are becoming more and more prevalent, the arts play a role in helping young people to understand their world and rehearse problems that they may face.”
Tim says many of the mental wellbeing therapies offered to young people are arts related. “What do we do to relax? We listen to music, we go out with our friends and we dance. We doodle or colour-in. All of these things are arts-based,” Tim said. “You cannot underestimate the power that they might have to support young people as they develop.”
The RSA’s report highlights Tim’s view that limited funds should not necessarily create a roadblock to an arts-based approach. But school funding remains a significant issue and one of the reasons why Shaftesbury School will soon be operated by a new academy. The small Shaftesbury-based Southern Academy Trust will be folded into a larger Sherborne-based operation.
There are some economies in scale. Southern Academy Trust chairman Chris Brickell told a recent public meeting in Motcombe that Dorset receives less funding per pupil than inner-city schools are granted. “You will hear that schools are going to receive a lot more money to make funding fair across the country. What you won’t hear is the increase in salaries and pension contributions that have to be covered by that increase. It is very unlikely to be spent on the student directly,” advised Tim. “You may have heard about a 2% pay increase for teachers last year. The government didn’t provide any funding for that. Schools had to find 2% of their budget from somewhere else. It had to come from another pot which affects pupils directly,” he added.
Tim says schools are now judged on a range of areas, not just their results. He believes that is good, but it also brings new challenges. “When schools are told that 90% of their students should be following an EBacc (English Baccalaureate) subject, which is English, maths, science, humanities or languages and does not include the arts at all, leaders have to make judgment calls on what subjects should be prioritised. The challenges always relate to money. There are ways of being resourceful and that’s what you have to do. If you truly believe in the transformative power of the arts, you will continue to defend them,” Tim said. He offered an example of how the school partnered with the Grosvenor Arms Hotel to fund and host an exhibition of students’ design work.
To pursue the arts-rich vision of Tim’s leadership team, he has made a decision that some might view as controversial given the school’s CofE affiliation. “We decide to remove GCSE religious education as a compulsory GCSE for our Key Stage Four students. That’s not to say that we’ve removed religious education. We cover it in many different ways which are more engaging and much more relevant,” said Tim. “It opened the opportunity for young people to select a broader range of options in a very narrow field. It gave them the opportunity of studying two arts (subjects) as well as two humanities or two languages or DT or PE. It created a broader curriculum.”
Shaftesbury School is the only rural school featured in this RSA report. Whilst our town’s artistic community and proximity to art galleries helps Tim’s arts goal, our isolation does create some issues. “Being rural can sometimes affect access to some of the more high-profile events. And travelling to those events can be very expensive,” he said.
Tim is unsure whether the RSA researchers understood his remarks about the school’s countryside setting. “I don’t know whether they misinterpreted the way I feel about Dorset. I love living here and I tried to explain that staff tend not to move because it’s a lovely place. That doesn’t mean that the staff aren’t very good, lazy or they’re complacent. They just really like where they live,” he explained. “We have looked at staffing in the arts, and we’ve increased the capacity of staff over three years. We have developed the staff that we have through training.”
There was one drama, one music and two art teachers when Tim joined as headteacher. There are now six art, one dance, one music and two drama teachers, and one creative arts team teaches across arts subjects. “The students’ work has been enriched by that experience because they’ve brought their textile skills into their fine art work and the work then has become better.”
Tim’s teaching specialism is drama. He’s proud that his school has encouraged pupils to bring Shakespeare to life, ‘from page to stage’ during the Shakespeare Schools Foundation. The world’s largest youth drama event is held at Lighthouse in Poole.
“I’m approaching Shakespeare from a drama perspective as opposed to an English perspective,” he said. “Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays are to be performed not read. Choosing contemporary settings to help students understand that the story is timeless is just another way of getting kids excited about one of the best playwrights in the world.” Tim says the Shaftesbury students gave their production a reality TV twist. “We set Antony and Cleopatra in the jungle in ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’.”
He says the students were ‘just brilliant’ and their skill was recognised. “We were chosen to close the festival because the production was so strong. It was the first production done at the school for a long time. Since then, we’ve also been asked to be a Shakespeare Foundation School and I’ve been asked to be a Shakespeare Foundation ambassador, based on the contributions that we’ve made. I think we’re making a name for ourselves there,” said Tim.
Despite the funding allocation challenges, Tim says the school is well-resourced for arts, with excellent equipment and facilities spread around the campus. “We have a dance studio. We’ve got two drama studios. We’ve got a music suite that’s full of Apple Macs with great software on them and an orchestral room. We’ve got plenty of rehearsal spaces for musicians. This year, we’ve introduced a recording studio to feed into our BTech Level Two music production course that we’re introducing in September.”
And Tim says a new purchase of a 3D printer and laser cutters will take design technology to a new level. “I’m very happy with what we’ve got at the moment. And all I want to see is the students using it more and more,” said Tim.
The introduction of a dance GCSE fits in with the school’s arts-rich goal, allowing students to study every art subject to the end of Key Stage 4. “BTEC dance tends to be contemporary-based but they will study set works and world dance influences from Africa or India. A lot of the children come to dance with the experience of street, tap, ballet or modern,” said Tim.
And for the immediate future, Tim doesn’t envisage any major change in philosophy with the school’s future switch to the Sherborne Area Schools’ Trust later this year. “I hope it can only be more positive as we move forward,” said Tim. “We can learn from each other. We’ve got a greater base of secondary school arts-based teachers who can share resources and schemes of work and talk about what they’re doing. I can only imagine it will enrich the journey that we’re on.”
You can read the RSA report here.