Ahead of our second pilot of our school arts education programme, Achieve Your Greatness, we sat down with Shermaine, Arts College Manager, at Corelli College to chat about the current state of arts education in the UK, why it’s so important, the impact of the first AYG pilot and what she hopes to gain from the next AYG project. We’ll be running our Achieve Your Greatness programme between 17th – 26th Oct at Corelli College and Plumstead Manor, thanks to the generous support of BBC Children In Need and the Ernest Cook Trust.

Please take a moment to describe your role at Corelli College. 

I’m the Arts College Manager, which means I devise and facilitate all arts projects and help other staff understand the wider possibilities of the arts and creativity. I’m also a cultural leader with A New Direction, which bridges the gap between Arts Council England and schools.

As Sir Ken Robinson says, it’s hugely important to me that kids find their element by looking at what’s happening in their school and by being creative. When kids get involved in the arts they realise that the world is bigger than themselves and they go through a process of self-discovery. That’s why I think arts education projects are important, because they expand the kids’ horizons. In our case they help them feel confident going into London; it becomes accessible, when before, even though it’s on their doorstep, it may have felt out of reach.

What changes have you seen in arts education provision since working at Corelli? And what do you consider to be the impact of these changes?

When I first came here, creativity was at the core of everything that we do. Now it doesn’t feel like it is and I think all schools are dealing with this, which is probably to do with lack of funding. 

We used to do a lot of cross-curricular projects where staff and students would go off timetable for a couple of days. Now there are other priorities both at our school and also nationally so we don’t do as many collaborative projects

The impact on the students is that they may lose out on some of that innovative work. So we find things to help fill the gaps, for example signposting kids to organisations that do have funding which they can get involved with in their own time.

Your Achieve Your Greatness experience. 

What made you want to work with the Abram Wilson Foundation and why did you decide AYG sounded like a good project? 

We had worked with Abram in the past and I remember the feedback from staff. They raved about this musician who they’d worked with and of course that musician was Abram.

I also liked the sound of the project and it was nice that it was at a pilot stage so I had a chance to feed into it. 

What were the successes? Were there any challenges?

The themes were a huge success. I have to admit I was worried about tackling complex issues such as stereotypes, prejudices and racism, but I was overwhelmed with how well the kids responded to them. 

The process was also just as good as the end product. We were immersed and I loved being able to react to the kids’ work. It felt like it was always changing. It’s important that the kids have an opportunity to fail. In the arts that’s how you find your best work – through your biggest failures. 

What useful skills did your students learn? Did the programme relate to other subjects the students take in school?

They learnt how to devise new things. They discovered new strengths. They had to do a lot of team work. I noticed improved confidence, emotional resilience and improved relations between staff and kids.

As well as learning artistic skills like music and ends students learnt how to share their ideas and compromise on them.

Were any teachers involved? What did they learn/how did they benefit? 

Our visual art teacher, Sam gained new group skills. He was much more used to kids working individually and I think it was good for him to see kids working differently. It’s a really positive thing for teachers to see kids who are considered quite difficult working positively instead of being sent out of the class because they fidget too much, in this case they’re allowed to move around! 

What has been your favourite memory so far from AYG?

I have lots of little memories, like one student doing a little dance and I asked, “Can you explain what that was?”And she said it was a treble clef. And I thought you’re only in year 7, I loved that. And another was so excited he couldn’t keep still. He saw all the things that he could achieve. They all did. They ended up making these exciting abstract pieces from a really strange starting point and they discovered all sorts of things about themselves. 

And what are you looking forward to about the next AYG project? 

This year there’s going to be more live jazz music, which I’m looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to working with students I haven’t met yet. When you’ve done a project before you have a better understanding of it. So I’m intrigued about what they’ll devise and I want them to be proud of it. It also helps you get to know them in a different way throughout their school journey. I can target them for other projects because I’ve got to know them at the beginning, at Year 7.