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In the latest in our series on the arts in education, Steve Ball shares an initiative which connects schools and arts organisations across the city of Birmingham.

Image of people dancing

Graeme Braidwood

Birmingham is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK and the youngest city in Europe. Described by Bill Clinton on his presidential visit in 1998 as “an extraordinary jewel of a city”, it boasts an amazing cultural offer. 

We hosted the 2022 Commonwealth Games, are home to flagship companies such as Birmingham Royal Ballet, The Rep and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as well as an array of individual artists working with schools and communities. 

But not every child and young person in Birmingham gets to enjoy the city’s cultural offer. Until a few years ago our cultural organisations were ‘super engaging’ with only 35 of the city’s schools. That’s why Birmingham Arts School (BAS) is so important. 

BAS isn’t a school with pupils, rather an initiative that connects schools and arts organisations across the city. We want every child and young person in Birmingham - regardless of the school they attend, where they live or their family background - to benefit from the city's diverse cultural offer.

The 'six Cs'

In consultations with headteachers, we have identified six barriers to engaging schools with artists and cultural organisations:

Cost – school budgets are tight and many cannot afford it
Communication - has been piecemeal and has lacked co-ordination
Curriculum – the cultural offer doesn’t always meet the needs of the school or the National Curriculum
Capacity – schools and cultural organisations do not always have the capacity to develop new partnerships
Coaches – are very expensive to hire and some teachers are reluctant to take their pupils on public transport 
Careers – there is little connection between the cultural offer provided by arts organisations and careers in the creative industries 

BAS’s main role is to address - and where possible overcome - these ‘six Cs’ by working strategically with teachers, headteachers, artists and cultural organisations to reduce inequalities. 

We fundraise to bring new money to the table; host the Birmingham Education Hub, a one-stop arts education online portal where artists and arts organisations can post their learning offers; co-ordinate CPD for schools and arts organisations; convene teacher networks, produce events, festivals, showcases and conferences; and broker new partnerships between schools and arts organisations.

Cultural landscapes

To help us identity which schools to prioritise we worked with Arts Connect to develop Cultural Landscapes, an interactive map of Birmingham to shows which schools are working with which cultural organisations.

Each yellow dot represents a Birmingham school and each blue dot a cultural organisation. When you click the dots, you can see which organisations are working together. This digital tool has helped artists and cultural organisations to identify and target less-engaged schools across the city. 

Our interventions have yielded results

Raising awareness about cultural learning opportunities with headteachers has been central to our work at BAS. We do this through a range initiatives. For example, we host Arts Partnership Showcases, which enable headteachers to experience arts education first hand and encourage them to build their own partnerships. We also run annual Arts in Schools conferences - last year’s one attracted over 110 delegates inspiring them to embed the arts in their schools. 

As a result of our interventions, new arts GCSEs are being piloted in the city for students at schools that don’t/can’t provide such courses. Birmingham Royal Ballet will offer a pilot GCSE in Dance and The Rep a pilot GCSE in Drama. We have also developed an app - the S.T.A.G.E Web App – which distributes unsold theatre tickets to schools, supporting not only the pupils in the most deprived areas of the city, but also the arts organisations by filling their auditoria.

Finally, we are looking forward to producing two celebratory events: the Proud to be a Brummie Festival at Symphony Hall to showcase the work of 11 schools that have not previously engaged with arts organisations; and a BAS Celebration event, recognising the work of schools, young people and artists with a series of awards. 

Garnering national recognition

Our work at BAS has been evaluated by our research partner Birmingham City University. They found that “Birmingham Arts School serves as a bridge, facilitating access to arts resources, much-needed CPD, and forging meaningful partnerships with cultural institutions. Cultural organisations attest to BAS's role in enhancing professional development opportunities and promoting high-quality arts engagement. 

“Moreover, BAS's impact extends beyond the local sphere, garnering national recognition for its efforts in reducing inequalities and shaping cultural education discourse. 

“Looking ahead, BAS's potential for strategic growth could amplify its role as a conduit for meaningful and sustained school-cultural partnerships across the city. Given the current impact of funding cuts in Birmingham for arts and culture, BAS's role is especially crucial, as it fills gaps and addresses needs for young people that may otherwise be overlooked or unmet, particularly in terms of social justice issues.”

Dr Steve Ball is Director of Birmingham Arts School.

Birmingham Arts School is part of Birmingham Education Partnership and is funded by Arts Connect and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

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Headshot of Steve Ball