Mental Health and Arts Education – are we missing a trick?

By Phil Tattersall-King, Director of Drama, Dance and Bedales Arts Programme

Hot on the heels of the Prime Minister announcing that the government is to reform mental health with a particular focus on young people, a new report from the Culture Learning Alliance (CLA) has confirmed that taking part in arts subjects can help children to improve their academic and social skills, and to express their ideas. On the face of it, these are pretty much distinct events, but I would argue that perhaps they shouldn’t be.

One in four people has a mental disorder at some point in their life, and young people are affected disproportionately; over half of mental health problems start by the age of 14 and 75% by 18. To this end, the government is to provide additional training for teachers, an extra £15m for community care, and improved support in the workplace. Meanwhile, at the launch of the CLA report Imagine Nation: the value of Cultural Learning, president of the Royal Academy of Dance Darcey Bussell called for ‘physical literacy’ to be taught four times a week, and for protection and expansion of the arts curriculum in schools. The CLA observes that we have seen a decline in the number of children taking arts subjects, a reduction in arts teaching hours and fewer arts teachers employed. In turn, a government spokesperson has stressed the importance of music and the arts for transforming lives and providing opportunities.

For my own part, I wonder whether schools, and the arts in particular, might have an important role to play in the development of good mental health in young people, and offer government an educational option beyond dealing better with the obverse.

All over the world, staff and students in drama departments strive to provide a glimpse of worlds different from the ones we inhabit. Sometimes it’s a better world, sometimes worse – either way, theatre aims to change us as we get lost in the one we have created. The theatre of Bryony Kimmings and the spoken word of Cecilia Knapp do so to raise overtly issues concerning mental health that might otherwise remain hidden, and we have been keen to introduce students to their work. No less importantly, our students are increasingly the producers and thinkers behind theatrical ideas. We regularly stage devised performances, and exam boards all encourage students to devise their own work. The struggles involved with presenting their thoughts in this way have raised the game of a drama student, and made them wiser to the complexities of relationships. I can think of many students about whom teachers in other subjects have expressed concerns that they don’t ‘share’ in class, learning through drama that they can say their piece, and that the world will not end if they are challenged. It is immensely gratifying when, invariably, we find that this new confidence has transferred to their lessons in other subjects.

Whilst my own experience is purely anecdotal, it chimes with the CLA’s thoroughly-evidenced findings that theatre and drama improve young people’s social skills and emotional wellbeing, and that engaging in the arts increases young people’s resilience. The report cites evidence from the UK that art and music-related leisure at the age of 16 increases the odds of civic engagement at age 29 and, according to American studies, that an arts-rich education results in a greater likelihood of voting and participation in a political campaign. It also cites findings from a recent systematic review of relevant literature which found that volunteering and caring are both developed by arts engagement.

The social benefits of such outcomes are pretty much self-evident, but a closer look at the idea of ‘resilience’ – an idea with particular currency in discussions of education and young people’s mental health in the UK – suggests that there is a significant health benefit as well.

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg draws on the pioneering work of Emmy Werner in developing strategies to help young people develop resilience, which he describes as the capacity of young people to face, overcome, and be strengthened and even transformed by adversity. Werner’s work in Hawaii – in an area with high levels of adult unemployment and substance abuse – found that two thirds of young people exhibited destructive behaviours. Crucially, however, a third did not, and she found that these young people shared important characteristics – a finding reinforced in subsequent research.

Gregg stresses that, amongst other things, resilient young people develop absorbing passions, with their self-esteem boosted by having developed expertise, thus reinforcing the importance of practice and persistence. They have the facility of seeing life ‘as it is’ – knowing that bad things happen and how to deal with them, but also knowing that there are plenty of good things. They also do good, thus benefiting from a boost to their immune system and general well-being, and enjoy a sense of being part of something greater than themselves, such as a philosophy or a cause.

Looked at purely through the prism of young people’s mental health (there are other compelling reasons, of course), there would seem to a health benefit implicit in making arts education more of a priority. I believe that recent years have seen the arts marginalised in government’s enthusiasm for STEM subjects and the wider belief that the value of school is best understood in terms of GDP and economic competitiveness. If Theresa May is really serious about safeguarding young people’s mental health, she might do well to rethink – school is surely about all aspects of young people’s wellbeing, and there is a clear case for understanding arts education is essential in this regard.

Olivier Theatre hosts dance showcase

The Olivier Theatre played host to a stunning display of local dance talent at the annual Youth Dance Platform last weekend, giving young people the opportunity to perform on stage and see other performances from their contemporaries with the aim of celebrating and developing dance style and talent. The lively fast moving show comprised various short works by students from Bedales and Dunhurst, the Hampshire Youth Dance Company, Frensham Heights, Totton College, Amesbury School and Petersfield Academy of Dance. Dunhurst Block 2 pupils performed ‘Those magnificent men in their flying machines’ and Bedales AS Level exam trio performed ‘Shattered’. The Bedales Dance Company performed ‘I believe’, a student devised piece and the BAC group’s ‘Night Light’ saw dancing to an electronic score. Read more. View photos.

Youth Dance Platform 2013

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Invitation to Spring Concert and art exhibition

The Spring Concert, in the Quad on Friday at 7.30pm, includes all the familiar school ensembles. Concert Band will play the overture ‘Poet and Peasant’ by Suppé and the Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra will play the first movement from Beethoven’s 1st Symphony and a keyboard concerto by Philipp Emanuel Bach. The Prisoner’s Chorus from ‘Fidelio’ features among the choral works. The Dunhurst Community Art & Design Exhibition, in Bedales Gallery until 20 March, will be open after the concert. This biennial exhibition makes exuberant use of the gallery’s relatively generous wall-space, once again, alongside some charmingly imaginative 3-D work. To book concert tickets please email tickets@bedales.org.ukor telephone 01730 711511.

Dunhurst Community Art & Design Exhibition

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Bedales Prep pupils and staff showcase creative talent

Bedales Prep, Dunhurst, has launched an exhibition at the Bedales Gallery this month, showcasing talent across the school community featuring art, textiles, ceramics and design work by pupils, teachers and support staff.

Highlights of the Exhibition include ‘The Big Draw’ showing portraits created by all the school, including cleaning staff, cooks, teaching and support staff as well as pupils. The school participates in this annual event, now registered with the National Campaign for Drawing, to provide the opportunity for everyone who works or studies at Dunhurst to try their hand at drawing with the aim of dispelling the myth “I can’t draw”. The pictures spread the length of the gallery and it was through this exercise that Elaine Hewitt, Dunhurst’s Head of Creative Studies, discovered the hidden artistic talents of members of the support staff including Cassandra Crook a cleaner at Dunhurst and Garath Tulett a carpenter in the school’s facilities department. Gareth painted a portrait of his father-in-law as a 60th birthday present and Elaine thought the painting was worthy of a place in the exhibition.  Cassandra’s art-work was inspired through the ‘big draw’ project. The last time Cassandra had painted was when she was at school so she was delighted that her talents were recognised in the Exhibition.

The pupils’ work captures their experiences throughout the academic year including art work created during an art trip to Barcelona and sculptures with Andy Cheese who created the shepherd statue in Petersfield’s Shepherd’s Walk. Andy, who teaches at Bedales, took up the role of artist in residence at Dunhurst last year and worked with the pupils on a sculpture project that now graces the school grounds.

The Creative Studies teachers at Dunhurst have also included their own work featuring paintings and ceramics. This year’s exhibition is particularly special for the School as Elaine Hewitt will be retiring at the end of this academic year along with art teacher Louise Banks, who will be leaving in July. Both teachers have taught at the school for over 20 years.

Commenting on the exhibition, Jane Grubb, Head of Bedales Prep, said “This annual exhibition is an important event in our calendar as it is a culmination of all the hard work and creative ideas produced by the pupils throughout the academic year. The Big Draw is a project that everyone in the school enjoys taking part in and it is fun for people to identify themselves in the gallery of the many faces here at Dunhurst. It is great that through this exercise we have indentified hidden talent amongst the support staff in our community too and I am delighted that we are able to inspire everyone in our community. This is a very fitting final exhibition for Elaine and Louise after over 20 years of teaching art at the school.”

The exhibition will run until March 20th and is open to all and free to attend. Viewing times are:  2 – 5pm Monday to Friday and 10am – 1pm Saturdays.

Cassandra with her art on display

Gareth with his art on display

Louise Banks with her bird paintings in the Exhibition

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.

Dunhurst pupils unveil sculpture

As part of the Badley Weekend Celebrations, Dunhurst unveiled a sculpture designed by pupils in collaboration with Bedales Art teacher and local sculptor Andrew Cheese who was Dunhurst’s  ‘artist in residence’ during the last half of the summer term to help the pupils’ designs come to fruition. The sculpture featuring three figures in motion, was inspired by the Olympics and was designed by pupils in Blocks 1 and 2 with assistance from Andrew. They spent their Wednesday afternoon breaks modelling the sculpture in Wessex clay. Andrew completed the process over the holidays by casting the model into plaster, which then formed the base for the glass fibre sculpture finished in pewter. The sculpture now stands in the Dunhurst car park by the entrance to the school. Read more. View photos.

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Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.