Celebrating diversity through the arts

Published on: 
1 Jul 2019

Respect – for oneself and for others – is one of the key values we teach at Middleton Primary. Our school is made up of staff and pupils from various cultures and communities, so we understand the value of diversity and tolerance. As an inclusive school these topics already featured in PSHE lessons but, as some pupils may not have had the chance to engage with LGBTQI+ issues outside school, we wanted to go further and actively celebrate the LGBTQI+ community.

The first question, therefore, was how to go about this. We already celebrated Black History Month, International Week and Anti-Bullying Week; we needed something with just as much impact – and we found it in the arts.

Middleton is part of Arts Council England’s Artsmark Award programme, which supports to schools to enrich their arts provision. Our local area is one of the 5 per cent most deprived in the country – 43 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals, and 59 per cent qualify for pupil premium funding. Unfortunately, children here can lack opportunities to engage with arts and culture, which makes it all the more important that we provide opportunities to learn about other communities whilst taking part in the arts at school.

On our journey to our Artsmark Silver award we wanted to develop a much richer arts curriculum for every child, to grow our pupils’ skills, confidence and engagement. It’s been amazing to see their pride in their achievements throughout this process, as well as a change in the way our whole school community now values creative learning. That change made an arts week an obvious choice when teaching about LGBTQI+ issues.

Getting the right help

So how did we achieve this? To start with, and before we even considered what form our artistic endeavours would take, all staff received two three-hour training sessions from Barnardo’s children’s charity, designed to raise awareness of LGBTQI+ issues and the difficulties faced by young people struggling with their sexuality. We then set aside time for staff to share their learning with other teachers across the school. We also included parents and carers by sharing these activities on our website and in our newsletters.

The Barnardo’s training was really beneficial in raising staff awareness and understanding of LGBTQI+ issues – something that the majority of us did not have or feel confident talking about beforehand. They prepared us to deal with any issues along the way and gave us the knowledge to talk confidently about sensitive issues.

Throughout the week itself, children took part in arts activities such as designing T-shirts, creating posters, and writing poems to celebrate LGBTQI+ rights. We also brought in school music project Class Dynamix to help pupils create songs on the subject, which they performed during an assembly at the end of the week.

The assembly, packed with parents and carers, was a fantastic opportunity for the children to showcase their achievements, and became a hugely positive celebration of tolerance and acceptance.  As a lasting memory of the week, the children and parents painted a path of rainbow coloured pebbles, where each child could express what LGBTQI rights meant to them.

Overcoming the challenges

There were some small challenges along the way, but nothing we couldn’t overcome. Two parents did not want their children to take part in some of the lessons or the assembly. We had a face-to-face conversation with them, sharing a video by the Love Has No Labels movement. They agreed it was a positive message, but still requested that their children be removed from the sessions, which we respected. Schools have to be prepared for this when approaching any potentially sensitive topic, and we felt it was important to respect everyone’s views, whether that was parents, children or staff.

Our children fully embraced what they were taught, and we found that they instinctively understood the values of diversity, inclusivity and equality we set out to promote. Homophobic behaviour, especially children using the word ‘gay’ as an insult, has fallen.  Children who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community feel more able to be open about their lives, and other children are more understanding.

The learning from the week has continued across our whole curriculum, with children learning about LGBTQI+ issues in various subjects – for example, when Year 6 pupils studied Alan Turing, they not only learned about his enduring influence as a scientist, but also explored how he was persecuted because of his sexuality.

Incorporating the arts was essential to educating our children about LGBTQI+ issues.  Not only did the chance to do something fun help to draw the children in, but by having to think creatively about the topic they became more engaged and considered about the issues than they ever would have become just by reading from a textbook.

The rewards have been enormous.  As one of our Year 2 pupils put it: “It doesn’t matter where you’re from or who you support, the important thing is you look after the world because this is everyone’s.”

Sam Williams is headteacher of Middleton Primary School in Leeds

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Sam Williams, Middleton Primary School

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Cultural education gives children and young people the opportunity to develop their creativity, both individually and collectively, and that's why our goal is for every child and young person to have the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts.

Darren Henley
Chief Executive
Arts Council England

It's vital that children have the opportunity to learn and enjoy arts and culture from an early age. It develops their creativity, inspires future careers and enriches their childhood.

Artsmark Award does brilliant work in schools and education to ensure young people access a broad and balanced curriculum that includes high-quality arts and culture.

Michael Ellis MP
Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism
Department of Culture, Media and Sport