A News story by Ellena Schuster-Farrell 29 March 2018

Previously a specialist school for arts and science, Shenley E-ACT Academy in Birmingham has developed a programme of music, drama and dance to help its students gain confidence, grow and succeed. Headteacher Lucy Monk believes building strong partnerships with the wider community contributes towards helping students achieve. 

 Shenley Academy has built three main partnerships with major Birmingham institutions: the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) for music, Birmingham Repertory Theatre for drama, and RDC Youth for dance. Each partnership involves professionals coming into the academy and working directly with the students to inspire and encourage them.

“Taking part in the activities we offer in music, drama and dance makes you resilient and enterprising. It helps students to develop the soft skills and leadership skills that future employers look for, and which make them a well-rounded citizen. That’s the ethos behind why we do these things at Shenley.”Lucy Monk, Headteacher

A whole new cultural sphere

The partnership with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is currently in its eighth year. Each year the project takes a slightly different slant and involves students from Year 7 up to Year 13 – those who have shown a particular interest in music and all of those doing the BTEC in music. Last year, the CBSO rearranged classic pop songs into orchestral pieces and rehearsed them with the academy’s orchestra and choir.

Students had the opportunity to perform the rearranged pieces alongside the CBSO at a concert. This was not just a wonderful experience for the students but for their parents too.

“They might not be going down to the CBSO Centre on a regular basis, but they went down for the concert. Admittedly they had a vested interest, but it still opened up a whole new cultural sphere to them and the young people who took part.”

Alongside the CBSO partnership, all students in Years 7 and 8 are given the opportunity to learn an instrument of their choice, at no cost to them.

“We loan them the instrument and they have their lessons. Over time, this means we’ve built up our own orchestra and young people who might not otherwise have been able to learn an instrument have got involved.”

Treading the boards with Birmingham Rep

Shenley Academy’s musical activities are complemented by a similar partnership with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for drama. This relationship has been going for a number of years, with different projects from year to year. They involve a professional director working with students on a weekly basis after school.

“They either put together a new piece or they will do a piece of descriptive work. It culminates in a professional performance at the Birmingham Rep, so they are on a professional stage, working with professional technicians and getting an idea of what that feels like.”

Challenging choreography

The academy has also partnered with Birmingham dance company RDC Youth. They run weekly technique classes as well as workshops. The technique classes are for those who want to challenge or hone a particular dance technique. The workshops are for all students and focus on chorographical styles, usually a style the students’ own dance teachers are not experts in.

This pays dividends in extending students’ choreography skills, their dance language and their exposure to a whole range of different styles, which they can put into their own performance in BTEC Dance. They get to see RDC Youth performances too; something – like the music and drama performances – they might not otherwise have opportunity to do.

“In every piece of research that you read about how to ensure that teenagers are as engaged and enthusiastic about their own learning as possible, it’s those who are open to new experiences, trying things out, going and meeting new people, who develop the resilience and the confidence and all of the other skills that are intrinsic in great academic performance as well.”

Impact on results

The professionalism and opportunities opened up by these partnerships carries weight and kudos with the students and this is contributing to strong academic results. At Shenley, arts subjects are part of the ‘open bucket’ for their Progress 8 scores. They have a +0.3 score for their ‘open bucket’, which is above national average in terms of academic performance.

“It’s no accident that the students are doing well in these subjects because we give them the means to enjoy them. When you enjoy something, you are motivated to do better and your tendency is to do well. The students are more likely to get their required GCSEs if they feel that the school has invested in them, it’s been something that they’ve really enjoyed doing, and they’ve been busy. They are not sitting on their mobile phones 24/7, they are doing something exciting with their lives.”