Sheffield Special School Creative Community - Rowan School

Daina, Create Sheffield

During 2020, Create Sheffield supported the creation of the Sheffield Special School Creative Community, a new social learning group for teachers who are passionate about the arts and creativity. Whilst the pandemic has meant that many Sheffield mainstream schools have felt challenged to prioritise creativity within their curriculum, the Special School Creative Community has flourished in this area. 

In this Story, Create Sheffield reflects on a project in The Rowan School (1 of the 9 schools engaged in the Special School Creative Community) involving community musician Matthew Laurie with teachers and pupils from the school.  We share practical ways we as artists, organisations and schools might learn from this project, as we start to think again about engaging children and young people in arts and cultural activities within the classroom setting post Covid.

Artwork created by Red Bubble at Seven Hills School

Special Education in Sheffield - an overview

Musician Matthew Laurie has been integral to the formation and practice of the Creative Community, utilising his extensive experience in Intensive Interaction and person-centred communication approaches in special schools. In our recent Create Sheffield Community online session with both teachers and arts and cultural partners, Matt offered a basic introduction to special education in Sheffield, and gave us a brief outline of what special needs schools, and the children that study in them, might have in common;

Special educational needs schools - what do schools have in common?

  • Schools are smaller than average mainstream, approx 30 - 100 pupils, closer staff community
  • Class sizes are around 8-12
  • Staff/pupil ratio is around 3:1
  • Curriculums are usually more creative and person-centred
  • Other sessions for a child may affect session (personal care/speech therapy/physio) 

Special educational needs schools - what do the young people have in common?

  • All children have a communication difficulty
  • Most children have an intellectual disability
  • Most children have lower levels of manual dexterity
  • Concentration span / energy levels;
    • Individual interactions - a few minutes 
    • Groups sessions: 15 - 30 minutes
    • Performances 30 - 45 minutes 
    • Environments: 2 - 6 hours 
  • All children respond well to child-led interactions
  • Children go into crisis and visits may be cancelled or plans change 
  • Every child is very different

Matt also shared some of the key skills he felt that any community artist or teacher should bring to working in special needs settings, skills that are very relevant to working in any school or community, but which are particularly emphasised in these special educational needs schools;

  • Creativity
  • Improvisation
  • Empathy
  • Responsiveness
  • Social Engagement

You can watch Matt’s full presentation, which also outlines the different types of special education settings in Sheffield, in the video at the bottom of this page.

Artwork by students of Bents Green School

The Rowan School project

Although Alice Mount is the Creative Lead for Rowan School, she tells us she ‘doesn't think of herself as creative’. Many teachers can relate to Alice and might feel apprehensive about including art or creativity in their classrooms. Matthew Laurie has devised some great ways staff members might start to include creative practice in their lessons, and has offered his advice on how artists might support them. 

The Rowan School is a specialist school in primary education for children that have a diagnosis of autism. Some Rowan staff members had worked with Matt before, however in the summer of 2020, Matt was asked to offer all staff members online training which meant that the whole school community formed a relationship with him and his way of working before he visited the school again. 

In September, Matt began to work in the classroom with both teachers and children, delivering morning ukulele jams where everyone was encouraged to sing, tap, rock, play, lead and follow along to the music. The school had a collection of pre-tuned ukuleles and were provided with very simple lesson plans, written so that staff could easily lead them with very little preparation or musical experience. 

Alongside Matt’s support in the classroom, he worked closely with staff, asking them to share their experiences with him and their colleagues in lunchtime debriefing sessions. Alice and her colleagues valued this time to share ideas, which helped staff think about how the creative work could continue to develop their teaching practice.

Reflecting on the impact of the ukulele jams on the children, Alice and Matt shared how creativity can provide an outlet for positive experiences, can help staff recognise the children's talents and can also help them celebrate what the children have to offer to the class. In practice, in The Rowan School morning ukulele jams, staff and children give three cheers after a child's input, which the children also thoroughly enjoy.

Turning Points

For Matt, the most valuable outcome of the project at the Rowan is that the teachers continue to develop the musical interaction practice and that practice is embedded in the school.  For this to happen, it is essential that the teachers began to take ownership of the project, shaping the direction and developing the practice themselves, rather than always being led by Matt.

There are a number of key turning points that evidence that this is happening, things that might happen naturally or that Matt is working to facilitate: 

Firstly, the project starts to produce new and novel practice that is created in response to the project context.  This is a sign that the artist is working in a responsive way and the participants (teachers or children) have the autonomy to be creative.  At the Rowan for example, Matt began the project by bringing some “off-the-shelf” preconceived songs and activities that work really well with children with special needs.  By halfway through the first term though, Matt and the teachers had developed some new songs and Matt had developed a live music ‘installation’ for the playground.  The ukulele band was also an idea that came out of the work during the first term, along with the emergence of new ways of thinking about how to apply the musical interaction practice in each unique classroom.

How does the artist work to facilitate this value? By creating a safe social environment to share practice, by remaining responsive to the interests and passions of the children and staff, and by taking a few creative risks so that new practice can emerge. 

We found some important themes running through Matt’s work with the Rowan School, which we hope might support artists in planning their work with special schools;

  • Developing a solid relationship with the school and staff is key. Plan in time and space to build these relationships, using online mediums when face-to-face contact isn’t appropriate or possible. 
  • Provide staff with the skills to deliver the sessions independently, building sustainability into the practice.
  • Include time for staff to debrief and share, with and without you present, and find ways to share the value of the work with the wider school community (newsletter etc).
  • Ensure that sessions do not require lots of resource making and planning - repetition is fine!
  • Ensure that the children are having a good time and are being celebrated for their offer.

We are immensely proud of the work happening with this Community, and look forward to creating more spaces for teachers and artists to meet, plan and problem solve together. 

You can currently visit ‘Art Space,’ an online collaborative exhibition featuring art made by students from Sheffield’s Special Schools.  The website is curated by members of the Special School Creative Community. 

If you would like to learn more about the Special School Creative Community or if you have any questions, get in touch

If you are interested in hearing more about this particular blog content, you are welcome to watch this video which shares extracts from the online session with Create Sheffield arts and cultural Partners, Matthew Laurie and Alice Mount from The Rowan School. 

About us

We are Create Sheffield, Sheffield's Cultural Education Partnership. We are a charitable organisation set up to take the young people of Sheffield on a journey into the arts, culture and heritage sectors. From creative learning opportunities to fun things to do – we’re here to benefit the lives of all those aged 0-24. 

Create Sheffield is supported by IVE, the Arts Council England Bridge Organisations for Yorkshire and the Humber.