Workshops In Schools – Making Them Matter

  • Workshops In Schools – Making Them Matter

Dr Nicola Davies looks at what teachers and students really stand to gain from hiring external providers to run workshops in secondary schools…

It’s understandable that a budget-squeezed SLT might have reservations, but workshops with outside providers have much more to offer students than a break from the standard timetable (and benefits for teachers beyond the opportunity to sneak off for some PPA). A well-chosen and successfully delivered session shouldn’t denigrate the position of the teacher; but rather, enhance it. Professionals from various walks of life can work with students, offering them hands-on experience and igniting passion for an area of learning which may have previously received only a lukewarm reception. Teachers can then build on this in subsequent lessons.

New perspectives

“I believe there is an increase in the gravitas of a workshop if delivered by an external provider, as opposed to students’ regular teacher,” says Jayme Stevens, manager of Canterbury Christ Church University’s Outreach Team, which delivers workshops that make higher education more accessible to students. This is not to deny the powerful force of a teacher – it is simply a different professional who can deliver new perspectives.

Whether workshops are run at an outside venue or on school premises, Stevens believes that workshops provided by an outside team offer an opportunity for students to reflect on their own aspirations in small group discussions led by an ambassador. Young people have the opportunity to quiz performers and professionals on what it’s really like in the outside world and gain some honest answers. Stevens says, “By using student ambassadors (current undergrad students), school students can identify with someone a few years older than them – and seem to respond very well to their advice.”

Supporting Stevens’ views is Anood Al-Samerai, director of Spire Hub’s Teach First National Office. Spire Hub sets up weekly Hubs in secondary schools in disadvantaged areas, where tutoring and mentoring services are provided by retired teachers. “Our sessions give students extra attention and support every week over a year,” explains Al-Samerai. “We particularly focus on high ability students who are ‘coasting’ as these are often the ones who get left behind. The extra help we give enables them to understand and reach their full potential.” Al-Samerai seems to have found a need that can be addressed with input outside of the school – it is the high-ability student who often becomes bored within the system as educators tend to focus on the ‘stragglers.’

Workshops provided by outside sources can even facilitate career choice and long-term goals. “The Department for Education’s latest statutory duty for careers guidance in schools has highlighted a need for impartial advice,” says Moj Taylor of Push Talks, a leader in the provision of talks and workshops designed to raise students’ aspirations for university and employment. Taylor feels that independent providers can approach students in a way that gives them the principles and skills to make an informed decision for themselves, after looking at all the options. “We aim to inspire students to see the process of choice they have at 18 as an exciting one, not a scary one,” he points out, “by delivering impartial information and advice, hopefully then supported by a quality careers guidance programme in the school.”

Smart study

Study skills is another area ripe for outside input. Stevens says, “Our Outreach Team offers a Study Skills workshop series over six sessions. These look at learning styles, revision techniques, coping with exam stress, using time effectively, etc. We also offer subject specific mentoring, using the expertise of current undergraduate students to support students from our partner schools working towards GCSE or A-level qualifications.

“We try to speak with each partner school to identify their priorities for the year. Currently, there is a focus on employability in schools and we try to ensure that our activities reflect this,” he continues. “From an academic perspective, we are able to offer some taster activities that support a particular module, for example BTEC sport.”

Spire Hub has a slightly different approach. “We focus on key strengths: confidence, communication, teamwork, organisation, resilience, self-awareness and problem-solving in the first term,” states Al-Samerai. “Then we work on career and university aspirations and developing awareness of how to reach them. In the final term we focus on study skills: revision, exam techniques and work planning.

“Our tutors can help if students are struggling with particular subjects but generally we are giving them the skills to become better learners. We work very closely with our link teachers to ensure we are picking up on any specific curriculum needs, subject areas needing support, and behavioural or family issues,” he concludes.

Balancing budgets

Regarding the question of value for money, it’s important to remember that the initial costs of outside workshops will have pay-off over many years. Drama teacher Louise Wallace observes, “Outside workshops allow students to see issues, themes and topics in terms of the bigger picture and perhaps in a different context. Sometimes if it is a skills workshop it can encourage them to apply skills in new ways.”

In particular, Wallace believes students are inspired by connections made in this way and it can give them more pride or belief in their ideas. Also, a fresh face and different angle on a play or skill is often a great way of deepening learning while having fun. “Let’s not forget that learning by doing or by experience is often the best way. Make it an event and we will remember it!” she declares.

However, there is little value in having people come in to do a workshop without regular follow-up and activities from the teacher to reinforce changes in mindset and maintain the initial enthusiasm imparted by outside professionals. As Wallace comments, “I often use workshops to support specific exam teaching of key practitioners in drama; or skills such as stage combat, design, and audition technique; or to support theatre visits, like the Royal Court pre-theatre workshop.”

“We have a clear evaluation framework, which measures progress in softer skills as well as teacher assessed grades and career and university awareness,” adds Al-Samerai. “We also display value for money in terms of the hours we work with students. In a year-long Spire Hub programme they receive 60 hours of one-to-one tuition and small group activities for £450 per pupil. This works out as £7.50 per hour – and we have been able to subsidise the cost further with grant funding.” A useful comparison to bear in mind, is that private tuition tends to come in at about £50 per hour.

One to remember…

So, what is the value of bringing outside sources into the classroom and how can their success be measured? It appears to come down to perception. If topics are viewed as important and integral to the curriculum, then bringing professionals in to enhance that experience makes sense. In other areas of the curriculum, outside providers bring in a new perspective that will improve the overall success of the student. As student Seran says about a three-day university performing arts event she attended, “One day when I’m fifty, standing at the sink washing dishes, I’ll look up and remember how my world changed at those workshops.”

BRINGING IN THE BARD

In honour of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) education program company has a massive program of partnering with schools and theatre groups called “Young Shakespeare Nation,” which has brought Shakespeare performances to 450,000 students in the UK and fourteen countries worldwide. In 2013, the company was able to broadcast performances directly into classrooms at no cost. They’ve established relationships with 400 schools and ten regional theatre companies in England. RSC maintains image banks that teachers can download to promote understanding and discussion of Shakespeare’s works.

EVALUATING COSTS

Taylor of Push Talks provides the following advice: “Value for money can be determined in a number of ways. We measure it in student and teacher feedback. A teacher will rightly look at an independent organisation that charges and think ‘why should I pay when I can get these other organisations in for free?’ The simplest way is for teachers to read the thoughts of not only staff in other schools who have decided to put their budget towards this, but crucially, hear feedback from the very people whom we are trying to inspire: the students.

Every student is asked to rate our talks immediately afterwards, and on average over 85% of students rate them as ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’ The feedback is also invaluable in being able to consistently reassess the effect our talks are having, and because we have the voices of thousands of students, we can shape our talks according to what they want to hear.

We are a social enterprise, and invest the money into maintaining a range of free online services for teachers and students. This means the charge is not just for the talk, it is part of a legacy to continue giving impartial information and advice to all students right up until they leave. The money charged also pays for us to visit schools that might not be able to afford our sessions otherwise.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicola Davies is a psychologist and freelance writer with a passion for education.