What is the Value of Using Arts in Education for Children with Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.59.24   We wanted to find out about how important arts in schools is for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.59.29 When we talk about arts, we mean things like paintings, drawings, stories, poems, books, drama, dance and plays.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.59.37We worked with Purple Patch Arts.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.59.45                   Purple Patch Arts used arts projects to help children with special educational needs and disabilities with learning in maths, English and science.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.59.52            We used information from: meetings with Purple Patch Arts, the plans of the lessons, watching and joining in, talking to the teachers, taking photographs, talking to the children and making notes.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 13.00.00                      We found that using art in schools helped with learning. We think it was helpful because of the way it changed the way children normally learn. The young people were excited when Purple Patch arrived.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 13.00.04               Using art in the schools meant that the children were more social and worked together.


Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 13.00.09                  Sometimes, not enough importance was given to the art  projects.



We have been thinking about how art is used in education for children and young people. When we talk about arts, we mean things like paintings, drawings, stories, poems, books, drama, dance and plays. We wanted to find out about how important arts in schools is for children with special educational needs and disabilities. When the government and schools do not have a lot of money to spend on schools and on art, it is helpful if we can show them if art in schools is important.

Why bother with arts in education?

Before we started our project, we wanted to find out what other researchers have said about using arts in schools. We found out that they have written about whether people should enjoy art just because they like it, or whether there needs to be a way to measure how much people benefit from arts projects. If there is a way of showing how much people benefit from arts, that can sometimes mean that more money is available to spend on art projects.

We found three reasons why people think that art in education is important:

  • Helping children learn things that are on the curriculum

Some researchers think that using art in education can help teachers and children to be creative in the way that they are learning because it is different from the way children are normally taught.

  • Democratic education

Some researchers think that art can be used in schools so that children can learn about democratic education – which is education about politics, relationships, community and culture.

  • Art and wellbeing

Researchers think there is a link between arts and health. This can sometimes mean having a healthy body and sometimes mean using art to help people with being happy and being able to enjoy life.

Art in schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities

Of those three areas, it is only really using art for well-being that researchers have studied for children with special educational needs.

Arts for children with special educational needs is complicated because people think art is good or therapeutic for the children, but because children with special educational needs often work with one teacher it can be difficult to get a group of young people working on an art project together.

However, research shows that children and adults with learning disabilities enjoy arts projects and can sometimes use the project to communicate in ways they couldn’t otherwise.

Sometimes though because arts project are seen as therapeutic  (which means they aim to help with the disability) it means that the project becomes too focussed on the disability rather than on the young people benefitting from being part of the project for learning.

Our Project

We wanted to find out:

  • In what ways is art in education important for children with special educational needs and disabilities?

  • How is art in education for children with special educational needs and disabilities sometimes seen as not important?

  • How can information about how art is seen as both important and not important be used to help decide the way that art should be used in schools in the future?

To find out, we worked with Purple Patch Arts. Purple Patch Arts used arts projects in three schools to help children with special educational needs and disabilities with learning in maths, English and science. For six weeks, Katherine, and Val and Freya from Purple Patch Arts worked with classes in three schools. The lessons included drama, poetry, acting, shadow puppets, lights, touching, tasting, listening, colour mixing, sorting and counting. The lessons were all linked to English, maths and science.

We used information from meetings with Purple Patch Arts, the plans of the lessons, watching and joining in with the sessions, talking to the teachers, taking photographs, talking to the children and making notes.

To look at what we found out, we will go back to the three reasons people think that art in education is important that we discussed above:

  • Helping children learn things that are on the curriculum

We found that using art in education helped with learning. We think that it was helpful because of the way it can change the way that children normally learn. The young people were excited when Purple Patch arrived, they looked forward to seeing what activities they would be doing. The classroom changed – tables were moved, chairs pushed away. These changes made it interesting for the children and some children stayed and participated much more than their teachers expected. Another way that the art was helpful was by using multi-sensory activities. Shiny, colourful and interesting things were used in the lessons. They were so good, the teachers thought they would copy some of the lessons to use again.

  • Democratic education

We found that using art in the schools meant that the children were more social and took part in projects working together. For some of the projects, the children learned from each other and helped each other.

  • Art and wellbeing

We noticed that the children gradually got used to the new activities and as they began to know what was going to happen when Purple Patch came, their imagination, confidence and interest grew.

The Value Children Give to Arts-based Practice

We did not interview the children about their experiences but we think that their opinions are included in what we found because we watched them taking part in the arts projects and could see how much they enjoyed them.

De-Valuing Arts Based Education

Over the six weeks, we noticed that, sometimes, not enough importance was given to the Purple Patch projects.  On one day, a class had gone out of school on a trip when they were supposed to be doing the art project. Some of the head or deputy head teachers did not know that the project was taking place. Some of the teachers enjoyed the activities with the children but other times, the teachers did not take part or used the free time to do some other work. We think that if they had been more involved in the projects, the children would have enjoyed seeing their teachers taking part. Some children were taken out of the arts lessons to fit in with their usual routines but this meant they missed their art project time. Also, some of the teachers forgot to be private about the children’s personal details and shouted at or sent out children they felt were not behaving properly. We thought this was a shame to take children out of the arts project.


Even though we saw some problems with the arts projects in the schools we went to, we know that teachers are busy and have to do a lot of different things at the moment. For the arts projects in schools to work really well, all of the staff need to really want it to be good.  We also think this project has shown that the importance of art in education is valuable but sometimes it is difficult to explain on a piece of paper.   We found that by asking teachers and watching and talking to the children it is clearer how important it is. More research that does this, especially with disabled children, would be a good idea.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 13.09.36


Meaning(s) of (Human) Value at The Blackmarket for Knowledge and Non-Knowledge

The Blackmarket for Knowledge and Non-Knowledge is a performance event in which ‘experts’ from universities, voluntary organisations, the arts and elsewhere share their ideas on a topic with members of the public. Each event focuses on a theme and on 21st October in Hamburg the event was about The Extraordinary Ordinary focusing on disability.

Where better to discuss the meaning(s) of value in arts-based education for disabled children?

Armed with a bit of Purple Patch magic (a voice recording of Sylvia Plath’s poem, a tub of glow in the dark slime and a pot of toilet putty), Katherine travelled to Hamburg to talk about value in arts-based education.

You can read her talk here: blackmarket-hamburg-2016





Why bother with arts-based education for children with SEND?

This week, we’re delighted that our research is featured in the Times Educational Supplement Online, you can read about it here:


Magic moments

Magic Moments

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time watching Vicky and Fran from Purple Patch working alongside children in schools in West Yorkshire.  Each week there has been what can only be described as  ‘magic moments’ in the classroom.  When I say: “can only be described as”, what I really mean is, they are quite difficult to describe!!  But we’ve felt them, and we’ve seen them in the faces of the children and the people who know them well, and Vicky, Fran and I all knew them when we saw them.

So this week, I just want to share a few of these magic moments:

Teacher: [At the end of the first session] That was amazing, you have no idea, Jim is never like that! He was listening!  He took part!

Karen spent the beginning of the session with her arms firmly folded, she refused to touch the Shakespearian ruff, she shook her head as the quill was passed round, refusing to take it into her hand.  And then Fran placed the leaves gently on her lap, Karen’s arms remained folded, then quickly, while she thought no one was watching, she picked them up, rubbing them between her fingers, and then quickly dropped them again.  Fran came around the circle again, this time with a bowl of water, Karen shook her head, kept her arms folded and sent Fran away, but as soon as Fran turned away, Karen called her back and put her hand in the water, gently splashing.

Tim is feeling grumpy: he spends most of the beginning of the session letting everyone know that.  A teaching assistant suggests he goes on a walk, he agrees and comes back, seemingly a little less grumpy.  Vicky has just got out the shadow puppets; Tim is captivated.  He reaches out, murmuring, and is handed a puppet.  He makes the puppet dance in front of the light, his face is lit up too by the light and with excitement. His teacher grabs the camera, leaps forward and takes a close up of Tim’s face [to show Tim’s mother].  As we leave she says: “ if you knew him … [you’d know just how unusual that is].

Jason used his whole body to let us know that he was enjoying the session.  He made excited sounds as some of the children gathered round him and gently sprinkled cellophane pieces over him. He watched them as they fell, smiling and making more excited noises.

Karen refuses to touch the slime that is being passed round the circle, her teacher offers Karen her hand “put your hand in mine and we’ll do it together” and together they hold the slime.

Neil uses a wheelchair and cannot reach the table to draw a line along the beam of light shining from the torch as the other children have been doing in the session.  Vicky takes the torch, paper, and chalk to the table on Neil’s wheelchair and suddenly, without a word being said, there is a host of helping hands (other children, Vicky and a teacher) to help Neil.  There is a moment of concentration and, with gentle support, Neil draws the line.


So it seems that magic moments have a few things in common: children trying something new, children being caught up in the moment, and children and adults working together as one.   Magic moments indeed!

When maths tastes fun…


I’m guessing that not many people reading this blog will think that maths tastes fun, but today, in Yorkshire, maths tasted like fun!


After a session on patterning which teased the taste buds with pictures of sweets and fast food restaurants, we began an activity about how to code. A series of tempting (and not so tempting) foods appeared on the tables in front of the children. In small plastic pots, we discovered chocolate, Smarties, raisins, crisps, bread, cauliflower and a mystery food – which turned out to be capers.

The children touched, smelled and tasted (some) of the food, identifying if it was sweet or savoury, squishy or solid or big or small. Each attribute became part of a secret code:

Sweet = 1

Savoury = 2

Squishy = 3

Solid = 4

Big = 5

Small = 6

Each individual food was coded, so that chocolate became 1, 4, 5 (it was a big bar) while capers were 2, 3, 6 (they are savoury, small and squishy). Once all the food stuffs were coded, each group chose a food and made a secret code to share with the other group of children. “You chose capers!” and “You chose raisins!”

So today in Yorkshire you can see that maths did indeed taste a lot like fun!

A circle of chairs and a box of tricks

This was Purple Patch’s third week in schools and when Vicky and Fran arrived at the first class of the day, the chairs were ready in a circle, awaiting their arrival.  The staff and children were anticipating the visit.  As the children came in from the playground, they wandered curiously past the props sitting on the classroom table – the circle and chairs and a box of tricks changes something in the room, there is a sense of anticipation alongside a sense of familiarity now.


This was the first session focused on Maths.  Fran asked: “do you like maths?” and was met with a chorus of muted groans.  Undeterred, Fran pushed on: “you’ll like this maths”.

First to appear from the box of tricks were large polystyrene dominos, Fran handed them round the circle, some of the children spontaneously began to count the dots, others smelled and felt them, Zeb threw his to his friend.  Were they dice, were they dominos?  Once the children had finished exploring them, Fran pointed to the dots on a domino and counted them with the children.

Pointing out the line on the middle of the domino, Fran put a piece of off white shiny ribbon on the floor – “this is the line on the domino, can we be the dots?”.  For the first piece, Zeb was put in charge “for the next five minutes, you are in charge Zeb, you can tell people what to do, even the staff”.  Zeb enthusiastically organised the other children and staff to re-create the dots on the domino with people on the floor.  This was repeated several times so that different children were ‘in charge’.

Karen was a reluctant dot until her teacher took her gently by the hand and stood with her; when Kelly didn’t want to move her electric wheelchair forward, her teacher moved the ribbon line on the floor so Kelly became part of the number pattern.  Applause and laughter filled the room each time the children’s bodies matched the number pattern on the dominos.


The teacher said: “We could do play this game [another time without Purple Patch]”.

Returning to the box, Fran pulled out four picture cards with the logos for fast food restaurants on them: KFC, McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut.  Each child was given a purple counter and encouraged to put their counter on their favourite fast food outlet. The pictures prompted talk about favourite food and favourite restaurants.

The children were encouraged to count the counters on the pictures – which was the favourite restaurant?  Which was the least favourite?  Which had more? Which had less?  Next Fran covered two of the pictures and asked the children: “how many people like Burger King and McDonalds?”  She repeated this using different combinations of two, then three cards to create addition tasks.  Back to the box and the task was repeated with images of chocolate, and breakfast foods.  The pictures clearly invoked memories of tastes and textures as the children enthusiastically identified their favourite foods.


Back to the box, and this time the children were confronted with a range of tastes, smells, touch, sounds and sights: marmite, the smell of patchouli, slime, the sounds of buzzing bees and a picture of gold shoes.

Karen was hesitant, hiding her head under her jumper as the objects were passed round the circle, but again (see Happy Birthday Shakespeare)  putting her hand on her teacher’s hand meant that she was able briefly to feel the slime, gentle wafting of the patchouli meant that she caught a sense of the smell.


Alison did not taste the marmite but enjoyed the smell, raising her head to get closer to the pot and gently making sounds.

After each taste, touch, smell, sight and sound there was a vote to see who liked and who didn’t like it and these were used to create a bar chart with bricks built by the children.  This was a chance to extend the learning from a counting and adding task to subtraction – how many people liked it?  How many people didn’t?  What is nine take-away two?


And then maths was over, objects back in the box, chairs cleared away.  And the traditional classroom space, filled with desks, began to re-appear.




Sensing Sylvia Plath


Sensing Sylvia Plath


Crossing the Water

by Sylvia Plath


Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.

Where do the black trees go that drink here?

Their shadows must cover Canada.


A little light is filtering from the water flowers.

Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:

They are round and flat and full of dark advice.


Cold worlds shake from the oar.

The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.

A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;


Stars open among the lilies.

Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?

This is the silence of astounded souls


Hailed as one of the most celebrated and controversial poets of her generation, Plath’s poetry is powerful, turbulent and complex – far, you might imagine, from the experiences of a group of young students at a special school in West Yorkshire.

As this week’s Creative Curriculum session began, Vicky read the poem above.  She asked the children if they would listen and try to remember any of the words from the poem, a hush fell, Vicky’s lilting voice emphasized the words that would later appear as props: black boat, cut-paper people, fishes, lilies.  Most of children were looking and listening intently but at the end of hearing the poem only one child remembered one word: ‘black’.

The teacher said “shall we read the poem again?” Vicky said: “let’s explore it, instead.”

And so the props came out: the black organza that Vicky wafted over the children’s heads; the map and torches which the children used to make shadows with their hands that covered Canada; the floral spray and the water lilies; the cellophane drops of water.  And then the children held the shadow puppets, including the black boat and fishes, which danced across the screen as Vicky read the poem again.  Now what can we remember?

“black boat” “cut-paper people” “fishes” ‘flowers”

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And so:'[t]he senses mediate the relationship between self and society, mind and body, idea and object. The senses are everywhere (Bull et al. 2006, emphasis in the original)

Bull, M., Gilroy, P., Howes, D. and Kahn, D. (2006) ‘Introducing Sensory Studies’, Senses and Society, 1(1): 5–6.)





Happy Birthday Shakespeare


In the week of his birthday, Purple Patch visited three groups of children in two special schools in West Yorkshire to introduce them to the joys of Shakespeare, including learning some key facts about him.

This was the first in a series of visits as part of Purple Patch’s Creative Curriculum project.  The six sessions will focus on the curriculum areas of English, Maths and Science.  This week’s focus was, of course, English.

As soon as the team from Purple Patch, Fran and Vicky, came into the room, the young people knew that something was up!  As Vicky and Fran struggled in, carrying two bags of bricks (plastic but very realistic!) and a bag full of mystery, the children were intrigued.

As tables were pushed aside an unusual quiet fell in the class – anticipation was building.

Vicky asked the group: “Have you heard of William Shakespeare?” Chloe* thought he might have “worked in a goldmine”

Using a short piece from Shakespeare’s A Midsommer Night’s Dream, Vicky and Fran took the children on a sensory journey, as Elizabethan music played (the One Direction of their day).  Vicky passed round a picture of the great man himself while Fran encouraged the children to try on a ruff, just like the one that Shakespeare was wearing in the picture.  Jon felt ‘important’, Sumaira didn’t want to put the ruff on but was happy to stroke it gently.

The children were encouraged to play with Shakespearean language – shouts of “all hail”, were accompanied by a cupping of the ear. James suggested an elaborate bow to accompany the greeting “How now, Sir?”

Leaves were passed round and then thrown in the air to represent ‘the bush’ in the extract from the play, ‘a flood’ was recreated in a bowl of water passed round carefully among the children who gently splashed themselves and Vicky and Fran.


Karen had her arms folded tight at the start of the session, refusing to touch the ruff or the leaves that Fran gently placed on her lap.  But when no one was looking she quickly picked up the leaves and just as quickly set them down again.  Karen refused to touch the floodwater, until the bowl was passed away from her and she immediately called for it to come back and splashed her hands in the warm water.



Eyes closed and suddenly there was a fire!  Not a real fire but crinkling sheet of foil – as the children’s confidence grew so did the noise of the fire as they shook the foil with vigour.

Fran and Vicky told us they’d been up early that morning collecting the dew, which they gently sprayed on the children’s hands and above their heads.  And they’d picked and dried cowslips so the children could smell them and then taste cowslip tea, dropped from a pipette onto the backs of their hands.

Using call and response, the children learned the names of some Shakespeare’s well-known plays.

At the end of the session, their teacher asked the class: “Is it better when you get all that or when there are just words?” and the children replied “all that!”

As Purple Patch packed up, the teacher said: “did you see, Jon? Jon is never like that! He was listening and he took part, that never happens”

So Happy Birthday Shakespeare!  I’m sure you’d be delighted to know that 400 years since you were born, young people in West Yorkshire are still enjoying your work.


* all names of the children  have been changed.

The research bit …

This page is for anyone interested in why and how we are doing the research …..

Current research exploring the impact of arts education often lacks engagement with disabled children; it fails to explore directly, or, indeed, to reference or to differentiate, how the learning of disabled children might differ from that of non-disabled peers in the context of arts education (For examples see: Atkinson and Robson, 2012; Carnwath and Brown, 2014; Collins and Ogier, 2012; Cooper et al., 2011). Traditional ‘success measures’ for understanding the impact of arts practice on learning inevitably exclude the experience of children with complex impairments who may work below National Curriculum standards, and who may a limited capacity for expressing complex reasoning. Overwhelmingly, the research methods developed and used for these studies are designed with children in mind for whom communication is both ‘normative’ and ‘verbal’ and so exclude children with complex impairments from the research.

This project will allow us to begin to address the indirect discrimination existing in literature focused on the impact of the arts on learning and practice that intrinsically excludes disabled children. Through a collaboration with Purple Patch Arts as part of their arts education work in schools, the project will enable us to build collective knowledge and deepen understanding of the impact of arts practice on learning; it will allow us to employ a different methodology so that the theoretical frameworks, through which impact on education is conceptualised, can be expanded to include disabled children alongside their non-disabled peers.

During 2016 Purple Patch Arts will be undertaking a pilot phase of a new ‘Creative Curriculum’ model through which they will develop new arts education approaches for children with complex disabilities. They will work with 80 children across 4 schools within Yorkshire both delivering interactive workshops and undertaking evaluation with children and teachers on the effectiveness of the approach (funded by Bradford Council (£3333) and the Golden Bottle and Bulldog Trust (£5800).

This pilot offers a unique opportunity for fieldwork which can explore appropriate criteria and methodogical approaches to be used within academic discourse.


(a) To explore the usefulness of current evaluative criteria and models that measure impact and outcomes in arts education;

(b) To consider whether there are more useful ways of thinking about and establishing ‘value’ and outcomes in relation to participatory arts projects with children and young people with learning disabilities;

(c) To explore ways of capturing and assessing the effect of participating in creative activity upon learning and creativity for children and young people.

(d) To explore the impact of creative activities upon children and young people with learning disabilities as well as upon both arts practitioners and carers;

(e) To share new learning and knowledge in the field of arts education.

Welcome to Valuing Creativity

Welcome to our project:

The meaning(s) of value: Measuring the Impact of Creative Activities upon children and young people with learning disabilities

This project is a partnership between The Research Centre for Social Change and Community Wellbeing at Manchester Metropolitan University  and Purple Patch Arts.  The research is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Grant Scheme and runs from April, 2016 – May, 2017.

We are all working together to find out about disabled children and young people’s engagement with arts education.  We are listening to children and young people and from those working with them to learn about how arts-based education can make an impact in their lives.

This project came about because we know that the voices of disabled children and those close to them are often missing in research about arts-based education. We think this needs to change.

Please follow this blog to find out about the research as it unfolds or contact us to find out more:

Katherine Runswick-Cole
Senior Research Fellow
Manchester Metropolitan University

Fran Rodgers
Projects Manager
Purple Patch Arts
5 Green Street
Bradford BD1 5HG