In the light of our new Transitions Project in North East England primary schools, Chris Drinkwater of the Child Health & Wellbeing Network writes about the crucial role of creative drama in helping young people manage change.

All of us at some time or another have worried about transitions: a new job, moving to another area or a new house. There is the tingle of excitement edged with dread. Have I made the right choice? Will things live up to my expectations?

There are also negative transitions where we are not in control: loss of job, partner and home. These situations inevitably generate anxiety, depression and loss of any sense of personal identity, autonomy and security.

How we manage these transitions and how resilient we are is dependent on how, as children, we learn to cope with the inevitable transitions of growing up: going to school for the first time, or moving from a small local primary school to a much bigger and often distant secondary school.

I was therefore delighted to get involved with Damn Cheek Productions, Children North East and primary schools in Gateshead in the Transitions Project. The project aims to see:

  • how a creative drama approach could explore the worries and anxieties of pupils in Years 5 and 6 about their transition to secondary school
  • how such an approach could hopefully provide them with coping strategies and an increased level of resilience

A recent paper from the Education Policy Institute on social and emotional learning has pulled together the evidence and some of the key issues on why this kind of work needs to take greater priority in our schools.

As an executive member of the North East and North Cumbria Integrated Care System Child Health & Wellbeing Network and a recently retired Director of the West End Schools’ Trust (WEST), I am already a convert. I have enjoyed In Harmony (Sage Gateshead, WEST); My Story, My Place, My Future (Seven Stories, WEST); Monday’s Child (Damn Cheek, Age UK Gateshead, Blue Stone Collaborative, Gateshead primary schools); and most recently The South Tees Arts Project (STAR) on dance in primary schools in disadvantaged areas of South Tees (Tin Arts, Northern Ballet).

One of the challenges of all these pieces of work has been finding funding. There is also the issue that sustainable funding is even more difficult than initial short-term funding. Two things arise from this:

  • first, the importance of the creative arts in supporting the development of social and emotional learning (SEL)
  • second, the need to ground the acquisition of these skills in primary schools where there is both a more local and a more pastoral approach and greater involvement of parents

To circle back to transitions, we know that average educational attainment scores in primary schools in the North East and North Cumbria are better than average scores in our secondary schools. It would be interesting to explore whether some of this is due to neglect of the importance of SEL and (here I quote from the Education Policy Institute) whether current pressures on schools to achieve higher attainment standards are likely to stand in the way of evidence-based approaches to SEL.

Much of the current focus in education is on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and most recently on maths until 18. Even if we could find the maths teachers, this would not solve the problems of social and emotional wellbeing for children and young people. These problems have only been made worse by the COVID-19 and cost-of-living crises, which have had significant impact on our most disadvantaged communities.

So, there are lots of reasons why I am looking forward to the Damn Cheek Transitions Project. Lots of opportunities for a group of Years 5 and 6 students to have fun, to explore and to express their hopes, anxieties and concerns about transition to secondary school.

There needs to be much more of this kind of project, and in the long term STEM needs to become STEAM, with the arts and creativity as an equal partner.

Professor Chris Drinkwater CBE, FRCGP, FFPH(Hon), FRSA, is Executive Lead for Arts and Creativity, North East & North Cumbria Child Health and Wellbeing Network.

Download a list of resources about social and emotional learning (SEL) (PDF, 166KB)