Creating a Culture Change as Artists in Residence

Creating a Culture Change as Artists in Residence
By Sarah
9th January 2024


Since 2019, we’ve been working with Barr’s Hill School and Community College in Coventry, as the school’s Artists In Residence.


Highly Sprung deliver physical theatre workshops for Years 7 to 11, create original performances, explore curriculum subjects, help with GCSE Drama and much more, as our work with the school keeps increasing. We recently sat down with Assistant Headteacher Andreas Michael, to hear more about the impact of this brilliant partnership. 



Let’s start at the beginning… why did you decide to bring us in to work with your students? How has the programme developed since?


Andreas: When I started in June 2019, there was no drama on the curriculum at all. It wasn’t a taught subject. There was no culture of performance, so pupils were really out of the routine of performing, and also just the habit of standing up in front of others, or working together. It just wasn’t there.


When Highly Sprung came in, our vision as a school was starting to change. We were really thinking about the seven-year journey young people go on with us. How do we prepare them to be ready for the real world? With the skills to succeed in the workplace beyond the classroom.


We were recognising that exam results in themselves aren’t enough. In 2019, Barrs Hill had the best exam results in the city for a non-selective school, but that wasn’t enough for us. We knew that our pupils could do more – for their communication, their confidence, their public speaking. That’s what we’ve tried to solve on that journey together. Three years later, we now have drama from Year 7, and we’re back doing Drama GCSE as well.


A lot of our students and their families might not have ever been to the theatre before. One way of making sure they will go to the theatre is bring the theatre to them. So it’s just a total reversal. You bring the theatre into a place where they feel safe and they can then explore it. We really believe in belonging, and I think our students feel like they really belong at Barrs Hill. Now we are building up the resilience for them to feel that they can perform outside the school as well. What they’re doing when they work with you is finding a passion. It’s about you giving the students opportunities and the access to them that they wouldn’t otherwise have had.



Much of this work has been set against a difficult context in the education sector. Working in a cultural partnership like ours feels almost revolutionary. What is the importance for you of having drama so embedded in the curriculum and across the school?



In my experience, it’s about the bigger picture, preparing them for their futures. Where I worked at college I was talking to a lot of employers for apprenticeships and the feedback I got the most was that students don’t have the communication or interpersonal skills, the soft skills. That’s something that drama can provide. With the students at the start of the residency compared to the end, the communication skills have vastly improved. Students that are probably not natural leaders have their time to shine. I think other subjects don’t always have that opportunity.


A brilliant way of looking at it is if you think about a year group that hasn’t worked with Highly Sprung for the last 3 years, there would be more disengagement, a feeling of ‘I just can’t do it.’ But with groups in Years 7, 8 & 9, there’s communication, confidence, the ability to work with anyone. A confidence that they can be a good performer. They can genuinely lead, command, respect, organise. They’re ready for project-based work which lends itself so well to other careers.



A key element of our role in the school has been to create and be part of a culture change, embedding our work across the curriculum and beyond. Andreas spoke about how our partnership has expanded. 



Andreas: Initially we saw you as an external agency of drama teachers that we didn’t have. We worked with you to provide a small group of young people with weekly after school activities. Those young people were totally devoted for the whole year.


But we’re talking about 20 to 25 students. And we saw that you’re not just teachers… you are so much more. You’re a performance company first and foremost. You and your staff are phenomenal, the skill sets that you’ve got – as actors, as teachers, as mentors, directors. There was so much more that we just weren’t tapping into, so we ripped up the model.


We thought right, there’s about 25 kids who know about you, but everyone else doesn’t. So let’s start with something big. At that point we made the decision to commission one of your most famous performances and brought CastAway right here to the middle of Coventry, into Barrs Hill School. We had you performing for all the Year 7 and 8s. It was from that moment that people fully understood what you guys were about.


We followed it up immediately with a Play In A Day for all of Year 7. Young people watched you, then the next day we put 180 students centre stage and made a show by 2pm in just four hours. It was bold, crazy, brave, all of the above. Now our students are getting that every year, plus the Christmas, the Easter and Summer performances.


In July, we’re planning on giving our learners the biggest event that we have for our end of year celebration assembly, performing alongside Highly Sprung at Coventry Cathedral, in front of 1000 students and parents. What a thing for CV’s and what the thing to have for the rest of your life.  We want to provide our students with world class opportunities that will stay with them forever.


What is the impact of something like Play In A Day on your young people?



Andreas: It is really supportive. A really nice atmosphere, super supportive, students really clapping, whooping, and cheering, even though they’ve only been working together for 4 weeks since starting school. I’ve never seen a theatre company go to a school, create a performance all in one day, and develop such fantastic relationships with students.


We’re talking 189 students – mixed abilities, some with no English, some with reading ages of 6/7 and some with reading ages of 17/18, all working together in their tutor groups, totally mixed ability groups. But it didn’t matter, because the work you do is brilliantly accessible. Giving students the opportunity to connect with their countries and cultures, through the stories you explore. It’s incredible.



Final question… is there anything specific that stands out for you about Highly Sprung? What do you feel is different? 


Andreas: It’s the way that you work with us. We don’t buy a package and then you roll out the package, so it’s not a set thing. It’s the way that you talk to us, the way you find out what we want – really where our aims become your aims and it genuinely feels like you get the school and the journey we are on.


Highly Sprung are a physical theatre company and we wanted to try something different. Work in a different style. We’ve learned physical theatre is a phenomenal form of theatre and truly accessible. We’ve done some silent work where there’s been no words, but also you guys can do everything so it hasn’t limited what we’ve done. Every project has been completely different. From the life and works of William Shakespeare, to retelling of true Holocaust survivor stories. I would say that was one question I had – whether this might get boring quickly. Once we’ve done, it is it just the same? It hasn’t been at all. We just keep being surprised.


We’re working together collectively to achieve the best from our students. You treat our students like your students, it doesn’t feel like an add on. When you come back, you’re treated like members of the family, you’re genuinely welcomed back. We really believe in getting to know our students as individuals and I think you’ve got to know our school so well. Through cross curricular links too – we’ve done physics, geography, history through the Holocaust. We’ve done so many different themes, so this isn’t only drama. It can be whatever we want it to be.


I think what our students see in Highly Sprung is similar to what we see in you – this giving, genuine care. This is what we’re trying to foster in our students as well. That care for each other, that responsibility for your local surroundings, your wider community. Quite frankly the more time our students spend with Highly Sprung the better, because you just role model that behaviour we’re trying promote here.



Highly Sprung believe that every child and young person has that ability to aspire, to be ambitious, and to achieve what they dream about. We know that with the right support and the right people around them that dream can become possible. We hope that our residency in Barrs Hill promotes opportunities for students to unlock their potential, and are so proud of all it has achieved for the school.



To the brilliant staff and students who have brought your energy and passion to our work – thank you!  We look forward to being part of your journey in the future.