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Valuable Resource – Or Unnecessary Luxury? Why It Might Be Worth Inviting In A Workshop Provider

It’s been more than two decades since 40-year-old mother-of-two, Jenny Wood, was at her girls-only secondary school, but she still has vivid memories of one day in Year 10.

  • Valuable Resource – Or Unnecessary Luxury? Why It Might Be Worth Inviting In A Workshop Provider

“We had a self defence workshop,” says Jenny. “I still remember the advice. Carry your keys in your hand so they’re easily accessible in a hurry. Stick them between your fingers so you can punch someone with them if you have to defend yourself. You don’t have to be stronger than your attacker – just hit them where it hurts. Stabbing keys into the front fleshy part of someone’s thighs is excruciating or you can poke your fingers in their eyes. Don’t be squeamish: this could give you time to get away.”

Jenny says this workshop taught her class a valuable skill: “Years later, when we were in our 20s, one of my school friends stopped a mugger in his tracks by poking her fingers in his eyes and running away. It was super effective.”

But in an age of constrained budgets, how should schools view workshops like these, which teach skills that are not central to the curriculum? The answer really comes down to what you believe the role schools play in today’s society to be.

Beyond the remit

For Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, there is a clear distinction to be drawn between workshops that obviously tie in to the curriculum and those with a more general brief.

“There is a case for schools bringing in particular expertise to supplement what teachers can do,” he says. “As an example, drama workshops that involve watching a production and then speaking to the actors about the performance can enrich students’ appreciation of dramatic texts.”

But when it comes to arguing that schools should run workshops that embrace wider issues, Professor Smithers is unimpressed. “I get bombarded with literature about workshops that are said to ‘boost creativity’ or ‘improve relationships’,” he says. “These general claims strike me as being ways to boost trade for the workshop providers, rather than being demonstrable.”

That isn’t his only concern. “I think we are trying to load too much onto schools and to make them responsible for areas of life for which they are not responsible,” he explains. “Wider social issues – such as personal care – should be the domain of other agencies.”

His arguments raise valid concerns. Schools are tight on money and time: so how do they make sure that any given workshop truly is value for money? And should they be accepting responsibility for teaching life skills that lie outside the curriculum?

“Yes they should,” says educational consultant Julia Pollock. “Schools these days are often in a loco parentis role. You can argue about the rights and wrongs of that but trying to ignore it won’t change it. Schools have to equip their students with life skills, nurture their mental health and their resilience. Workshops can help to do that.”

Research is backing that up that claim. In 2014 a study from the University of Bristol found that short workshops can increase awareness, and knowledge of, mental health disorders in adolescents. Previous studies have shown that young people are more likely to seek help if they recognise and have knowledge about their mental health problems.

Similarly, a 2015 study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand found that diversity workshops, highlighting the issue of bullying based on sexuality, have the potential to help create safer secondary school environments.

Investing in people

Besides, Julia argues that the very act of providing workshops sends students the message that a school cares for them.

“That’s a simple but powerful thing,” she insists. “A workshop is providing something that goes above and beyond the usual day-to-day business of a school. You’re giving the students something. In itself that builds the relationship – and opens up the communication – between school and students.”

43-year-old Kerry Barrett echoes that argument. “I went to a very academic girls school and I always felt that creative subjects weren’t admired,” she says. “But in the sixth form, the school put on a poetry workshop with Carol Ann Duffy. It was followed by an evening performance for parents where we read the poems we’d written. For the first time I felt that my school believed there was value in something I was good at – and saw it as a skill. That helped my confidence enormously.”

Self-esteem, enhanced student-teacher relationships, an opportunity to encounter broader issues and skills – these are solid reasons for making sure that time is given to workshop provision in secondary schools. But one question remains. How do you ensure a workshop is value for money?

Find the right people
“Word of mouth is the best guide to quality,” says Anthony Glenn, an actor who delivers educational workshops on Shakespeare (see shakingupshakespeare.net).

“It’s not about high quality websites and leaflets. You want to hear – first hand – that a particular workshop provider gives your students something above and beyond what could be achieved in a lesson. I think if workshop providers are serious about building relationships with schools then they should be willing to offer tasters, so the teachers can see what they have to offer and – crucially - how the students respond to them.”

Have (wherever possible) staff involvement
“There are two important aspects to getting value for money from a workshop,” says Julia. “The first is quality control – getting an inspirational workshop provider. The second is to ensure it’s built into the curriculum, and a springboard for ongoing work that will reinforce the lessons it delivers. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so helpful for staff to take part, so they know what’s happened and which aspects of the experience got the students engaged and excited. They can then create material to lead on from that.”

Look at your options
If money – rather than time – is your key concern, think about the options provided by public bodies in your local community.

In Cheshire, for example, the local police authority runs sessions covering issues from dangerous driving to domestic abuse. Universities are also keen to get involved. At Hull University’s Annual Science Festival, post-graduates and undergraduates from the chemistry department run a popular ‘Lab-on-a-chip’ workshop for students in Years 9 – 11.

“We link the experiments the students do to the secondary curriculum, but the students are also seeing that science is hands-on and fun and solves real-life problems,” says Professor Nicole Pamme. “They also have role models in the university students, who are not that much older than they are, and are passionate about the work they’re doing. That, in itself, is inspirational.”

Faye Lofty, from the University of Brighton, agrees. At Brighton, secondary aged students are regularly invited for campus visits, either for stand-alone workshops – in archaeology or nursing and midwifery – or to take part in workshops within a wider tour. 

“The workshops are free – and if a school is in an area of high deprivation and transport costs would be an issue then we will also support the school with those costs,” Faye says. “I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve heard young people say that before a visit they’d assumed that university wasn’t for them, but that once they’d seen what university life and study is really like, they realised they were interested,” she concludes.

Or, says Professor Smithers, you could think even more laterally. “Instead of paying for expensive workshops, schools could set up a rolling programme of lectures, inviting external speakers in once a month or fortnight,” he argues. “These would boost the interest of the students without spending a lot of money.” And of course, it doesn’t have to be either/or – such a programme could incorporate occasional workshops. The best of both worlds?


Workshops can… increase attentiveness
“One of my strongest memories from school is a workshop that was delivered by the police when I was in Year 9. They did a number of activities with us, but the one that stuck with me was a film they showed featuring a teenage boy talking about his brother, who had died as the result of joyriding. It was very detailed and it really shook me up. But when I started driving – aged 17 – I was much more aware and safety-conscious. I think it’s invaluable to offer workshops at schools: especially when they’re delivered by an external organisation. At that age, for a lot of students, you pay more attention to someone ‘new’.”
Alice-May Purkiss, 28 from York

Workshops can… answer difficult questions
“We had anti-drug speakers come in to my school. They welcomed us into the room, offered us Smarties and lemonade (uh, yes please) then told us that for all we know they could’ve spiked our drinks and fed us pills. Harsh way to teach a lesson. But it taught us about things that weren’t on the curriculum in a way that differed from the usual classroom methods of teaching. That made it more exciting and easier to engage with. Plus, because we weren’t going to be seeing the workshop provider again, it felt easier to ask them questions that we wouldn’t have wanted to ask the teacher.”
Amy Pay, 25, from South Wales

Workshops can… open students’ eyes
“I did a Shakespeare workshop in my lower 6th. Can’t remember much about the bard but I do recall meeting girls from Camden Girls School, and being utterly intimidated by their self-confidence. The girls from my school were almost overwhelmingly from Irish immigrant backgrounds, or maybe Italian or Afro-Caribbean. These Camden girls were in the upper-range of middle class. I was always the gobbiest person in my English class, but next to them I was a mouse! It made me realise that these were the people I was going to be up against in the big, bad world, and that it wasn’t just about being top of the tree of my teeny school of 500 pupils.”
Lucy Hunter, 46, from south London

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