The Power of the Arts in Alternative Provision: embracing uncertainty and non-conformity through creativity.

Education often seeks conformity, but doesn’t being creative actually challenge conformity? With this in mind teaching and learning can encourage non-conformity by embracing some creative uncertainties. In which case teaching creativity underpins the premise that education, according to Freire* , is liberating and empowering.

Artists are often seen as synonymous to rule breakers; risk takers; those who challenge and confront the norms. In Alternative Provision we have students who have been similarly perceived and for various reasons find themselves at our school. For students who haven’t or don’t conform to the predetermined “norm” discovering their creativity and inner artist is an important educational journey.

The arts challenge us to think differently and nurturing creativity, is an important skill for students to develop. As Sir Ken Robinson said in respect to learners’ creativity it’s important to “awaken them up, as to what they have within”, transforming the learners’ aesthetic experience. This he argues is through valuing individuals’ creativity not through conformity but diversity.

Behind every student is an individual story as to why they are with us and the arts provide a valuable teaching strategy to re-engaging some of the most disenfranchised students. Whilst fulfilling the human need for creativity the arts also help to build self-esteem, boost confidence and the autonomy to express ideas. Research from ‘The song room’ (2011) found the arts instil positive emotions about self; interpersonal relationships; decrease behaviour issues; increased resilience and students overall positive feelings about school. So, not only can the arts improve engagement through creative and inclusive practices, but these also maximise well-being.

The arts can offer hope, build connections and visions of better prospects irrespective of gender, social, racial, or ethnic backgrounds.  Therefore, it is important that we afford opportunities for equitable practices to ensure we don’t unintentionally disempower, marginalise or exclude our diverse students. Being ambitious about their creative and artistic strengths is integral to this.

For many of our students, their former experience of the arts has been inconsistent, for various reasons.  That is not to say that our students have any cultural deficit, it might be that their cultural capital has not yet been given value or been positioned within their educational experiences.  We recognise students own cultural interests and experiences by weaving these into our teaching to personalise learning. Whilst expanding their concepts and perspectives, opportunities are sought to create more equitable distribution and value of cultural knowledge. Therefore, being more cognisant to students’ diverse cultural heritage and lives, is key. Providing students with a greater sense of their own voices, their sense of belonging and valuing their ideas, contributes to their cultural confidence leading to better educational outcomes.

As educators we grasp the opportunity to inspire students with the benefits of positive experiences in being culturally and imaginatively engaged.  The trick is enabling our students to see that they have the potential to be creative. We foster and facilitate their creativity through valuing each learner in their creative journey. Our lessons encourage students to develop their interests, discover and master new skills and become actively responsible for their ideas. Inclusivity is enabled through learning which is co-constructed between teacher and student. This may include feeling safe to take creative and intellectual risks, resolving problems, managing failure, building resilience, developing concentration and experiencing success.

Key to nurturing these, is an environment with foundations built on relationships and belonging. An atmosphere that is non-threatening, instils courage, where elements of surprise, playfulness, freedom of thought and autonomy of ideas are the foundations of confidence. Building resilience, self-belief and character skills, will enable students to become more self-aware and self-regulated.

The arts give freedom to experiment, stimulate self-expression and move students beyond normative thinking into being critical thinkers, provoking new concepts and sensibilities where thoughts and feeling coexist. This approach will give rise to opportunities for a creative state of mind to navigate uncertainties. Where flexible thinking is needed so aims can be adapted as the work evolves and happy accidents can be exploited, so that innovative moments can end up transforming an outcome. With this process of creative learning, students have to accept ambiguity, learn to persist, be curious, critical and imaginative. As Eisner (2005) argued it’s an, “exploration and discovery of imagination rather than control and prediction, an openness to uncertainty needs a place in schools”. Our education system can sometimes be restrictive, the arts enable us to value moments of surprise over control; the unpredictable over the prescribed and the distinctive over the standard. Students learn to value the quality of the journey over the speed of arrival which in turn values personal mastery over comparative competition (Eisner, 2005). We are aiming to produce critical thinkers, not just knowledge banks.

If the arts were to be viewed in this way, it might be an end to the marginalised status the subject has historically held in comparison with what we know as the core subjects.

There is a need for the arts and creativity to have a raised profile and be given more value for promoting students’ intellectual growth in addition to wellbeing. The arts have the capacity to generate new knowledge rather than reproduce what is already known. For this, creativity needs to flourish by embracing uncertainties and non-conformity. Whereby, the power of the arts can enable students to reimagine other ways of being, by critically reinterpreting, reconstructing and transforming their world for the present and the future.

Jo Barber

Aspire AP

Associate Assistant Head of School, Chiltern Skills and Enterprise Centre(Leading Teaching and Learning, and Art Teacher)


Twitter: @Jo_cb_


*Paolo Freire advocated for education being emancipatory through critical consciousness and a co-operative teacher-student model. Renowned for his book ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’



Eisner, E.W. (2005). Reimagining Schools: The Selected Works of Elliot W. Eisner (1st ed.). Routledge.

Sir Ken Robinson (2010) Changing Paradigms at the RSA

Vaughan T, et al (2011). Bridging the Gap in School Achievement Through the Arts