Object learning and its impact on wellbeing and confidence in pupils with SEND in partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries

Artwork produced by pupils during project


This action research was a part of the SLiCE (Specialist Leaders in Cultural Education) programme funded by Arts Council England through the regional bridge organisation for Yorkshire and Humber, CapeUK.

Timescales and delivery dates:

This was a year-long process between West Oaks School and Leeds Museums and Galleries (LMG) starting in June 2015 and ending in June 2016. Delivery of the arts programme took place between September 2015 and May 2016.

Project Management:

As this was a partnership between West Oaks School and LMG, there was a teacher lead from the school and an arts lead from the museums. As part of the action research this programme was evaluated, differentiated and adapted throughout to ensure quality and relevance. The funding from CapeUK meant there was no cost to the participants.

Action Research Enquiry Question:

“How can collaborative work between West Oaks School and Leeds Museums and Galleries impact on Expressive Communication in pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND)?”

Aims of the research:

  • To give pupils with SEND the opportunity to take part and enjoy the arts in school and visits to cultural sites like museums and galleries
  • To understand whether pupils with SEND could express themselves with greater confidence and fluency (verbally and non-verbally) through the arts.
  • To discover whether the arts could impact the wellbeing of individuals and raise academic standards
  • To provide a comprehensive wealth of data to support the need for the arts in the current curriculum


The SLiCE programme was a national initiative of action research to evidence the importance of an arts curriculum and the wider impact of the arts on school-age pupils.

West Oaks Specialist School wanted to find an approach that would enable pupils with complex needs and limited language skills the ability to express their thoughts, opinions and general understanding within their learning. West Oaks selected to work with LMG as their partner arts organisation.

The action research focused upon Expressive Communication (core), Art and Design (foundation) and the social and Expressive Language elements of PSHE (foundation). It was hoped that we could evidence progress in these key areas and a wider impact in terms of confidence building, wellbeing and collaboration as a result of the arts intervention.

Description of the arts activity

LMG consists of nine sites across the city. It was decided that the arts intervention would be a mixture of visits to the museums as well as outreach in to school. The sessions followed the same format for consistency and familiarity within the school day.

Object handling was used as a starting point to inspire the pupils’ creativity. This was followed with a variety of practical art activities, exploring a wide range of art forms and differentiated for the different needs and artistic interests of the group. At points we would bring in the additional use of artists. As museum professionals we understand the power of object-based learning to encourage pupils to lead their own thinking, answer their own questions and spark their own connections to our collections. The opportunity to handle the museum objects brought a sensory aspect which is particularly important for pupils with SEND.

We wanted the pupils to feel safe, that their responses were valid and relevant and to follow their lead on what journey they wished to take. This could be from sharing past experiences, conjuring up imaginative stories, making literal and non-literal observations and inspiring their creative output in the arts.  The flexibility of this approach meant that we were able to go off on tangents and take risks to see what worked and what didn’t. As the action research progressed, we understood the pupils’ likes and dislikes and were able to design sessions that were more personable and relatable to them.

Details of the project participants

The chosen research group consisted of 17 pupils across 2 class groups of KS 3 and 5. All of whom have severe and complex communication difficulties, one third with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC).  Teaching staff included 2 trained teachers and 4 teaching assistants and two Learning and Access Officers from LMG.

Evaluation methods and findings

Two evaluation methods were used to capture data, the school’s B Squared assessment levels and anecdotal written observations of notable instances of their Expressive Communication in English, Art & Design and PHSE.

From the B Squared results alone we demonstrated that this form of arts and creative intervention can have a significant impact on improving learning and pupil progress. In all three areas, the pupils made progress which was substantially greater than what would have been expected without the intervention. On average pupils achieved 69% above their expected level of progress in less than an academic year.

The qualitative data provided by LMG reinforced our findings and provided holistic evidence to support the quantitative data. The anecdotal observations give weight that an arts intervention can produce far reaching results that are otherwise hard to measure.

As the research developed the pupils’ enthusiasm and anticipation grew with one pupil using public transport independently for the first time to ensure that he didn’t miss a session. Their increased confidence and willingness to share, verbally and through their art was also something that was noted by all teaching staff. There was also a notable increase in the pupils’ willingness to collaborate again both socially and artistically.  

With pupils with such complex and profound needs, progress in these areas is very significant as they are fundamental markers for development in social understanding. These are recorded throughout their school career, and will impact positively on their life beyond school.  Throughout the action research there were numerous instances of real key moments that were witnessed which were incredibly powerful and we were only able to evidence this through the shared experience.

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England