Saturday, 16 January 2016

Art Education in Alternative Provision

The Red Balloon Learner Centre is an alternative educational provision for young people who have suffered severe bullying or school-related trauma. I have taught Art at its Norwich branch since 2011 and wanted to share some of my (and my student's!) practice with other professionals. My visual arts teaching is underpinned by three things; individuality, community, and exhibition. I think art is at its most powerful when it is unique to its creator, developed in a respectful community of practicing artists, and then installed for others to enjoy.

Red Balloon differs from other education providers, and is very much tailored to meet the needs of the young people who attend. When a new student comes to Red Balloon they are often timid, fearful, sometimes terrified to even walk through the door and leave their parents behind. Their body language is usually closed down, shoulders hunched, arms folded in a defensive posture. If the young person speaks, rarely do they offer more than a word or two. Their first trip to the art room is generally a frightening experience for them. Art can be intimidating, many of our young people don't feel comfortable expressing themselves. They are terrified of the judgement that they're certain will come the very second they begin to make marks on paper. 

Art lessons in mainstream schools can sometimes be competitive, with naturally talented students producing work that intimidates others and stifles their creativity. When any new student comes into my art room, my first challenge is to gain that child's trust. I usually start with a friendly welcome followed by a question, something along the lines of "Welcome to the art room! So... do you like art?" The most common response to this (if the child has sufficient confidence to speak) is 'Yes, but I'm not very good at it.' This points to a great truth of creative education, and is a fitting place to begin my argument.

 As young children, we all play. We possess none of the aforementioned fear of being judged. We will happily make expressive marks and gestures with paint, play dough, crayons, even mud! At some point - and it seems to be around the time we enter the school system - we become aware that this mark making is part of a larger thing called 'art', and that this thing seems to have its own set of rules, boundaries and values. This is often where the disconnection begins.  What was previously a spontaneous form of play becomes something that teachers now comment on; with some children's efforts getting more positive feedback than others'. Some children will naturally have a greater visual sense than others, some will be capable of more deft hand movements, and these youngsters are the ones that become the 'arty' ones or the 'creative' ones.  My job is to put young people back in touch with their innate creativity, and give them the confidence to recognise that what they create is art
I personally have a great interest in outsider art and folk art. I've attempted to integrate such na├»ve and ‘raw’ practices into my teaching. I fear that an overly didactic approach to arts education is counter-productive. For me, the great value of art making is the ability to express your own unique vision – and doing so inevitably opens you up, allowing you to explore who you are and what it means to be you. I think my best lessons are the ones where I hardly speak at all, where students are comfortable in the art room and with the piece they are creating.
This piece is an example from a mixed media portraiture project which I ran with Year 9 students earlier this year. Students were given the choice of working in any combination of collage, acrylic paint, stencil, and oil pastel. The results from the project were beautiful and unique, and it was a pleasure to witness their creation.
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I have a strong community approach, which informs all that happens in my classroom. All my students create work that is exhibited around our Learner Centre’s walls. Students regularly inspire each other, instruct each other, and (kindly) critique each other’s work.

These pieces, for example, are part of a larger display called ‘Faces in the Hall.’ It was inspired by an American artist called Tyree Guyton who reinvigorated a dilapidated borough of Detroit with his found art assemblages and brightly coloured expressionist portraits. The McDougall-Hunt area of Detroit, where Guyton’s work is proudly displayed, is now one of Detroit’s most popular tourist attractions. Inspired by Guyton’s work, Red Balloon students created two dimensional pieces in oil pastel on black paper, and then moved on to three dimensional work in papier mache, fabric and acrylic paint. All of these pieces now form part of a larger wall display, which can be viewed by all who come to the upper floor of our Learner centre. Though students were inspired by Guyton’s work, they were encouraged to draw on their own imaginations and experiences to create pieces meaningful to them.
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When students are ready they are encouraged out of the class room on visits to local art galleries, museums and Norwich University of the Arts. Students absorb the work they see and reflect on it, bringing their ideas back to Red Balloon with them. These types of visits often provide great ‘jumping off points’ for art projects.

The above wire sculptures were created in response to Alberto Giacometti. Students had the opportunity to view his work first hand during a visit to the Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts, which is on the UEA campus. Young people learned how to safely use wire cutters, pliers, and hot glue. They learnt how to manipulate three dimensional materials, and ensure that their creations could balance and stay up right. Each student considered the sort of poses they could create, considering the visual dynamism of different options before making their final choice.  The finished sculptures now stand proudly on our upstairs window ledge.
I’m passionate about Art education and about the transformation visual arts can bring to people’s lives. I hope that I’ve provided something of a snapshot of life as an Art teacher in an alternative education setting. For more information about Red Balloon, visit


  1. Fabulous work Kyle. I really enjoyed your article. You were an inspiring colleague at Red Balloon. I am teaching Art in my old high school. Mostly Y8, Y9 and Y10. I know exactly what you mean about helping them get over the fear. I have felt that fear myself, still do sometimes. Everyone needs to feel the joy of being freely creative.

  2. Rosie, great to hear from you! So pleased to hear you're teaching Art now. Thanks for the compliments... Red Balloon's changed a lot these past five years!