Student Associates Blog - Chris Millis

Student Associates Blog - Chris Millis

I am a postgraduate student at Lancaster University undertaking an MA in English Literary Studies, and have been working with the Creative Communities department at The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster, Lancashire’s only producing theatre. 

My current work placement is part of Lancaster University and The Dukes’ cultural partnership programme, MAKE. The Student Associate element consists of placing six LU students from a wide variety of social and academic backgrounds into state schools, to run creative workshops with children of primary school age (7-11). These are paid work placements. The current Associate Schools are; Bowerham Primary School, Westgate Primary School, Mossgate Primary School, Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, Ryelands Primary School, and Willow Lane Community Primary School.

The schools participating in the Student Associate Scheme are in some of the most socioeconomically deprived postcodes in the North-West. The proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSMs) is well above the national average.

The project has been a brilliant opportunity for me to develop professional skills. Coordinating the students’ placements has developed my competence in management, communication and team leadership, while my experience working with monitoring data has improved my coordination and interpretation skills. I also presented my work to the Dukes Board of Trustees, allowing me to practice presentation skills in a professional environment. This placement has opened my eyes to the challenges the cultural sector currently faces. 

This project has taken place against the backdrop of widespread industrial action across the vast majority of state schools in England. These unprecedented challenges over pay and working conditions have made the project successes even more remarkable. Furthermore, in the academic year 2021/22, government subsidies for creative degrees were cut by 50%, from £36 million to just £19 million, with the money being reallocated towards ‘high value’ STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). This has already led to courses being cut from universities, preventing students from diverse social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds engaging with the arts. This further demonstrates the importance of this project for young people aiming to pursue a career in the arts or teaching. 

The diverse backgrounds of the Student Associates is important to note; 33% are from minority ethnic backgrounds, 33% have a mental health problem or specific learning disability, and 17% are from a low-income background. 

Throughout the scheme, the LU students have received free training in First Aid, alongside mentoring from local theatre practitioner Mary Papadima. A vital aspect of the process, Mary provided the students with the ‘toolbox’ necessary to run drama workshops with young people to a high standard, through one-to-one sessions, group meetings, and observations. Below is a comment from Mary:

‘Training and mentoring university students, by offering them practical tools, so that they, in turn, can gain confidence and knowledge to plan and deliver drama workshops for students in local primary schools has been a truly fulfilling experience. Everyone involved is paid, and proper training is provided to the students so that they can have all the necessary practical skills and certifications to work in a school environment. There is a support net around them with one aim: to allow students from diverse backgrounds to learn, work, get paid, and give back to their community.’

Mary Papadima, Theatre Practitioner

The scheme’s purpose is twofold, not only providing valuable paid work experience working with KS1 and KS2 children for current Lancaster University students, but also delivering drama workshops to schools across the Lancaster and Morecambe district; schools that otherwise may not have resources to provide them. One thing that has shone through during this process is the passion and drive of the teachers that I have worked with, endeavouring to provide drama in the classroom alongside the curriculum. The Student Associate Scheme is vital in supporting these inspirational teachers and enhancing the creative potential of the next generation.

Throughout the scheme, we have also trialed innovative evaluation and theory of change tools through which we have been able to monitor the impact on the students involved. By digitally asking a series of questions over a period of months, we have tangible evidence of the positive effects the scheme has had on the confidence, skills, and ambitions of our Student Associates. 

Here are some comments from both the teachers and Student Associates:

‘Having the support of a proactive, driven and motivated student supporting our children has been great, whilst supporting them in developing their teaching skills is a community duty we are more than happy and willing to provide … our longstanding relationship with The Dukes has allowed our children to access quality arts experiences and learning opportunities that we hope will continue for a long time’ 

Nick Haughton, Teacher at Bowerham Primary School

‘I am writing in support of the Student Associate Scheme which our school has benefitted from over the last two years. We have been very fortunate to have two wonderful students who have been able to deliver exciting drama opportunities to our children. This has both been enriching to our pupils and allowed them to develop their creativity but has also provided teachers with new drama skills which they can adopt in their own practice. Enhancing confidence and creativity in our children is one of our many aims and the Student Associate Scheme is helping us to achieve this.’

Kelly Burrell, EYFS Teacher and Drama Lead at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School

‘The Student Associate Scheme confirmed for me that education is what I want to go into. It is so rewarding knowing that the children love what you are doing with them and seeing their confidence grow each week. It has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and showed me I can do more than I think’

Phoebe Wells, Student Associate at Morecambe Bay Community Primary School

Ultimately, the Student Associate Scheme is a vital programme both for Lancaster University students and primary school age pupils across the Lancaster and Morecambe area. For LU students, it provides excellent first-hand paid work experience in schools, along with training qualifications and mentoring from experienced theatre professionals. For pupils of primary school age, it ensures that they have the opportunity to participate in creative workshops that the schools might otherwise not have the resources to provide.

For more information about our MAKE Programme, student associate scheme or community engagement projects please contact the Creative Communities team; 

Photo credit: Mossgate Primary School - Robin Zahler