The Flax Trust

Sparking the Imagination – A Primary School Project – December 2010 Report

Sparking the Imagination ‘A Primary School Project’

Interim Report to Funders

Dear Father Myles:

On behalf of the members of Sparking the Imagination ‘A Primary School Project, I am pleased to submit this report on project activities in 4 participating schools in the North Belfast area, supported by a grant from the Flax Trust and the University of Ulster Outreach Access Fund.

The outline for this report is in several parts– the impact that the ‘Sparking the Imagination’ project has had and is having on:

  • children in the Foundation Stage classes of the 4 participating schools in the North Belfast area
  • home /school relationships in the 4 participating schools
  • teacher pedagogies and practices

The project has in many areas outweighed initial expectations and although the impact in some areas will be further measured at later stages in the project it is clear that the benefits thus far for the communities involved are many.

Here I present some summary comments from the full report.


Interviewees have all agreed that children have benefited from involvement in the project.

Learning through the creative arts and in a highly interactive way has proved to be particularly motivating for all children, leading to higher than anticipated levels of engagement in project programmes.  Children were eager to take part in project activities and through participation every child was able to achieve some degree of success.

Teachers felt that a particular strength of the project was the fact that it helped them reach children they deemed ‘harder to reach’ or ‘unreachable’. Children exhibiting  , for example, low levels of self –esteem or natural inhibition participated enthusiastically in drama activities and other workshops requiring  active speaking and listening participation, when for example as one teacher said ‘they would never offer to speak in circle time activities or anything like that’.

The effectiveness of the project on contributing to children’s overall self-esteem was acknowledged by principals, teachers and parents. Self -esteem in this context is defined in the context of the revised curriculum to include ‘confidence and awareness of and respect for self and others’ (CCEA, 2004)

Confidence developed in all classes as children enjoyed learning and actively participated in every session. One experienced teacher described her group of primary one children as being, ‘different in terms of self –confidence to any group that I have previously taught.’ She felt specifically working with different creative experts had helped the children to be at ease in the company of a range of adults and more willing to express their ideas in both small groups and in front of larger audiences.

It was also noted by the various parties involved that, other skills the children have developed include socializing, compromising, taking turns and listening to each other. Encouragement to share ideas coupled with the experience of being listened to by peers and adults has had a re-enforcing effect on children’s sense of importance and self-esteem.


It is widely accepted amongst early year’s practitioners that parental involvement in children’s education has the capacity to directly affect a child’s attitude to learning and the school environment.  The result is that early year’s institutions often aim to build strong and continued links with children’s parents and carers.

In every case it was felt that the project enhanced home school relationships. Schools were encouraged by the number of parents attending parent sessions and felt enthused to further develop workshops for parents in other learning areas.

Parental attendance during workshops was better than anticipated. Overall attendance ranged from- 25%-69%

Parents and guardians welcomed opportunities to engage with their children’s learning and enjoyed the experience of sharing learning with their children.

Parents commented often on the positive atmosphere in school and in many cases expressed surprise that their children’s school experiences were nothing like their own memories of school which were very often negative. This encouraged many parents who admitted they now felt they felt less anxious about making contact with school.

When possible, parents and guardians were invited to enjoy a relaxing cup tea or coffee after the parent sessions. Being able to talk and interact with other parents and guardians in the school environment was viewed as a worthwhile, valuable and at times reassuring experience.

IMG Sparking the Imagination1 668x501 Sparking the Imagination   A Primary School Project   December 2010 Report

Parents and children attending ‘Sparking the Imagination’ Workshop at University of Ulster, Jordanstown


In order for the successes of the project to have a lasting impact it was important that teachers recognise and buy in to the idea that programmes become a regular feature of their own practice.

Feedback given by teachers in June 2010 was very encouraging as all teachers have endorsed the benefits of well developed self- esteem in children and the majority demonstrated when and how they intended to use the creative programmes minus the support of the creative experts in 2011.

Teachers in some cases were moving to new year groups though they had prepared replacement teachers where possible so that they could try and deliver the programmes.

Overall, teachers felt that the expertise of the creative artists had invigorated their own practices and given them fresh perspectives on teaching and learning techniques.

Teachers in all schools felt that the input from the creative experts had also given them a deeper knowledge and understanding in the various creative areas, which in turn has led to increased confidence to plan and teach for those areas.

Throughout the year teachers achieved a deeper understanding of the potential within the creative arts to develop children emotionally and socially and were applying this more readily to their own practice.

The resources provided by the project including programmes of work, lesson plans, instruments, books, art supplies ad cameras made it possible for teachers to sustain programmes.

Teachers felt that the Lawseq questionnaire was a useful tool in helping them to identify children with low self-esteem.


Over the last 14 months the Sparking the Imagination project has been working to develop effective and sustainable models of teaching and learning practice that will contribute to the development of self-esteem  and help disadvantaged children in the Foundation Stage of Learning develop skills and attitudes that are needed to thrive in the more formal school setting.

A variety of creative experts have worked alongside children and parents in clusters of schools from deprived areas in East and North Belfast in order to explore the impact that a more interactive and arts centred curriculum coupled with increased parental involvement in school life can have in the development of children’s attitude to learning and overall self-esteem.

The extension of funding in 2009 from the Flax Trust and the University of Ulster Outreach Access Fund means that there are now over 188 children participating in the project as opposed to the original 65 children who started the project in 2007. Consequently 20 teachers and 17 creative experts and approx 250 parents or guardians have also benefited from involvement in the study. Head teachers and senior management within the new experimental schools, at times on the recommendation of the original experimental schools, have strongly welcomed the opportunity to take part in the project with some opting to include participation in the project in their School Development Plan.

The outcomes of the project have often outweighed expectations and one of the great values in extending the project into the North Belfast area is the building of a larger network of teachers who will be well placed to share the benefits of a more arts based curriculum and increased parental involvement with the wider school community and act as ambassadors in using the curriculum in this way to develop confidence and self-esteem in foundation stage children and  create a more solid foundation for future successes.

Another important dimension of the project has been the willingness of senior management in primary schools to engage with the project. In some cases project activities and outcomes are shared regularly with staff during meetings and attendance of principals and parent officers at project activities is in some experimental schools a regular thing. Those unable to attend more regularly due to the numerous responsibilities involved in the organisation and management of institutions such as primary schools have expressed that feedback is received about the project from teachers on a regular basis. This level of awareness from principals and senior management will hopefully lead to dissemination of project benefits throughout the wider educational community.

Project background

The Sparking the Imagination project is a small scale classroom based research study into effective and sustainable teaching and learning models that contribute to the development of self-esteem in young children.  It is funded partly through an external donor, partly through the Flax Trust and partly through the University of Ulster Access Outreach Committee. The study is conducted through the School of Education within the University of Ulster.

Phase 1 of the project is in its fourth successful year operating in 2 primary schools in the East Belfast area; St Matthews Primary School and Nettlefield Primary School.

Phase 2 has now entered its second successful year operating in 4 primary schools in the North Belfast area; Holy Cross Girls Primary School, Holy Cross Boys Primary School, Mercy Primary School and Wheatfield Primary School.

The project was initiated on the premise that intervention in the early or formative years of children’s education can have a lasting impact that may positively influence their future outcomes. (Bronfenbrenner, 1974)

The focus for this study was to contribute to the development of self-esteem of disadvantaged children as they move through the Foundation Stage of Learning. By considering the effectiveness of the project in building self-esteem it is hoped that schools will see the value of the model and begin to sustain elements of the project within their own practice.

The project was developed in such a way that programmes implemented involved children, teachers, parents and the wider school and local community. Given the wealth of supporting evidence that creative and expressive activities are an ideal vehicle to develop self-esteem a decision was taken to explore project themes through the creative and expressive arts. The intervention took the form of a variety of 12 week programmes to be implemented in the classroom initially by creative experts though as the project developed during phase 2 (implementation phase) a more robust emphasis was placed on developing teacher skills with a greater expectation on teachers to deliver project materials without the help of the creative expert.

Programmes so far have included art and creativity, music and creativity, drama and creativity and creative storytelling.

In the early stages of each phase of the project and at regular intervals throughout the life of the project, clusters were formed between each participating school and a variety of creative experts. With the help of a project officer themes were decided and a variety of interactive, fun and engaging activities were planned for delivery in schools. Parents were invited to take part in class activities and interactive workshops twice within each 12 week programme so becoming more actively involved in the school life of their child. The programmes were celebrated with events held at the University of Ulster Jordanstown to which parents, guardians and other guests were invited. The University was deemed an appropriate backdrop for such an event as for many of the parents it was their first experience of being in a University. It was hope that experiences where parents engaged with the University might potentially raise their aspirations for both their own and their children’s future achievements.

Summary of project aims

Initially the project had a broad number of aims relating to children, teachers, parents and creative facilitators.

The aims for children were:

  • To enrich school life and provide an age appropriate curriculum in which self- confidence and self-esteem could be nourished based on a strong focus on the development of learning through the creative arts.
  • To raise educational aspirations by developing positive attitudes to school so that children are better placed to take advantage of educational opportunities.

The aims for parents were:

  • To introduce innovative approaches to parental involvement and engagement with their children through participation in creative workshops and to organise follow-up home activities based on a clear and supportive recognition of the difficulties faced by families.
  • To create an atmosphere and environment within schools where parents could feel comfortable as partners and collaborators in the learning process during creative tasks.

The aims for teachers were:

  • To expand teachers repertoire of teaching techniques and to support them as they become facilitators and models of creativity for children
  • To encourage teachers to enhance their professional development whilst working collaboratively as part of a learning community.

The benefits for creative experts were:

  • To add another dimension to their work as creative artists and to be inspired and enthused by what children parents and teachers can do.

The aims for all parties involved have remained the same throughout the life of the project. As the project moved from the pilot phase in the East Belfast area ( 2007-2009), into the implementation phase in the North Belfast area ( 2009-2011), more emphasis was placed on enabling  teachers to develop the skills and confidence  needed to embed programmes in their own practice, leading to sustainability and a legacy of lasting impact.


Analysis of the research data collated thus far indicates that the project has impacted in a variety of ways on the various groups involved. Without engaging in a longitudinal study of the selected subjects it will be difficult to assess the longer term impact however impact in the shorter term is clear.


Research was collected using both qualitative and quantitative methods. In this way, the range of data and perspectives gained through the application of a mixed methodology should provide insight and validity that could not be achieved using one method only.

Phase one of the project (2007-2009) was concerned with ascertaining the extent to which the programme might positively add to children’s self –esteem and raise educational aspiration. In addition the research team wished to monitor the effect that engagement in children’s learning might have on parent attitudes towards school and their role in as educators of their children. The focus for teachers was finding out what the project could do to enhance their understanding of self-esteem and the value that of value of developing children’s self-esteem and other skills through the creative arts. With creative expert’s research focussed on their understanding on the potential that their creative discipline might have in raising self-esteem.

Phase two of the project was in addition to the research concerns of phase one, also concerned with measuring how willing teachers were to make project  programmes sustainable and how successful was in preparing teachers to implement each programme without the continued support of the creative specialists.

Measurement of self-esteem was taken in two ways. The NFER indicator (completed by teachers) and through the Lawseq questionnaire (completed by pupils). The two measures were chosen for their relevance to the research aim; for their consistent application and ease of administration and in other research; and for their reported reliability/validity (see for example, Davies and Brember, 1999; Webb & Williams 2005; Lawerence, 2006). Used in conjunction, the two selected measures provide initial baseline information, and their administration at strategic points during the project facilitated continuous monitoring of teacher and pupil correlations with reference to the data collected.

Teachers in each participating school completed an NFER Self-esteem Indicator for each child at the beginning and end of each school year.  A total score indicated the overall self-esteem of individual children; a breakdown of this score suggested where self –perception was strongest and weakest; for example, sense of self, sense of belonging and sense of personal power.

A range of semi-structured interviews were also conducted with Principals, teachers and parents and external facilitators throughout the life of the project to date. The interviews were designed to explore several key issues from a range of viewpoints including the following:

  • Knowledge and understanding of the project
  • Perceptions and understandings of self-esteem
  • The contribution of the project to the achievement of key aims
  • Challenges / concerns

Phase Two also included the issue

  • Sustainability of the project for the Individual teacher.

Pupil observations were conducted with two year one children from each experimental school on a three-weekly cycle during the pilot phase of the project. Pupils were selected in consultation with the class teacher based on specific introverted and extroverted behaviours associated with low self-esteem ( Lawrence, 2006). These included shy and or timid behaviour; reluctance to engage in group activity; limited social and or verbal interaction with teachers and or peers and disruptive behaviour. Observations have been overt, non participant and follow a checklist agreed by the University of Ulster Ethics Committee.


Since the outset of the project the Sparking the Imagination goal has been to look at the potential for preparing children to thrive more successfully as they journey through formal education. The suggestion that children from socio and economically deprived areas tend to be more likely to opt of formal education and are more susceptible to greater disaffection and social exclusion (DETI, 2000; Ross and Broh, 2000; Baumeister et al., 2003), and statistics indicating that only 1:8 pupils from the most disadvantaged primary schools in Belfast have progressed to grammar schools (DE, 2002) supported the need for a project of this nature.

Initial assessments using the Lawseq questionnaire revealed that

–          24% of children were assessed as having  vulnerable or very low self-esteem

Further breakdown of data revealed that

–          56% of children assessed had a vulnerable or low sense of personal power

–          36%of children had a vulnerable or low sense of belonging

–          8%of pupils assessed had a vulnerable or low sense of self

Of those tested almost two thirds perceived to have low self-esteem were male (64%) and just over one third female (36%)

Observations of children and interviews with teachers, parents and senior management of the schools in the North Belfast area, conducted at various points throughout the project show that project programmes have led to improved social, emotional skills among Year One children.  Those most regularly mentioned were confidence, speaking, listening and turn taking and risk taking skills.

Certainly the children have gained an awful lot of different skills, they’ve benefited in relation to the different skills and that’s what the revised curriculum is all about, it’s about developing skills and through the initial music and the art and the drama lessons that have been developed with Sparking the Imagination, you know you go into the classroom afterwards and the children are just brimming, they are able to carry those skills on in the further development of what they are doing in their lessons with their class teacher so Sparking the Imagination has I think certainly met its success criteria.” (Vice-principal)

Evidence of transferability of these skills to other areas of the children’s learning was also evident.  As a very experienced teacher (33years) revealed,

My experience of class assembly this year was totally different. The children took it all in their stride and were all confident and willing to take part. In all my years teaching Year One I’ve never experienced that.”

Further breakdown of social and emotional, skills and attitudes reveal:

  • Children have exhibited increased levels of motivation towards learning when classroom activities are interactive and fun.

Parent s, teachers and principals agreed that interactive and creative approaches to learning had engaged almost all of the Year 1 children. Examples cited included children working in groups to make tree sculptures and acting out group stories in drama sessions. During the music programme, one child with a particularly bad stammer joined in happily and with gusto during singing activities.

  • Children show increased willingness to offer ideas and ‘have a go’ at project activities.

“The children have had an immense amount of pleasure and experience and I can see just how they     have developed through it, I can see that their confidence levels are much higher than they were in September, even the boys who at the beginning were very hesitant to join in, the girls were very enthusiastic and positive all the way through, a few boys were, oh I’m not sure if I’m gonna take part in this or not. There’s only one who still would be quite strumpy, you know I’m not doing this but if you just ignore him he does come round and participate and another boy who says he’s too shy, but again once it gets going he forgets himself and joins in as well.” (Year 1 teacher)

One teacher was astounded when a Year One child who rarely spoke in class joined in enthusiastically in numerous drama sessions. The child was able through drama to become comfortable using speaking and listening skills and is a much more confident Year 2 pupil.

  • Children showed an increased ability to listen and concentrate.

“the children are so disciplined in using the instruments and they know how to wait for everybody to be ready to start and for everybody to have their turn and they watch for the instructions for when they have to play and they know that they have a part and that they play and they stop. I can see how well they have picked up the idea of keeping a steady beat and rhythm” (Year One teacher)

  • There has been an increase in social, collaborative group working skills.

One experienced Year One teacher expressed astonishment and delight at the ability of the Year One children to work together and take turns in a group. She admitted that she would not have thought it possible for the children to interact in this way.

a lot of the project was involving children working in small groups, working in teams, working together as a class, I mean some of the art work there, there was a 3 dimensional tree there that was created as part of the art project and it was absolutely beautiful” (Vice-principal)

  • Increase in confidence and speaking and listening skills.

Children across all classes were noted as having increased confidence which teachers attributed to participation in the project,

and she encouraged them all so positively and no matter what they produced she had a really enthusiastic spin to put on whatever they had in their hands at the time, em and that I think is just so confidence building , there was no fear of anyone failing at it , or anyone having something that was a disaster because she could see a value in everything that they were producing and I think that that has sort of impacted in this class, I would say used more  paper and paint than any class I’ve had in the last 5 years” (Year One teacher)


Schools participating in the project had previous to project involvement had varying degrees of success building home school relationships. Most schools had an open door policy however some were finding it difficult to get the majority of parents comfortable enough to approach the door

All senior managers and teachers were greatly encouraged by the number of parents who attended the parent workshops and the consistency of support throughout the first year of the project. While it is worth noting that support in 3 schools was better than in 1 school senior management and staff all felt that the turnout had exceeded expectations. It was felt that the project had to some degree laid the foundations on which to build extended home school relationships. One Principal commented,

It’s this whole issue of partnership. In Sweden they have…the home and the school working closely together and we are endeavoring to continue on that theme of working closely with our parents and hopefully with our community education coordinator we will endeavor to see that they as parents have a prime role to play and not only that but we can help them to gain self –esteem to gain self- confidence, be motivated to actually work with their children. Part of the problem has been that with the N Ireland curriculum things have changed and things even three or 4 years ago they are not being done the same as they are today and we are endeavoring to work with our parents in that and that is why we are providing the additional workshops for them.

It’s very much an open door policy here at X and we do invite them, I mean earlier in the year because of our primary language programme parents were invited to the assembly which the children conducted in Spanish so, I think it was the Hungry Caterpillar, so we are open and we are encouraged by the number of parents who were involved in the workshops in the Sparking the Imagination programme” (Principal)

A relaxed and warm welcome coupled with the offer of tea, coffee and the opportunity to chat more informally with the project officer and creative experts seems to have relaxed parents or guardians about spending prolonged time in the school environment. Negative associations with their own school experiences had in some cases influenced parent’s willingness to become involved in the school experiences of their children. One of the recurring comments amongst parents was the differences between their children’s and their own experiences of school. Fun and exciting activities and an atmosphere of positivity were how parents often perceived the sessions.

Overall attendance at parent workshops was much better than anticipated with attendance ranging throughout the year from approximately 33% to 78%.

Parents valued opportunities to spend time with their children in school and gain understandings of the implications of the revised curriculum. In most cases parents had very little real understanding of the Revised Curriculum and becoming involved in a very ‘hands on’ way helped them to appreciate the holistic learning potential for children. One parent commented,

“My child loves doing art. She finds it very difficult to sit still so these type of activities are perfect for her.”

Many parents showed an appreciation of the need to develop self-esteem in their children and felt good about being able to praise their children for their efforts in school. One parent noted the value of watching professionals interact positively with the children and remarked that they would endeavor to use the positive language more often at home.

Parents felt that time in school sessions allowed them time for quality interaction with the children that is not always possible due to the busy nature of modern life.

Parents also welcomed the opportunity to attend the celebration event at the University of Ulster Jordanstown. They exhibited pride that their children were able to perform with obvious confidence at a third level institution.

The event at UUJ was beneficial, even from the point of view of bringing parents into the university campus , into a university setting, for them to appreciate that maybe as one of the speakers said maybe to see that their child could maybe so many years down the line revisit it as a pupil and they then as parents revisit it as parents of a graduate so I think that alone is very important, The parents I felt thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience and I was greatly encouraged by their thankfulness and their support and just their thankfulness for being there.” (Principal)


As noted earlier in the report as the project moved from the pilot phase in the East Belfast area (2007-2009), into the implementation phase in the North Belfast area (2009-2011), more emphasis was placed on enabling teachers to embed programmes in their own practice, leading to sustainability and a legacy of lasting impact.

In 2009 teachers were encouraged to actively take part in at least 50% of the programme delivery. The one exception to this was the drama programme where due  partly to the project co-ordinator being ill and partly to the drama facilitator withdrawing for personal reasons at the midpoint of the programme it was felt that in the best interests of the children and teachers the replacement facilitator should deliver the remainder of the sessions.

A range of semi –structured interviews and questionnaires revealed that:

Teachers overall felt that their practice benefited from participation in the project. All teachers talked enthusiastically about the development of the various skills they witnessed in their children and as a result were well aware that sustaining the project with their next cohort of children could have a similar impact.

Some concern was expressed regarding the loss of the facilitator working in class for a longer sustained period as it was felt amongst teachers that this brought an element of novelty to the children’s day and gave the children the opportunity to interact with a wider circle of adults. This aside , teachers cited that the content and structure of the lessons would in themselves inject a certain excitement and in most cases practitioners displayed enthusiasm about the challenge involved of recreating the enthusiasm of the creative experts.

The duration of each programme was seen by teachers as a strength. Twelve weeks was deemed long enough to build trusting relationships with the creative experts and to learn from them. The breadth of the curriculum in general can make teachers feel as one teacher put it, “jacks of all trade and masters of none”. Teachers welcomed the opportunity to learn from the expertise of the facilitators and two thirds of the teachers were able to express when and how they intended to replicate and develop programmes the following year. The remaining third said that they would be more than happy to replicate and develop the programmes; however they had been allocated a different Year group and would not be teaching Year One the following year.

Teachers commented very positively on the structure of each programme.  Within the programmes teachers were able to observe the facilitator for 4 sessions, teach alongside the facilitator for 4 sessions and teach independently for 4 sessions. This was felt to build up skills and confidence amongst the teachers and they felt that they had the continued support and guidance of each facilitator.

The provision of lesson plans and resources as well as a minimum of 1 training session per term meant that teachers felt confident in delivering programme material and felt aptly supported when doing so.

Another significant element to the programme that the teachers found helpful was cluster meetings. These were viewed as fundamental to establishing communities of enquiry giving teachers opportunities to support one another, discuss issues and become actively involved in the planning processes at various stages of the project.


The findings from the first 14 months of the implementation phase of the project have provided these insights into how successful the project is in achieving its aims.

Successes include:

–          Acknowledgement of all parties involved of the importance of developing children’s self-esteem at the Foundation Stage of Learning.

–          Recognition from all involved of the relevance of creative arts in doing so.

–          Recognition of the value of the initiative from senior management.

–          Continued support from parents in the aims of the project.

–          Willingness of schools to build on the success of parent workshops.

–          Commitment from teachers to build on and develop project programmes.

–          A further recognition amongst creative experts of the benefits of creative arts for children.

The project will continue in the remainder of this academic year to build on the successes of the first 14 months with a creative poetry programme.