What did you do to create inclusive practice and how did you do it?
In 2021, York St John University (YSJU) and Mind the Gap (MTG) collaborated to validate a Certiﬁcate in Higher Education (Cert HE) in the Performing Arts for learning disabled and autistic adults. One of the challenges we faced in this process was around assessment. We needed to be able to demonstrate that assessment processes were rigorous and benchmarked against national standards and, at the same time, to produce a process that was accessible to students and avoided a deficit model of education. For these reasons, it was important for us to work with current and previous students at the MTG Academy to explore how they perceived assessment and feedback, and to engage them in the co-design of a new inclusive practice. We therefore held focus groups with three current MTG Academy students as well as three learning disabled artists who had completed previous training programmes at MTG. The result was an approach to feedback that avoided cliff-edge assessments and instead focused on the development of a ‘living portfolio’ of work, and that utilised a bespoke assessment matrix and 3-point grading criteria (improving, achieving, excelling), all of which was based upon language used by the students within the focus group.
Why did you implement your example of inclusive practice?
Founded in 1988, Mind the Gap is England’s largest learning disability performance and live art company. Since the 1990s, they have been aware of the absence within mainstream education of any existing in-depth performing arts training schemes that could accommodate the needs of learning-disabled students. MTG stepped into this gap, and over the past 20+ years have provided a variety of bespoke training opportunities designed to give learning disabled performing artists the skills to work professionally. Until now, however, none of these programmes have been validated as formal education qualifications.
York St John have worked collaboratively with MTG for several years, including on student placements, research and funded projects. Between 2019 and 2021, we worked together to first scope out and then validate what is the first Certificate in Higher Education in performing arts for learning disabled adults in the UK. Through this unique partnership, we have been able to challenge some of the presumptions about who education is for and who can access higher learning. We argue that, by establishing inclusive arts education, recognised at degree-level, we can begin the process of enabling greater future representation of learning-disabled actors and practitioners in the performing arts sector as a whole.
What was the impact of your case study?
The primary impact of our project was the successful validation of the Cert HE, the first of its kind within the UK. With the first intake of students onto the 3-year part-time programme in 2021, it is still too soon to assess the impact on student outcomes and destinations. However, internally within York St John, the process has impacted upon University processes and procedures, successfully negotiating alternative models for assessment. We published an extended, co-authored reflection on this in Research in Drama Education, titled ‘Improving, achieving, excelling: developing inclusive assessment processes for a degree-level learning disability arts programme’ (Reason & Ward, 2021). Petronilla Whitfield references the validation process and approach to inclusive assessment in her book, ‘Inclusivity and Equality in Performance Training: Teaching and Learning for Neuro and Physical Diversity’ (Whitfield, 2021).
Reason, M and Ward, C (2021): Improving, achieving, excelling: developing inclusive assessment processes for a degree-level learning disability arts programme, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, DOI: 10.1080/13569783.2021.1997581
Whitfield, P. (2021). Inclusivity and Equality in Performance Training: Teaching and Learning for Neuro and Physical Diversity. Routledge: London
What were the lessons learned?
One factor that perpetuates academic ableism is the exclusion of disabled people from the processes of assessment design. In a 2006 report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Waterfield and West) emphasise the importance of assessment being a partnership between staff and students, flagging the requirement to involve disabled students in the development and implementation of assessment policies and practices. For this case study, our approach to assessment was developed in co-production between staff and students at Mind the Gap and, as a result, we have been able to witness high levels of satisfaction with and understanding of assessment and feedback processes.
Waterﬁeld, J., and B. West. 2006. Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education: A Resource for Change University of Plymouth: Plymouth.