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Building Trust in Co-production: Equal Partnerships for Social Justice

© Oxford University Gardens, Libraries and Museums / Claire Williams

Thomas Procter-Legg and Miranda Millward on building the equal partnership and genuine relationship between The Iffley Academy, a special school for children with cognition and learning needs, and Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums

Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (Oxford GLAM) house some of the world’s most significant collections. The four museums — The Ashmolean, History of Science, Museum of Natural History, and the Pitt Rivers — are home to over 8.5 million objects and specimens, representing the natural world, global art and artefacts. The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and, with over 13 million printed items, is second only in size to the British Library in the UK, while Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and forms the most compact yet diverse collection of plants in the world.

The six venues, which attract over 3.4 million visitors per year, serve as the front door to the wealth of knowledge and research generated at Oxford University. Enabling the collections to be shared as widely as possible is a priority for the University, and a key part of this is developing activity and partnerships which offer more diverse audiences the opportunity to actively engage with the collections.

“Kindness, empathy and humanity have shone through in this partnership and have created the capacity for change”

Expanding public engagement and interaction with diverse audiences is essential, with national research showing that many parents of children with special educational needs feel uncomfortable or unwelcome while visiting cultural venues. It is also widely evidenced that socio-economic status is ‘consistently the strongest correlation in studies around rates of engagement in arts and culture by children and young people’ and that the arts have a strong impact on prosocial and civic engagement.

Oxford GLAM’s partnership with the Iffley Academy is devised to enhance engagement for these two specific cohorts and to diversify its audiences whilst expanding public engagement.

The Iffley Academy is an Oxford-based special school for children with cognition and learning needs, communication and interaction difficulties and social emotional mental health difficulties. All students at Iffley Academy have an Education Health and Care Plan and the school is in the top 4% nationally for students in receipt of pupil premium funds (additional funding provided to schools annually to improve attainment of disadvantaged children).

From the outset it was clear that taking a one-size-fits-all approach to this project would not be successful. In fact the idea of a one-off project was not appropriate; what was needed was a partnership designed specifically to suit individual learners’ needs, with time allowed to build connections, to experiment and refine interactions. Most importantly people needed to communicate effectively — to listen to each other, to connect and to rethink the essential conditions for successful educational engagement.

‘We have to get to know each other if we really want to understand realities that are not our own, and to make change. We need to find ways to truly listen and to see things differently.’(1)

Beginning with small-scale work, which started towards the end of 2016, staff from Oxford GLAM and Iffley Academy simply got to know one another. Miranda Millward, Arts Engagement Officer, Oxford GLAM, spent time in school meeting key staff, getting to know students and over time became a known and trusted adult. Most importantly she began to understand the ethos of the school, what made it unique and, crucially, what made it successful.

“Co-construction was key to the partnership: steps were taken to avoid imperious ownership or prescribing from one side or the other”

Miranda spent time experiencing the way the teachers modelled their interactions with young people, as well as understanding the adapted SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disability) appropriate curriculum. Rather than peering into the school from outside, she situated herself inside the school and looked back out at Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums, carefully considering the relationships and opportunities she had access to through the University. This enabled the right interactions to happen and the right relationships to be made. With change there is always an element of risk, but this was carefully managed through effective communication and by building mutually supportive relationships.

Co-construction was key to the partnership: whilst there were a number of invested stakeholders, steps were taken to try and avoid imperious ownership or prescribing from one side or the other.

With the key relationships built, other professionals were then able to interact with the project and Oxford GLAM staff slowly became part of the school’s wider team — through engagement, by running projects, attending assemblies and visiting the school when the students put on exhibitions to display their work. Likewise Iffley Academy staff became a part of the extended Oxford GLAM Learning Teams, running CPD (Continuing Professional Development), advising on best practice in SEND, developing ideas for project content and regularly seeking out opportunities for co-curation. This embodied the theme of working ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘for’.
Much of what was being developed here was about developing social capital. The World Bank defines social capital in these terms: ‘Social capital…is not simply the sum of institutions which underpin society, it is also the glue that holds them together. It includes the shared values and rules for social conduct expressed in personal relationships, trust, and a common sense of “civic” responsibility, that makes society more than just a collection of individuals.’ (1998, p. iii)(2)

Developing social capital is in itself a relational practice and is key to building a more equitable and inclusive society, which in turn requires us to have more equitable and inclusive institutions. Political scientist Robert D Putnam has outlined how social capital can grow via systems of bonding, bridging and linking.(3)

Social capital theory has to assume that competition and self-interest are set aside. When educational and social capital opportunities align, the outcomes are far greater than just the advancement of knowledge in individuals — schools become less insular and grow closer to their wider communities, with young people becoming active rather than passive members of society. The relationships built via the partnership between Iffley Academy and Oxford GLAM are a clear example of bonding in the development of socal capital.

Over the past three years, the partnership between Oxford GLAM and Iffley Academy has enjoyed many successes, including its recent recognition as a best practice case study in the Durham Commission on Creativity in Education Report. The inclusion of the partnership in this report demonstrates advocacy and a connection to policy makers and is a clear example of linking social capital. It is crucial to the ongoing development of inclusive practice, demonstrating that grass roots projects, developed through relational practice, can inform policy at a national level (with the Durham Commission set to inform the next ten years of Arts Council England strategy in terms of engagement with young people).

More Iffley Academy students than ever have attended cultural venues through the Oxford GLAM partnership; they have taken ownership of cultural spaces and all students involved in project work have achieved at least one if not two Arts Award qualifications. This gives a clear definable quantitative measure of engagement to go alongside qualitative data.

Whilst these are perhaps expected outcomes, what has really changed is the perception of staff at the school. Initially, staff were provided with projects that were carefully scaffolded. However, as staff have gained in confidence in their relationship with the Gardens, Libraries and Museums, they have deepened their connections, contacting the museums without support and creating opportunities of their own — opportunities that the project had not ever envisaged. The trust that has been built up within the relationships has led to truly authentic practice, which is both robust and evolving, and which can cope with the natural ebb and flow of modern life.

Cultural change was taking place, with staff in both organisations more likely to take risks and Iffley Academy staff feeling they had an enhanced right, due to the relationships they had built, for themselves and their students to access the Oxford GLAM venues. This is important as allowing diverse cohorts equitable access was the strategic goal, and whilst it had been achieved through partnership work, it was the actual relationships built that ensured it was successful. This can be seen as an example of bridging social capital whereby an accumulated network of connections allowed increased access to formal and informal resources. This strategy prevents isolation, a feeling that can be experienced when working in a specialist setting such as a special school or high-art cultural institution.

Interestingly this project is atypical in its replication. Whilst it is a successful model, it is not the individual activities, but the way in which the work is carried out that makes it successful. Other cultural venues and special schools could collaborate, but their needs may be different and therefore they would need to follow the same process of listening to one another and through a gradual integration into each other’s communities their needs could become clear.

This could be framed in Hillary Cottam’s model of social change.4 Her process for designing for social change was not conceived for cultural education, but it sets out a model for how to interact, listen and work with communities. This model introduces five stages of design:

1) identifying stakeholders
2) framing the problem and exploring without assuming knowledge
3) ideas generation ‘working with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘for’ people
4) trialling the first small-scale projects and adapting as you go along — prototyping rather than piloting
5) ‘going live’ or offering replication

For Oxford GLAM and Iffley, continued iterations of the prototype will remain the core feature of the work, embedding relationships and looking to introduce new partners. A shortened version of the design stage could now be carried out with a new partner. Current projects include returning to stage one with Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum, including initial introduction, understanding their community and designing a continually successful way of working.

“The core theme here is that the project is relational. It is truly based in conversations and trust between people who know each other, have invested in each other’s work and do this on a non-transactional basis; people who have a genuine interest in and relationship with each other”

The core theme here is that the project is relational. It is truly based in conversations and trust between people who know each other, have invested in each other’s work and do this on a non-transactional basis; people who have a genuine interest in and relationship with each other.

Human relationships are key because when people are supported by strong mutual relationships where they feel valued for themselves, powerful and enduring change can happen. Kindness, empathy and humanity have shone through in this partnership and have created the capacity for change.

This kind of work does not happen quickly; it requires time to develop properly and that time investment needs to be supported by leaders. Top-down support has really been important, with teachers allowed curriculum time to set aside for project work and release time being provided for them to meet with museum staff. Likewise museum staff have been supported with this collaboration, including direct involvement from directors such as Alexander Sturgis at the Ashmolean Museum, who has made time to meet school leaders and validate the work. These simple interactions have made significant differences to equitable access for diverse cohorts.

This approach has created abundant mindsets — where there are many possibilities, which have in turn created positive and enduring change. The project has been able to constantly reinvent itself, to adapt to suit the needs of individuals and most of all promote agency in all stakeholders. Its work is consistently co-constructed, which allows people to create and share stories of success and achievement, from the biggest successes to the smallest of interactions. These relationships have allowed Oxford GLAM to expand public engagement and, by working with Iffley Academy, to enable more equitable access for all.

Thomas Procter-Legg. Head Teacher, The Iffley Academy

Miranda Millward, Arts Engagement Officer, Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums


1. Cottam Hillary. Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State, 2018
2. World Bank. The Initiative on Defining, Monitoring and Measuring Social Capital: Overview and Program Description. Social Capital Initiative Working Paper, No.1. Washington: The World Bank, 1998
3. Putnam RD. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2000
4. Cottam Hillary. Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Revolutionise the Welfare State, 2018

Published 23 March 2020

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