How the arts can help achieve Healthy Schools aims

December 12, 2016

Jo Rhodes from Challenge 59 shares her reflections on her recent workshop for the Creative Schools Symposium, exploring challenges and opportunities for dance and health

The Creative Schools Symposium highlighted the value of art and creativity in education. I was fortunate to showcase Challenge 59, a dance film project promoting health. Keynote speaker, David Crossley from Whole Education Network, tasked us to reflect on our experiences in education and to see what resonated. In this blog post I will share my reflections, summarize Challenge 59 and highlight challenges and opportunities in dance and health that our workshop brought to light.

Challenge 59 was born in 2007 from a desire to encourage young people to take responsibility for lifestyle choices and to create a more child focused strategy towards health. A fast food restaurant was promising to serve the customer in 59 seconds and I wondered what else we could do in 59 seconds to empower young people in regards to health.

Challenge 59 is a schools-based dance and film project that put young people at the heart of health messages. The project is launched with teacher training and access to a digital dance education resource linked to Healthy Schools London. Schools can enter a competition, submitting a storyboard for a dance film relating to a local health issue in their community. A multi-sector panel chooses the winning films who win a residency to embody dance learning and produce their 59 second film to be used as a social marketing campaign. Pilot films were screened at a local premiere, nationally and internationally, including at the BFI and on BBC Bigger Picture.

Watch the winning pilot films here:

  • ‘Fruity Action’ – a school who wanted to show that even though disabled they could still lead active and healthy lives. They wanted their film to move from left to right to show continuation of health across life course.
  • ‘Evil Nicotine’ – a group of year 7s and 8s who felt intimidated by older smokers in school bike sheds. A boy closed his mouth on the 59th second to show he’d stopped breathing. In a documentary, he talks about marmite ‘representing the sticky tar that the nicotine leaves behind in the body and in the lungs’.
  • ‘You Are What You Eat’ – Instead of Alice in Wonderland falling in to the well, a year 6 class wanted Hannah to fall inside a body and see/ hear how food groups would come to life. They worked with a creative writer to narrate their film.

Challenges and opportunities:


Currently there are many health challenges for children and young people:

  • Nationally over a third of children are overweight. In Hackney, 33% of young people are overweight or obese by the age of 11, and in Newham, obesity rate for that age is 27.5%
  • There is a physical inactivity epidemic that contributes to one in ten deaths in the UK, with only 38% of girls achieving recommended physical activity levels
  • The UK came fourteenth out of fifteen countries for children’s emotional well-being.

Organisations are beginning to pay attention to these issues, and dance is a key way of engaging with these challenges. Sporting Futures recognizes dance for social outcomes for the first time and Pupil Premium is set to double in 2017/2018.

With a rise in mental health issues, the demise of the role of food in the family and the average time a sixteen-year old spends on media and communications reaching over ten hours a day, I wanted to revive Challenge 59 in areas of health inequality.

Evidence base

I read a Local Government Association (LGA) tweet the other week that stated how talking about arts for art’s sake has little impact, but highlighting the benefits to the economy and public health can be powerful. Where health promotion takes place in schools there is evidence this can translate into better educational attainment, associated with good health literacy. In Public Health, there is a real drive towards prevention and I have seen first-hand how issue based dance can effect change, with interdisciplinary initiatives and cross-sector working highlighted as a key to success.

Dance is extremely well placed to provide not only physical activity, but help support emotional well-being and social connectedness. In fact, the arts can deliver multiple outcomes, linking with and consolidating learning in other areas and supporting school improvement. A school we worked with went on to gain Artsmark and a year later, Healthy Schools silver award.

There is a question over how we measure impact and contribute to the evidence base as the health sector seeks randomized control trials and quantitative data.

In this context, how can we best apply case studies, testimonials and anecdotal evidence such as those below which were collected through the Challenge 59 Pilot:

  • ‘I just hope that this opportunity continues to be opened to other schools, authorities and pupils as it has the potential to have a very positive impact on many lives and communities…they have learnt more than we will really know. Team work skills, speaking and listening, co-operation, healthy eating, physical activity, the power to change and make a difference, inspiration and added confidence to develop other talents’ (Teacher, St. Basil’s Primary School
  • ‘A’ was a real concern to the point where parents had been contacted. ‘A’ constantly forgot kit when it came to practical lessons and often had an illness/ medical complaint. This behaviour was due to a severe lack of confidence reference body image, ability to perform in front of audience. ‘A’ now comes down at lunch times to perform choreography for others and leads small groups in core P.E. lessons creating/ performing choreographies. ‘A’ volunteers to perform at every opportunity. The only remaining trait of past behaviour is that she keeps a jacket on until she is just about to perform!
  • ‘B’ arrived at our school recently having suffered a very difficult and traumatic bereavement. Her transition to another school has been eased by her involvement in this project. She is fully integrated into the group and positively ‘oozes’ confidence!

Co-designing with schools

David Crossley talked about the need for an ‘Inside Out’ approach and rather than arts offering ‘to’ and ‘for’ a school, it was designed ‘by’ and ‘with’. It is this collaboration, co-design and production that interests me in Challenge 59.

Schools can be the centre of communities – family, social, community values, reach, empowerment. An article in TES stresses need for a local curriculum. Challenge 59 is local in content and can respond to local need, but has the potential to work at scale. The project builds on what teachers do well. Developing project work related to Challenge 59, children wrote press releases, designed marketing posters, raps, scripted the film with creative writers, did science experiments about food, examined human biology, budgeted for their own health promotion lesson plans and delivered these across the school. They directed their own drama, and helped to curate what was presented at the film premiere.

In our workshop Jan Burkhardt, Dance and Health consultant, stressed the importance of ‘active learning’ in schools i.e. not sitting sedentary at a desk. Delegates shared great examples in our workshop at the Creative Schools Symposium:

  • One Headteacher described her school’s ‘enjoyment week’, youth led and off timetable once a month
  • Another teacher shared their work outside of the classroom with a chef in residence
  • A parent who is an architect recently led a mini-fieldtrip exploring ‘structures’ through drawing.

Call to Action

I borrow David Crossley’s question, and task you to consider what resonates from your own experiences of cultural education?

I am keen to explore Creative Schools’ work, brokering relationships with schools where needs analysis has identified areas in need of support. This way schools are consulted and supported to ensure sustainability.

Currently I am partnership building and fundraising to run Challenge 59 across East London in 2017 and beyond. To date, partners include East London Dance, RichMix, THAMES and HSL. I will be recruiting schools from September 2017. My values have held strong for many years – integrity, honesty, relevancy, creativity and empowerment in an egalitarian environment. Challenge 59’s collaborative nature and co-design principle provides an opportunity to ‘unlock the potential of individuals, technology and collaboration to create positive societal impact’ (

I believe there should be no ceiling for children. Young people are the future – surely it’s up to us to enable them to be good local and global citizens with the necessary skills to harness, and behaviours to deal with, what is ahead. My hope is for young people to have a voice, not be underestimated, and I have a desire to foster learners who can think, feel, relate, be, question, debate and live happy healthy lives.

Please follow me @jo_rhodesdance and tweet your thoughts.


Photo credit:  Challenge 59, Halton