Since going back into lockdown, the Learning & Participation team wasted no time jumping to action to make sure that we could support our Hippodrome Education Network (HEN) schools and crucially the young people that benefit from the work we do.

As the world moved back online, we worked fast to respond to each of our 29 schools’ bespoke needs – for both key workers and vulnerable young people in school as well as those at home. We have carefully considered how we remotely engage with young people who don’t have access to the internet and devices and we are now delivering a combination of live digital sessions, pre-recorded digital content and paper work packs. Our Learning & Participation Artist Charlotte speaks about the work she has been doing with young people with Special Educational Needs in lockdown.

“As a specialist working with young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN), I have been creating bespoke content and delivering live lessons for these students in our network. For example, I work with Westminster School each week delivering live lessons to Key stage 3, 4 and 5 pupils. These workshops are cross-disciplinary combining Drama, Music and Art. They incorporate both practical and discussion-based work alongside further independent tasks for the students to do outside of the workshops. Young people have responded well to adapting to working online in this new way, and fundamentally, the opportunity to connect to their peers is encouraging them to have fun with their learning. Most importantly, this has supported their wellbeing and increased their desire to engage during tough times.

Change can be exceptionally challenging for young people with SEN. Positive routines and habits are instilled from an early age as a key coping mechanism to deal with stress provoked by change, and lockdown has made it difficult for them to employ this. The online sessions are a way we can give them some positive structure and routine to their time at home. Mr. Hill, a teacher from Westminster School said: “it has been fantastic to have Charlotte joining other arts staff from our school on live lessons for our isolating pupils; the pupil’s engagement in this was superb.”

The HEN Network is just one of the ways that Birmingham Hippodrome place access and inclusion at the heart of everything we do. We are known nationally and internationally for our Relaxed Performances which are tailored for people with special needs who find the theatre challenging – in particular those on the autistic spectrum, with learning disabilities, or sensory and communication disorders. We also have an access forum where we bring together insight from our SEN schools as well as artists, patrons and staff with a common goal of making theatre more accessible.

We work closely with our Associate Artists Open Theatre, who develop work with young people with Learning Disabilities through non-verbal physical theatre. Most of our SEN schools in the network also have a relationship with Open Theatre with us both working with different groups of students to support their needs. We also partner with Open Theatre to deliver a weekly open access programme for SEN young people at Birmingham Hippodrome, as well as us co-producing work, most recently the Twisted Tale of Hansel & Gretel which premiered at the Hippodrome ahead of its national tour. Last Christmas we worked with Open Theatre and Imaginate Theatre to co-produce a new children’s show based on the novel The Christmas Tale of Elaine Gale. Open Theatre employed actors with learning disabilities to create the show with puppetry and set created by Imaginate Theatre. We worked with SEN students from our HEN schools who joined the actors onstage to perform as part of the immersive show.

This year, the Learning & Participation team will launch our SEN work experience programme, supporting young people to learn about careers at Birmingham Hippodrome and across the industry. The programme will explore a number of careers including technical, marketing and front of house. It will provide students with a bespoke opportunity to learn transferable skills, boost their CV and gain and understanding of the world of work. School staff praised the interview process – for most of the students, this has been their first experience of an interview and we worked hard to ensure they were comfortable and had a positive experience. We continue to work with our SEN schools to further understand and build programmes that fulfil the needs of their students.

At Birmingham Hippodrome we continue to enhance our knowledge, create strong relationships and consistently adapt to make sure that accessibility is at the heart of everything we do. As we ease out of lockdown, I will be returning to SEN schools in person with a key focus on supporting transitions back to school, mental wellbeing, key aspects of the curriculum but most importantly after a challenging year promoting fun!”