After a summer break, we’re back with another Spotlight feature. And, since we’re at the beginning of a new school year, we thought it’d be the perfect time to catch-up with one of our long-standing tenants – As Creatives

The team, who specialise in creative learning programmes for schools, have been part of the community here for over ten years. Now based in the Campus, they first started in 2008 as a team of creatives looking to make an impact. 

We spoke to founding director, Jo Stokes, about the history of the company and the benefits of creativity in education. Jo told us about their plans for the year, how she uses her experience with the Royal Shakespeare Company to create exciting workshops for students; and how they innovated during the pandemic to develop their new digital platform – As Creatives Connect.

Thanks for speaking to us, Jo! Can you tell us about your role at As Creatives?

I’m one of the founding directors of the company. We’re a core team of five, backed up by a brilliant small team of freelance practitioners! I tend to divide my time evenly between office-based tasks, such as responding to enquiries and taking bookings, with being out in the field, delivering workshops. So, I get the best of both worlds!

Jo Stokes: Founding Director at As Creatives
What’s your background?

I started my professional life as an actress – mostly in the theatre but with bits of TV and radio work thrown in. I’d worked towards being an actor for as long as I could remember and never imagined that I would be anything else. As well as the fringe shows and exhausting regional tours, I spent a couple of very happy years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, working alongside some of my longtime idols. It was the RSC Education Department that first opened my eyes to the possibility of working in schools – bringing learning about Shakespeare to life, by getting students out from behind their desks and up on their feet!

So, when did your interest in education start?

Once I had my own school-aged children, I became much more interested in the world of education. I felt frustrated by the restrictions of the curriculum that my kids were being taught. Their teachers were amazing, but they were all working towards targets that left little room for learning through play or discovering things by accident as I had seen my children do in their preschool years. 

And where did the idea for As Creatives come from?

When I moved to Liverpool, in 2004, I bumped into an old friend who was working for Creative Partnerships Merseyside – a government initiative that aimed to pair artists, actors, musicians and other creative practitioners with teachers. The idea was that, together, they would design learning programmes that directly hit curriculum targets whilst also nurturing pupils’ own creativity. I took a short course and began doing bits of workshop design and delivery for Creative Partnerships. It was during that time that I met my now colleagues, Jackson and Jenny. We realised quite quickly that, by pooling our resources and sharing our own areas of expertise, we could make more of an impact.

Well, we’re into a new school term now. What are you most looking forward to this year? Do you have any exciting plans you can share?

I love the start of a new school year, it’s always so full of promise! We’ve just started working on our World Book Day 2023 whole-school programme, which features our new creation – Fillalog. In brief, storybook character Fillalog can’t remember their own story and they are going to need the children to remind them! The joy with a workshop like this is that at the end of the day, every school who takes part will have their own, completely unique version of The Extraordinary Adventures of Fillalog!

The team look forward to a new school term
That sounds brilliant! What other projects have you enjoyed working on?

I really enjoy delivering our Creative Maths and Science workshops, but Jackson and Chris are the real experts in that field! It’s getting back to my Poetry and Shakespeare roots that really sees me in my element. We’ve partnered with The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to deliver elements of their Shakespeare Week project, for several years now. In 2019, I worked with sixty Year 6 children from primary schools in the North East, to devise and perform a 30-minute version of Romeo and Juliet at the Whitley Bay Playhouse. It was a joy. Michael Rosen was hosting the event – so I got to meet one of my heroes too!

What are the benefits of using arts and creativity in all areas of the curriculum?

More and more jobs are being performed by AI these days – and this trend will only keep increasing. The world of work is unrecognisable from when I was a school-leaver. Robots can’t have their own ideas though! So, creativity is an incredibly valuable skill to equip our children with if they are to be successful. In our workshops, we promote creativity not just as the arts, but as a set of skills. For example, the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate things or, being able to find a new solution to an old problem, whether they’re learning about fractions, our solar system or The Bronze Age.

I love to see children taking an active role in their own education rather than passively absorbing facts. Activities like ours, that don’t have one set outcome, can be more accessible to all learners – and we are frequently told by teachers that pupils’ engagement levels are really raised in our workshops. I want the children I work with to believe they can invent the future they want for themselves!

How was your work impacted during lockdown? Did you have to think of new ways to reach students who were learning at home?

Honestly, when we heard that schools were going to close, we thought we were doomed! 100% of our income came from us visiting schools. Our workshops are always really active so, even when it became apparent that schools were looking for online content, we couldn’t see a way that we could make that work. But, like everybody else, we had to adapt! Now, we see that time as a blessing. Since getting back to work, we have added lots more filmed workshop content to our sister company website – As Creatives Connect – which has allowed us to really broaden our reach. It’s great fun to make too and the feedback from schools has been really positive.

Tell us more about the work you do to support schools and teachers?

Our aim has always been to deliver activities that teachers could readily adapt for use in their own practice. When you are just in and out of a school in a day, as we often are, you don’t really get the chance to meet all the teachers whose classrooms you visit. But I hope they find the content of the workshops and our approach useful beyond that time. In terms of the booking process, teachers will come to us with a desired outcome and I will often direct them to the best workshop – but sometimes we design bespoke workshops in response to their requests. We plan all the timetables and provide all the required resources – teachers are busy enough so we want to make booking a day with us a hassle-free experience.

Working in education must be rewarding. What are some of the best responses you’ve had from either children or teachers?

We do get lots of really lovely, heartwarming feedback. As I mentioned earlier, one of the best things to hear is that a pupil has surprised their own teacher with the positive way they engaged with a workshop. “I’ve never seen … join in like that” is one of my personal favourites and I have actually had a teacher tell me that it’s the first time they’ve ever heard a particular child speak! “I thought we were doing maths today – but that was really fun” is another wonderful thing to hear at the end of a workshop – this time from a pupil. We create fictional worlds in which to place the learning – like helping ‘Major Tom’ to select Britain’s next astronaut, for example – and knowing that a child has seen how enjoyable maths can be, for the first time, is rather pleasing.

It sounds wonderful. Best of luck with your work this year, Jo!

As Creatives is based at Baltic Creative Campus. You can find out more about their current school workshops here. Don’t forget to follow them on social media to learn about future projects!

All images (c) As Creatives.