Edinburgh International Festival puts diversity centre stage in partnership with Leith Academy

It is the school where more than 30 languages are spoken and with a population drawn from nearly 60 countries.

Pupils from Leith Academy unveil the new branding for the school's partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
Pupils from Leith Academy unveil the new branding for the school's partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.

Leith Academy’s multicultural nature may seem an obvious fit for it to be an official partner for the Edinburgh International Festival.

The school’s long-standing commitment to diversity and “success in learning for all” were certainly key factors in securing a three-year EIF residency.

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A year into the programme, it is transforming how students are taught about the likes of identity, gender, masculinity, bullying and sexuality, as well as boosting their self-confidence and their job prospects.

The festival has brought artists and performers into the school to find out more about the most pressing issues and challenges to help shape new productions aimed at 12 to 15-year-olds.

It is hoped that a new generation will be inspired to pursue a career in the creative industries after a taste of not only performing, but also set-building, wardrobe, stage management, lighting and sound design.

New qualifications are on offer after the creation of a personal development award programme with the festival; students have created their own marketing campaign and brand with the festival; and some of its staff are being paired with pupils for one-to-one mentoring.

"Visits from students to the EIF’s Royal Mile headquarters have even given them the chance to challenge the festival’s programming and pitch their own ideas.

The EIF piloted a residency at Castlebrae Community High five years ago, the success of which prompted it to invite new bids.

Head of learning Caroline Donald said: “We had 11 applications out of 23 high schools in Edinburgh, which was an unbelievable response.

"What stood out was Leith Academy’s vision of ‘success in learning for all’. We were really taken by the fact they want every pupil to do well. It’s also a really vibrant, multi-cultural school that embraces diversity. It really attracted us as a school where we could make a real difference, but also learn a lot from.

“What we want to achieve is changing the lives of the students in a meaningful way so they have gained creativity and employability skills.

"We’d love to leave a legacy in young people feeling empowered to be creative, and either think about careers in the creative industries or how to use their creativity in other careers.”

Former Leith Academy pupil Heather Marshall, artistic director of theatre company Creative Electric, has returned as an EIF artist-in-residence.

She said: “I probably wasn’t the ideal pupil, to be honest. I struggled quite a lot, especially when I hit fourth year. My mum wasn’t well and I was her main carer.

"I’d come into school and really struggle with authority, because I was so used to being in charge of everything at home. My drama teacher, Jenny Wilson, was a saviour.”

Marshall has been helping to build the confidence and self-esteem of students with different groups, including those who benefit from Leith Academy’s award-winning support for LGBTQ+ pupils.

She added: “Both Leith Academy and the EIF are really going out of their way to show the students that they are important no matter their background, their experiences, or whether they are struggling at school.”

James Anderson, 13, who is involved in the LGBTQ+ group, said: “It feels like a family now. Everyone is so comfortable around each other. It’s important to show this is an accepting place and it’s okay for people to be who they are no matter their race, their identity, what they choose to be or where they’re from.

"Tolerance isn’t enough – it’s about celebrating, accepting and showing people that they’re loved.”

Head teacher Mike Irving said: “We’ve really benefited from the various specialists that have been coming in to the school under the partnership.

"A wide tapestry of young people have found a spring in her step through the medium of creativity. You can really see an increase in their confidence when they pull on an EIF t-shirt.

“A personal development award will undoubtedly provide stepping stones for some of our young people.”