How do you get children with special educational needs to engage with learning? Keep it simple, yes? See how one Oxford charity is doing just the opposite — using ‘high art’ to inspire and to change lives.

Flash of Splendour: Arts Empowering Children

An Oxford-based charity founded in memory of a St Anne’s College alumna is changing the rules on how to reach out to marginalised children and young adults. Flash of Splendour works to empower them through the creative arts. Using an innovative immersive approach, it specialises in enabling access to history, art and texts that are typically considered too dry and too difficult for children with special educational needs to understand, interpret or enjoy. The aim is gloriously to uproot entrenched ideas and preconceptions about the potential of children on the margins — what they can achieve, experience, imagine and create.

Each of their projects typically ends with an exhibition, publication or film: putting the children’s voices and work into public, often highly visible arenas, such as museums.

Felicity Anne Avery

Founded in 2009 in memory of Felicity Anne Avery (right), Flash of Splendour’s first project enabled a group of talented teenagers with autism, and learning disabilities to exhibit a selection of paintings at St Anne’s, to profound and life changing acclaim. Two of the artists’ works were acquired by Downing Street; another, a portrait of St Anne, is now prominently displayed at the college. Later projects have seen collaborations with schools across Britain, and partnerships with the Oxfordshire Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, the English Folk Dance and Song Society at Cecil Sharp House, Barefoot Books in Oxford, cartographic artist Stephen Walter, Blackwell’s, Wytham Woods and local literacy charity Bookfeast.

Since last year, they have been working in partnership with Exeter University and the Royal Geographical Society on their most ambitious project yet, for which they were awarded major Heritage Lottery and Arts and Humanities Research Council grants: the Children’s Poly-Olbion, which introduces children to Michael Drayton’s vast topographical poem of Britain, Poly-Olbion (1612; 1622). Their reimagining of Drayton’s Jacobean landscapes will be showcased, alongside 17th-century books and maps, at the Royal Geographical Society in London in a month-long exhibition from 9 September. The first Flash of Splendour literary festival will be also held during the show’s run on 19 and 20 September and will explore ideas of English landscape and identity, with speakers including cartographic historian Jerry Brotton and poet Paul Farley.

The name ‘Flash of Splendour’ originates in Dante’s Purgatorio: ‘Suddenly a flash of splendour rent the curtain of my sleep.’ It was also the title of a 1968 novel by Felicity Avery, née Bridgen, writing under the nom de plume Anne Stevenson. For her, it encapsulated the idea of the world being forged anew in 1848, when the novel is set; she had studied Dante under historian Marjorie Reeves at St Anne’s in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Avery’s daughter Anne Louise Avery, a co-founder and director of Flash of Splendour, says, ‘Whilst she used the phrase to invoke the transitory radiance of the revolutionary spirit, we felt that it also encapsulated our ethos: each exhibition representing a temporary “flash of splendour” permanently transforming and illuminating lives.’

Video and still © Angel Sharp Media. Photograph of Felicity Anne Avery reproduced by kind permission of Anne Louise Avery.


By Christopher Dyer

Of course it is true that there are young persons whom society marginalises but it is also true that many educational interactions over many years have also started from the necessity of not "setting an ceiling" on the expectation with which one begins such education. I had hoped that it would not come as a surprise to anyone that any child would respond to 'the best' in the best way possible; and that the patronising idea that any one was 'simple' and therefore needed simplicity in their aims was by now anathema. Whilst commending the positives in this video I feel that, of itself, it marginalises the very people it is documenting in that they are a group apart, considered as somehow 'special' not only in schooling but also in that we are back to the old disrespectful comments such as, "Isn't it wonderful that 'marginalised' people have art in Downing Street". It is possibly that the oddness is rather that there is good high art in that street at all. Where, in this film, is the wider society, the integration, the normality of contact with non-specially selected young people? It is sad that our integration work over many years has not produced a film that, of itself, shows a wider social spectrum.

By John Muir

What an excellent way for children to learn!

By Pauline McGrego...

inspirational techniques that are worth remembering

By Anne Louise Ave...

In response to Christopher Dyer's comments, I feel that he has misunderstood that many of the children whom we support ~ and some of whom are featured in the film ~ have extremely challenging physical and intellectual disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, visual impairment, muscular dystrophy, autism and oral dyspraxia. A great number have life-shortening conditions, spending their lives in and out of hospitals and respite care, and their battles to create and achieve most certainly should be celebrated, just as we celebrate, for example, Stephen Hawking's career.

Their societal and educational marginalistion is precisely what we are working against. We are not imposing that categorisation: unfortunately, children are inevitably marginalised through disability or institutionalistion: when it is difficult to casually visit a museum, walk in the countryside, physically pick up a paintbrush, read a book, have a Saturday job or plan to have children. Or envision a future past one's early twenties.
Do please visit our exhibition in September at the Royal Geographical Society in London and meet some of the young people we work with. They will be very happy to explain why they and their friends and families are justifiably and unashamedly proud of their achievements. Would you suggest that we keep their imagery from the heart of government or slide it in without the fanfare that other children would rightfully expect?