The National Gallery City Year project

For the last three years The National Gallery has worked in partnership with City Year to deliver an innovative arts project, engaging school students who would not usually visit the Gallery and might not otherwise consider the relevance of the collection to their own lives. City Year is a charity which challenges 18-25 year old students from diverse backgrounds to spend a year as City Year Volunteer Mentors. The mentors are placed in schools where they support students who face challenging circumstances to enjoy and succeed at school by acting as a ‘near peer’ role model.

Image courtesy of the National Gallery.


Since 2008, the National Gallery and Credit Suisse have been working together in a unique partnership, which provides a vital funding platform for the Gallery’s exhibitions and educational programmes. The National Gallery’s partnership with Credit Suisse has enabled them to work in collaboration with City Year UK to deliver a bespoke personal and cultural development opportunity for students. The aims of the project are:

  • To encourage young people to make links between the collection and their own lives
  • To develop skills and knowledge by looking at and talking about paintings
  • To develop and improve motivation, confidence, self-esteem and social skills
  • To raise the profile of the National Gallery’s programmes for schools and teachers in non-attending schools
Image courtesy of the National Gallery

Gallery educators train and support City Year mentors to plan and deliver creative sessions in their school. Students participate in gallery-based and school-based workshops to create their own art work. At the end of the project participants present their work and discuss the paintings which inspired them in a celebratory event hosted by the Gallery. This year, 10 mentors were placed in 5 schools in Lewisham, Barking and Dagenham, Camden and Birmingham. They recruited up to 10 students from Years 8 and 9 in each school.

At the start of the project City Year Mentors and teachers were introduced to the project, its aims and expectations at a special training day at the Gallery. After an introduction to the collection and to the paintings they would be working with the group explored different approaches and techniques that they could then use to encourage their students to engage with the selected paintings. For many, it was the first time they had taken part in practical art activities since primary school and levels of confidence varied. Participants also had an opportunity to discuss what the project will mean for their school and students.

Image courtesy of the National Gallery.

In addition to the creative workshops led by the mentors in school, the young people also visited the Gallery to see the artworks and work with gallery educators. The overarching theme was Light and Dark but each artist and school group interpreted this in their own way. Although the artists working on the project made an initial selection of paintings, mentors and students also helped shape the choice through their own interests and reactions. Each gallery session included a discussion of the chosen focus paintings, where students were encouraged to look in detail, interpret their findings and make connections, not just with painting but also with their own experiences. They took part in drawing and making activities in the gallery. Feedback from this teacher indicates that this was particularly important:

I think that the experience to sit on the Gallery floor and just do something – not just drawing – can be intimidating if it’s not something you do all the time. But the lovely act of just cutting out and putting paper together was a really empowering experience – the more students do in the actual Gallery space the more ownership they have.

During each day they spent at the gallery, the students also had the opportunity to learn new processes and techniques by making art in our studio spaces.

Mentors continued this work back at school, building on the ideas they were given in a project plan provided by the artists but also with the freedom to pursue their own ideas and those of their students.

The final gallery session was a celebration of the project. Students, artist and mentors worked together to exhibit the work as a formal exhibition. The range of work was impressive, including painting, stage sets, animation and printing. It was also impressive to see each student, many of whom are not used to speaking in public, talk about the paintings which had inspired their work. This took place in the gallery in front of the paintings which they had studied to an audience that included not only parents, teachers, funders and gallery staff but also members of the of the general public who happened to be visiting and stopped to hear them. This was an extraordinary achievement for the young people involved in the project.

Image courtesy of the National Gallery


We commissioned CUREE (Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education) to carry out an evaluation of the project to find out if the programme goals had been met, to examine what worked and what didn’t and to ask if there were any changes that could be made in future years. The team from used pre-visit data, observations, interviews, questionnaires and focus groups to inform their evaluation.

What went well

The evaluators found that the project was a beneficial experience for many of the young people involved and had many positive impacts including:

  • Successful engagement with art by the students involved in the project and extending to some of their families, and how this led to students making connections between art and their lives
  • A greater feeling of ownership of and enthusiasm for the Gallery and art, including students who did not see art as being for them prior to the project
  • The development of skills and knowledge linked to the paintings and the meanings and stories behind them
  • The development of practical art techniques
  • The development of social and personal skills
  • Students enjoyed and benefitted from the support, teamwork, challenge and experience of the project
  • Students were challenged and taken out of their comfort zone, especially in relation to presenting their work to an audience. This was boosted the sense of achievement experienced by participant students and helped even the most shy students improve their confidence


Group numbers

There were some issues relating to high student turnover throughout the project. An appreciable level of dropout may be expected for a project of this nature and the characteristics of the students involved, although it is nonetheless worthwhile looking for ways to limit the effect of this. The evaluators suggested that clearer initial communication, a small number of additional engagement activities in the wider Gallery collection and bigger group sizes might have improved this.


Within the surveys a number of teachers indicated that they were initially unclear about their role and would have benefitted from an more information about the project. Similarly, it might have been useful to set clearer expectations for those involved in the project, specifically any additional workload it would require, so schools can ensure they assign teachers who have the capacity for the project.

Next steps

Since the project ended in the summer, we have been working with Credit Suisse and City Year to create a project management tool to support the mentors to better plan, lead and shape the project in future years. They have also been paired up with a mentor from Credit Suisse to help them to deliver the project successfully. We have also been able to nurture relationships with participating schools and teachers to continue to work with schools that wouldn’t have worked with otherwise.

Caroline Smith
Programmer for Schools and Teachers
The National Gallery

Project dates: January to July 2018 
Partner organisations: City Year UK, CUREE 
Funder: Credit Suisse