How the Arts have transformed Feversham Primary

Feversham is a large primary school located in Bradford Moor, an area of pronounced social deprivation less than a mile from Bradford city centre. It is an exemplar of how the Arts can transform a school. 

After being placed in special measures a decade ago, the decision was made for music and drama to form the core of the school’s connected curriculum. This has not only produced excellent results in maths, reading and writing, but has contributed to the students’ confidence, positivity and friendliness, all factors noted in the school’s recent Outstanding Ofsted report.

Our day-long visit began with a lively assembly in which Year 3 students used music and drama to depict the employment and education of Victorian children. The graphic depictions of working conditions and punishments elicited a flood of questions from the rest of the students.

Our guide for the day was Arts Lead Alisa Yates. We began our tour in the large, light and open Arts Studio. A wide range of media and techniques were displayed on walls, drying on racks and hanging on strings. 

Alisa has written an article all about this creative space in the latest edition (#33) of NSEAD’s AD Magazine. In it, she talks about promoting independent thinking and a proactive approach.

There was a corner ‘curiosity’ area with comfy seating where students could use the miscellaneous objects as stimuli for sketching and inspiration.

Alisa showed us the table of pestles, mortars, gums and stones used to make paints and dies. We were told how the children would learn about the process of grinding and combining ochre and other materials to make powders and pigments that would become the colours they use for their own art works.

The Art Studio also contained light boxes for a stop-time iPad-based animation project. Alisa told us of her professional background in photography from the age of 16 often working with her own team of stylists and technicians. She is a current arts practitioner specialising in watercolour painting, photography and textiles.

Her ongoing exploration of media and techniques, and passion for experimentation was evident not only in the vibrant Art Studio, but also in the conversations we had with Year 4, 5 and 6 students. Their many arts activities at Feversham are documented in this ‘Art Studio’ blog. Alisa also curates this ‘Art Academy@FPA’ blog which includes stimuli, activities and learning materials.

Led by Alisa, the school had been involved in a quilt making project. Feversham students, in partnership with the Bradford 2025 Year of Culture bid, made a video to explain the project and to ask other schools to contribute squares that communicated something about their ‘Untold stories, [and] Hidden Communities‘. The 200 individual squares were sewn together to create ‘a collection of memories and histories’ specific to the area and to the children.

We also met Jimmy Rotheram, Senior Leader for Music – probably the only one in the country, he told us. It was Jimmy who was leading the assembly earlier. Starting as a supply teacher eight years ago, Jimmy has developed an effective and influential music programme based largely on his training in Kodaly and Dalcroze, undertaken alongside his teaching. As a primary music expert, Jimmy and the music pedagogy of Feversham (up to six hours of music per week) have been featured in The Guardian, on the BBC, and in podcastsYouTube videos and teaching magazines.

Jimmy talked about his mission to get the music of his many Muslim students more widely recognised. Like Alisa, Jimmy has a professional arts background – in music performance, a record deal and working in the industry.

Jimmy told us: ‘I have had formal music training. I just always found reading music far more difficult than someone of my musical ability should have done. It wasn’t until I discovered alternative ways of developing musical reading that my own ability to read music managed to catch up, and I discovered that all children could learn to read music well if taught in more child-friendly ways‘.

He bases his teaching largely on singing, rhythm and body percussion. You can read more about his ethos and methods here. His book (to be published in the Spring) will explain his methods to other music and performing arts teachers. 

We were impressed by the time, effort and dedication that Alisa and Jimmy spent working with the Early Years and reception children and staff. It was clear that, through the arts, the school were building skills and confidence from a young age. On our visit to this area, we enjoyed the subdued lighting, stand-up easels and attention that had been paid to creating a warm and inspiring environment. As a demonstration of how Jimmy has embedded his approach to music across the school, a group of reception children were assembled to participate in a spontaneous singing and movement session.  

As well as music, singing, quilt making and the Arts Studio activities, students had been working in collaboration with the Joss Arnott Dance Company.

The school is currently undergoing extensive expansion. The main hall has already been extended to incorporate a stage and the new site will include an updated music room. The transformation continues.

Feversham is a story of how arts pedagogy, arts leaders with professional arts backgrounds, and the creative application of continuing professional development can transform a primary school, drive the curriculum and inspire many others beyond the school gates.

Our thanks go to Arts Lead Alisa Yates for showing us around, to Senior Leader (Music) Jimmy Rotheram for his time and insights, and to all the staff and students at Feversham for their warm welcome.

Collaborative Creativity at Kelsall

On our recent travels around England visiting arts-rich primaries, we have noticed that many schools have developed, and continue to grow their arts-richness through a close working relationship between the Head Teacher and the Arts Lead. This is one of our ‘emerging themes’ – something we will explore in more detail later.

One such creative double-act are doing wonders for the arts at Kelsall Primary school, a rural village school about 4 miles away from Tarporley in Cheshire.

While we have met other dynamic arts duos on our travels, what was perhaps most interesting here is that Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton have developed their visual arts skills, ethos and pedagogy alongside, and in combination with their roles at the school. 

While their active status as musicians pre-dates their days at Kelsall (David has been here for 10 years, Jon for 20), neither had a background in the visual arts when they arrived. Jon told us how his passion for visual art and his ‘loose’ experimental style took shape through primary teaching.

As examples of idiosyncratic primary arts practice and pedagogy, we were drawn to these Year 2 pieces from recent visits to the nearby woods:

Under Jon’s tutelage, the students at Kelsall have developed a distinctive semi-abstract style based on the extensive use of sketching, reworking, and a ‘no mistakes/no rules’ approach to art making. Jon explained to us how after building basic skills through structured lessons, the students could enjoy the freedom, independence and confidence of art making. He encourages the students by telling them to ‘go with it’ and asking for their thoughts. Jon repeatedly referred to the children’s sense of joy and play when creating art in this way.

Displays included students pictures of animals (gorillas, tigers, orangutans, deer, turtles, crows, etc.), self-portraits, buildings, Guernica, and astronauts. They were using art to explore issues of plastic pollution, endangered species, refugees, war and other subjects.

While Jon told us that the students’ art was always based on something tangible, he described how working in semi-abstraction avoids many of the frustrations that students encounter then they strive for realism and a closely copied photographic approach. ‘They’ll always be rubbing out’, he explained.

Jon and David were also creating their own artwork in the Art Room, after school and in the holidays. Their work was stored alongside the students’ work in the Art Room and other spaces in the school, there to inspire students and to use as explanation of techniques and approaches. Both men self-published a series of books of their art works. These could be found in corridors and classrooms.  

The students’ work had been entered in many local primary arts competitions. David told us that the school had voluntarily withdrawn from many of them in order to let other schools win occasionally (!). 

Kelsall’s whole school curriculum is based entirely around ‘high-quality’ books, used as ‘pathways’ to link specific artists, topics and issues. For example, there is a display of ‘No Outsiders’ portraits in the reception area.

As with all of the arts-rich school we have visited (browse this blog for more examples), there are many more arts activities taking place at Kelsall that could not be covered in any detail in a short blog piece. The short list for Kelsall includes:

  • A full-size statue of Nelson Mandela and extensive Black Lives Matter art works in the reception area
  • Twenty glockenspiels (!) plus equipment and performance spaces for the school Rock Band and other performance work
  • An in-development Room 13-style student-lead outdoor arts space
  • Gilbert and George

Thanks to Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton for inviting us into your school and to the students of Kelsall for sharing their experiences of their arts-rich education.

Local and global diversity at Gomersal Primary

Gomersal is an arts-rich primary school less than 10 miles from Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield, situated in extensive green space. Deer and sheep are regular visitors to the woodlands that adjoin the school.

During our tour of the school, we saw many student art works created during class walks to the nearby woods and fields: flowers, insects, leaves and trees were all used as inspiration for work in textiles, ceramics, painting and installations.

Year 4, 5 and 6 students told us about their many visits to local arts places. The school has links with the nearby Longside Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The children talked excitedly about the work of Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy and Barbara Hepworth. They had recently created figures in the style of Antony Gormley who was born just 3 miles from the school. 

Students also spoke about their visit to the nearby David Hockey-associated ex-mill now art gallery and studios Salts Mill. Some mentioned going to the art gallery in Cartwright Hall, just 7 miles away, with their families to see pieces by Hockney, Anish Kapoor and LS Lowry.

In the legacy of Titus Salt and the dominant local industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the school had just secured funding to set up a textiles base that will help raise the profile and standard of textile work in this and other local schools. 

As well as the richness of the arts and culture in the immediate area, we were struck by the diversity of the art forms and artists with which the students were working. 

Much of this was either on display or being created in the large, light and vibrant Art Room. Our tour of the school coincided with a class doing a printing project. 

The Art Room was full of the students’ art work; Celtic crosses, shop fronts, skeletons, skulls, dresses and masks packed this busy space. 

As academics and researchers, at home in libraries and archives, we were thrilled to see these roller storage units being used for the copious arts materials. 

The Art Room also contained its own library: the books here covered a dazzling diversity of artists and their art.

Our photos don’t capture the music that was playing while we were in the Art Room, or the buzz of excitement from the children as they created their prints.

Speaking of music, one of the parents and school Governor is Andi Durrant, a high-profile DJ, producer and broadcaster. He now takes time to teach the students how to use the equipment in the music production/radio room – a well-resourced facility stocked with sample pads, midi keyboards, sampling and sequencing software, a mixing desk and microphones. Students had been creating own dance music recordings.

The sense of diversity extended to the themed art works that were on display from recent cultural and religious celebrations – Dewali, Hannukah, Black History Month, Bonfire Night, and Remembrance Day.

The striking minimalistic art works in the library took us back to our childhoods and returned us to the school’s immediate environs. The creator of The Mr Men and Little Misses, Roger Hargreaves, was born and raised in the adjoining village of Cleckheaton.

Finally, we saw some bespoke paintings which included lines from a poem, co-created by staff and students. Located in and around the Head’s office, they seemed to sum up the whole-school arts-focussed ethos that underpins this, and the other arts-rich primaries that we are privileged to visit during our RAPS research project. 

Thanks to Head Teacher Melanie Cox and Arts Lead Mandy Barrett for their warm welcome, insights, guided tour and coffee.

DaVinci, Dewali and Dragons at Blackrod Primary

When we arrived at Blackrod Primary in Blackrod village (4 miles from Wigan, 7 miles from Bolton), we didn’t realise we were visiting the location of a popular television show.

Three years ago, parents participated in Channel 4’s ‘The Class of Mum and Dad‘ in which they spent a half term experiencing the everyday experiences of their children – uniforms, including uniforms, SATs tests and sports day. Luckily, we were spared such treatment! Our mission was to immerse ourselves in the arts spaces, arts works and arts-focussed conversations with staff and students.

Blackrod Primary School drawing/painting

Our first interviewee was Head Teacher Ian Dryburgh. Despite his 35 years as a Head here, Ian told us that was always open to new ideas. The school’s prioritisation of the arts over the last few years is evidence of Ian’s embrace of change and of his ethos of developing and celebrating the children’s humanity and individuality. He talked of a revelatory moment when he was looking through the children’s sketch books, comparing the same child’s work across a number of years, and seeing little in the way of development. Arts lead Rachael Littlefair told us that the need to reapply for their ArtsMark (they now have a Platinum status which has been mentioned in Parliament) also helped them focus on developing an integrated arts-rich curriculum. 

Ian stressed to us that all children were entitlement to the arts and that the school’s job was ‘to widen children’s horizons, not to narrow them down’. 

We were struck by the diversity of artists and artworks on display. With each class named and themed around a specific artist, we had a great opportunity to learn more about Milhazes, Ringgold, Mahlangu, Weiwei, Gauguin, Kahlo, Mackintosh, Lowry and others. 

Each classroom had a quote from the artist on the wall and a big wall-sized ‘Where our learning takes us’ display.

The arts were clearly being combined with geography, history, cultural issues, and other subjects. The curriculum is cyclical allowing topics to be revisited to add depth of understanding. Students were learning both about and through the arts.

Ian had talked passionately about one particular piece of student art. The Dragon pictures were drawn from memory; each was highly individualistic. In terms of its unique expression of the Year 4 artist’s depiction of a character from ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes, and their displays of shading, perspective and other technical skills, the Dragon seemed to exemplify the school’s evolving vision for the arts. 

The students told us how they had greatly enjoyed creating work in the style of local artist L.S. Lowry. Rachael told that many of the locations in the paintings of Lowry and another local Roger Hampson that were displayed in the school were within walking distance and would be familiar to the children.

Students were making art works for Diwali that week.

They told us how they really enjoyed the textiles work they do. Creating batiks, tie-dies and cross-stitch was clearly very memorable for them.

Ian’s vision of honouring the individuality of his students and staff has secured the school an outstanding Ofsted rating. Yet, in their links with Bolton Octagon Theatre, in their role as Bolton cultural ambassadors and in their emerging commitment to outdoor learning, the school continues to change and develop. Rachael has recently gained her Forest School Leader qualification. The children can now use tools, ropes, tarps and other equipment to explore the wooded areas on site. She also talked about starting a Rock Band club. Onwards and upwards!

Thanks to Head Ian Dryburgh and Arts lead Rachael Littlefair for letting us into their school and to the students of Blackrod for their important insights.

Narrative immersive, a double decker bus and a giant illuminated sculpture: Leamington Community Primary

When Leamington Community Primary was built 90 years ago, it was located on a farming estate. It is now in the middle of the Norris Green housing estate in Liverpool. Despite this being an area with high levels of multi-generational unemployment and other markers of social deprivation (34% of the students have special educational needs), it has spawned notable musicians (Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen; Holly Johnson and other members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood; A Flock of Seagulls), actors (Geoffrey Hughes and Tom Baker) and radio presenter Winifred Robinson.

Leamington’s links with the local community and the creative initiatives the school has taken to address some of the challenges, especially through the arts, were the most memorable aspects of our visit.

It’s not every day you get to visit Narnia. On our tour of the school, we found ourselves in the middle of a narrative immersion session designed to bring this topic and text to life. Teachers use props, costumes, storytelling and characterisation to stimulate emotion and imagination. 

In this session, the students had gone to another room where they touched and interacted with objects from a pre-prepared box (ice packs, snowflakes, etc.). When they returned to their classroom, it had been decorated with furry coats across the door and other props. Students could then react to the space and the objects, and ask questions of the teacher who was in costume and character. We could almost taste the Turkish Delight! This was the first part of a project that looked more closely at the story. Apparently, the class did get to taste some of those pink squidgy sweets later.

Other areas of the school were dedicated to creating similarly immersive environments (forests, under the sea, space, etc.). 

The school had strong links with The Bluecoat, a gallery in the centre of Liverpool. Among other ‘Out of the Blue’ initiatives, The Bluecoat had provided free bus tickets and café vouchers for children, parents and families to visit during half term.

Mock up of Bruce Asbestos' work in the Bluecoat courtyard

The partnership was working towards the design and installation of a large sculptural illuminated piece of art in the school grounds as a permanent structure – something to bring fun and light into the dark days of winter, arts lead Steph Leach told us.

We were lucky enough to attend an after-school Art Club session in the art room with a Zoom link to Bluecoat-linked commissioned 3D sculpture artist Bruce Asbestos, who is based in Nottingham (like us!). The Art Club children were working with Bruce to design the new work around themes of community, love and friendship. Bruce showed how simple objects could signify emotion and connection – a big red bow tie, a happy/sad faced Japanese doll, a hat in the shape of a slice of cake, and his ‘cheap’ wedding ring.

The students had brought objects (lots of teddy bears) and ideas to the session. They made quick five-minute sketches and worked with plasticine to create models for their ideas.

Bruce came into school the week after and worked with the children, using air dough, on their initial ideas which included food, monsters and cartoon characters. More Zoom links will refine the ideas. The plan is to install the final sculpture in the playground in February 2022 in a place where families and the local community can see it.

The newly extended art room was just one of the ways the school was developing their arts rich profile. 

The main hall had also been extended specifically to include raked seating, stage blocks, black wrap-around curtains, and high-end stage lighting. The children talked to us a lot about the performing arts they do in school. 

Finally, Head teacher Paul Vine had just bought a double decker bus. We sat on the bus in the playground while we heard about Paul’s plans to convert the downstairs into a space where parents could come to wash and dry clothes, make meals, have drinks, and get information and advice. Upstairs is planned as an immersive area for the children – blacked-out, full of stars, moons and rockets!

A green double decker bus

Along with the big colourful illuminated sculpture, the extended art room and performance space, and the immersive areas, the bus was a great example of how school-centred arts, could fire the students’ imagination and creativity whilse engaging, inspiring and supporting the local community. 

Thanks to Head Paul Vine and Arts Lead Steph Leach for arranging our tour of the school and interviews with students and staff. We look forward to seeing the finished sculpture in February.

The buzz of Ramsgate Arts

Ramsgate Arts Primary school
Ramsgate Arts Primary

Every day at Ramsgate Arts Primary, Key Stage 2 students finish their school day at 2pm. An unusual way to maintain and develop their arts-rich status, you might think. That is until you find out that from 2pm until 4:15pm, the students attend arts-focussed ‘compulsory’ after school clubs. During this time, class teachers do their PPA and CPD activities while the six specialist staff in the visual and performing arts take over. 

The school’s timetabling was clearly benefiting the students (and the staff) that we spoke with during our day-long visit.

Since 2017, Ramsgate Arts has existed in the Newington suburb, very close to four other primary schools. It’s decision to brand as arts-rich was based on existing staff’s experience, passion and professional engagement with the arts. As a new build and a relatively new venture, there is a palpable buzz of excitement from staff and students. 

Here are just a few examples of the art works and projects that we saw. 

The professional work of one of the art teachers and trained arts psychotherapist Karen Vost was displayed in the light and open reception area. The vibrant light boxes of police ‘mugshot’ photos of Elvis Presley and David Bowie are accompanied by Karen’s explanatory text and are examples of her wider work on mugshots. These pieces explore ‘… the criminalisation of people for activism or self-expression …’.

Karen’s work was displayed alongside equally professionally presented works by the students. Their ‘Take One Picture’ whole-school projects were the most prominent pieces in this area. The wide-range of art forms and media – textiles, hanging sculptures, drawing, painting, collage, etc. – were annotated with explanations and interpretations.

In the large art room where we interviewed staff and students and on corridor walls were displays of students’ work inspired by a range of artists including abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, Georgia O’Keefe, and the colourful pop art of Keith Haring. 

We loved seeing how the large display board in the art room was evolving with each set of new artistic creations attached over the previous ones.

As well as the art room, the school had been built with a long dance studio with mirrors and a beam along one wall and professional lighting on the ceiling. SLTs had insisted on retaining this space during the build despite pressure from the architects. The library was moved to an upstairs corridor. We were lucky enough to watch a dance rehearsal in the main hall high-end lighting in the dance studio and main hall. The whole class were working on a contemporary performance delivered by a young specialist dance teacher. The staging and computer-controlled lighting rig to were testament to the school’s commitment to the performing arts.

The large music room was stocked with guitars, ukuleles and percussion instruments. We liked the framed retro jazz art pictures in the room.

There was also an outdoor stage in the Early Years playground. The children improvised a Frozen-inspired song, dance and percussion performance for us which they called ‘Rock Elsa’. A ‘Music and Storytelling Shed’ sat permanently next to the stage.

Like a work of art in progress, SLTs insisted that the curriculum at Ramsgate Arts was not yet finished. The immediate focus is to get the children and community back in school and re-engaged after Covid. More work was needed to properly embed the innovative and progressive initiatives, they told us. The drama teacher told us how he had developed the curriculum largely from scratch using his own research and initiatives. The sense of newness and of openness to partnerships and collaborations (the school already works with the Turner Contemporary and Dreamland in nearby Margate, the Ramsgate Arts Barge and others) was palpable on our visit. We wish them well on their journey.

Thanks to Head Nick Budge, Deputy Hanna Beech and Head of Arts Hannah Dannell for inviting us in and showing us around.

Artists and Art Auctions: Palm Bay Primary, Margate

Art leader t-shirt. Screen print. Green shirt, black letters

In the arts studio cabin at the front of this beach-top school, five artists-in-residence (A.I.R.s) work and teach. In exchange for the use of the space, the equipment and the materials, the artists work directly with the school’s Young Arts Leaders (YALs) and increasingly, with teachers and staff at drop-in sessions, such as the Clay Club. We were lucky enough to visit this multi-functional space and talk with two of the artists as well as watching the YALs working on their ‘Arts Leader’ screen print t-shirts.

Palm Bay arts studio cabin - painted white
Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson

Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson, a Fine Arts graduate, talked about being inspired by spaces. She had created art from sail cloth and worked in the nearby caves and other seaside spaces.

Artist-in-resident Mellissa Fisher

Fellow A.I.R. Mellissa Fisher, a graduate of the innovative art/science Broad Vison programme, told us of her interest in nature and the body and how art can make the invisible visible. She was working on a body-cast piece with lots of ears that explored tinnitus. She has previously created (grown?) ‘living sculptures’ from the bacteria on her own face.

Large wall size artwork

This focus on organisms was a good metaphor for the organic ways in which the YALs learned from these artists before passing their new understandings on to their classmates, and to the general public for whom they offer guided art tours at the nearby Turner Contemporary. ‘Art is about sharing’, Mellissa told us.

The influence of the YALs, the A.I.R.s and the school’s top-down commitment to the arts was evident in the abundance of art works framed and displayed on walls and in corridors.

YALs started as a four school project back in 2017. The programme works in partnership with the Turner, and is a product of the Art Inspiring Change project that has included 20 parents and fostered children’s leadership skills, alongside their substantial engagement with the arts. The A.I.R.s told us how through the arts, the YALs were learning how to solve problems, collaborate, and visualise. They talked about how the arts gave the children the opportunity to dig deeper and ask profound questions about the very nature of art.

Students print making display

The A.I.R.s were just one way Palm Bay were using to maintain and develop their arts-richness by providing high-quality materials and experiences. Arts lead Mel Tong has developed an Art Auction. This year, 70 pieces have been donated by a mix of high-profile local artists and designers, and parents/family members. The event has grown in size and profile over the last four years or so. Initially held in the school hall, this year’s auction will take place in the Turner.

Palm Bay students' sketch books

The auction is conducted by local celebrity potter, and long-term supporter of the arts at Palm Bay, Keith Brymer-Jones, and attended by the local community. Mel told us how the proceeds have funded a kiln, printing materials, theatre visits and support all of the arts provision at the school.

Mel encourages the students to keep reworking their art. ‘There’s always something more that can be done’ is her message. The artists-in-residence and the art auction were developed in response to frustrations with the limitations of arts materials and arts budgets. These initiatives are evidence of Palm Bay’s ongoing commitment to the arts, and to the creative, innovative ways of meeting the inevitable challenges.

By the way, when we arrived in the rain in the morning, the arts studio was white (see above). When we left at the end of the day, it was covered in colours and design selected and created by the students. And it was sunny. The transformative power of the arts!

Palm Bat arts studio cabin - painted in bright colours and bold geometric designs

The colourful sights and sounds of Mellor Community Primary

Coloured glass in school foyer

Mellor in Leicester is a vibrant primary school bursting with colourful attention-grabbing artworks. From the light streaming through the glass in the foyer through the art-filled corridors to the open-plan library space at the centre of the school, the bright colours and constant music characterise the school’s dedication to the arts and culture of the local community.

Two long collages stretch along one of the corridors, the results of the students’ art trip to the nearby Belgrave Road (AKA The Golden Mile). The students had captured not only the colourful shops in their collaborative artwork, but also the sensual impact of the flowers, traffic lights, cars and people that they must have seen while they were there. This was a great example of ‘bringing the outside in’ and how primary schools can use the arts to link with and reflect their local communities.

Belgrave Road art collage 1
Belgrave Road art collage 2

The idea of colour was central to many of the students’ art displays. In the Antarctica project, Year 3s explored primary, secondary and tertiary colours and blended them to create vivid skies and seas. Other sensual aspects were explored in their 3D box multi-media Antarctica landscapes produced during the period of home learning.

Among the artists and styles explored were displays of work inspired by Kandinsky and Pop Art. Both popped with the characteristic primary colours, swirls and shapes, and popular cultural references. Another set of artworks captured the sights and sounds, culture and contributions of the Windrush generation. Watercolours of Peak District landscapes showed the students working with more muted colours to create perspective and layers.

At the centre of the school is a brightly lit open-plan library that doubles up as a vibrant gallery space. There are large sculptures, such as the mannequin of local legendary giant Bel, or an elephant covered in maps. Glass display cabinets and frames, and shelves full of student arts work stand side-to-side with ‘professional’ works.

Bel Giant figure and map covered elephant

Overlooking the library/gallery is Mellor Radio, a dedicated radio room full of microphones, headphones, recording equipment, and even a ‘going live’ red light. The colourful sounds of the student-curated playlists are broadcast continually in the corridors throughout the school day. The teachers and students that we spoke to loved how their school was full of music.

The radio room is also used by students to make podcasts and record their voices for other projects. They had made jingles saying ‘This is Mellor Radio’ in the wide range of languages spoken by the students – 98% have English as a second or additional language. The jingles were interspersed with the music to create a fun student-voiced soundtrack to school life.

The project was integral to the school’s focus on oracy. The students practiced this art of verbal communication when they spoke to us in their focus groups. The clarity and projection of their voices really brought their insights and stories about the arts to life!

Thanks to Arts Lead and Deputy Head Anthony Hibble for organising our visit and showing us around.

Our first RAPS visit: Sidegate Primary, Ipswich

It’s not everyday you get to meet the Prime Minister or the Secretary for the Arts. So we were excited to have the opportunity to ask them probing questions about the arts in primary schools, or, more specifically, the arts in their primary school.

Because these dignitaries were all in fact students at Sidegate Primary in Ipswich, the first school that we visited in the RAPS project. The school parliament (all the members were proudly displayed in the foyer) and the dedicated Arts Council were clear signs that Sidegate was taking the teaching of democracy and the student voice seriously. As we found out, this dedication to student-centred and collaborative learning activities ran through the many arts projects that we saw and heard about.

Sidegate is a school of around 650 students set just outside the town centre with a long established commitment to the arts. Staff could not remember a time when the arts were not central to the school’s curriculum and ethos. This history was evident in the large stained-glass window that commemorates the school’s first 75 years. The students who showed us around said that every child got to insert some coloured glass into the design.

Displays of art covered the walls and ceilings of the corridors, classrooms and other spaces. The large bird-like display in the main hall was mentioned repeatedly during the focus groups that we conducted with students. Each of them made a coloured feather to contribute to the whole. The experience was obviously memorable and meaningful to them. The students talked repeatedly about teamwork in the context of artistic creativity.

Butterflies, caterpillars and chrysalises were everywhere at Sidegate – hanging from the ceilings and climbing up the walls.  This was a whole-school creative project that embraced the themes of hope and change after the challenging months of being in lockdown. The metaphor of transformation was apt; a large choir was rehearsing in the main hall, their first chance to sing together in many months.

We were lucky enough to meet Trunks, an elephant who had long inhabited the school’s heated swimming pool but was now roaming a classroom. Trunks had been part of town-wide project that took the students’ collaborative ethos (each of them had decorated Trunks with their thumb print) into public spaces.

There was another public-facing arts example of Sidegate’s collaborative spirit on the waterfront, this time in the form of a long mural of sea creatures that had been created by a number of schools. The word ‘Sidegate’ and the colourful paintings must be the first things that many visitors to Ipswich see, as they were for us.

The Arts Council had lots to say about how they wanted to make the arts more enjoyable so that everyone in the school would want to get involved, and for there to be more arts (even more!) in the school. Their comments showed a nuanced understanding of the value of the arts in people’s lives (including adults) and a desire to diversify the arts that they do in school.

Thanks to Arts Lead Jane Ryder and all at Sidegate for a warm welcome on our first visit.

summer time and the researching is…

Although universities are now on holidays, most researchers use some of their holidays for getting on with work they can’t do during the term. Just like school teachers. We have been spending some of our summer working on various RAPS survey results.

Our ITE study is now more than half way through. We have completed the first part of the work where we look at the arts in teacher education programmes provided by universities and Teach First.  We’ve started on surveying and interviewing school ITE providers too. The holidays are a very good time for us to write the first draft of the report of the first part of the study. However, we won’t be reporting that separately here, as we will release all of the ITE results together early next year. 

The arts rich school study is also now well underway. Nearly eighty primary schools have agreed to participate! We are very excited about this number, and who they are. The RAPS project will be the first to get a systematic overview of such a big group of outstanding primary school arts programmes. All of the schools have completed a basic questionnaire about what they do and how it is organised. We have also invited the schools to send us a short film or powerpoint made by children which tells us about their arts programmes. We have established a youtube channel for these films and we will let you all know when the first tranche of children’s films are published.

The group of 80 schools will eventually become about 40 in the second stage of the research. We hope to visit all of the 40, pandemic willing. But of course we are thinking now about how we get from 80 to 40. It is important that we get a wide spread of schools – for instance we want to see schools located in different parts of the country, serving rural, city, suburban, regional and coastal communities, of different sizes, with different kinds of school populations. We also want to make sure that we have local authority as well as single and  multi-academy trusts. As well, we need to make sure that across the schools we cover all of the art forms. 

It is a tough job to make the selection and we are taking the job of selecting the “sample’ slowly and seriously. Analysing the questionnaire is part of that process of selection, but it is also an interesting set of information in its own right. Summer is a good time for us to make difficult decisions.

We will be telling you more about the 80 schools later this year. 

Image: Sketchbook from Gomersal Primary Art blog – thankyou. Yes, Gomersal is one of the 80 RAPS schools. We are very interested in the way that teachers and children use sketchbooks across the curriculum and across year levels.