Primary arts teacher education, early results.

Part of the RAPS study was to investigate the provision of arts in initial teacher education. Our survey showed a depressing picture, with many future primary teachers getting around four hours in total in their university course, and little more in their placement schools. This result really does suggest that many primary children may be missing out on a good arts education.

Arts are an entitlement and part of a good well balanced curriculum. And this is why they are part of the national curriculum. Schools really do have an obligation to teach them. However, in order to do this, schools need well trained teachers. The arts seem not to have featured in the recent review of teacher education. ITE providers all told us they would provide more arts if they could. The onus is on government to provide an ITE framework that would make arts subjects a reality in all schools.

Our report is still in draft form, and more will be added to it, but you can read the headline findings here.

RAPS: The next phase

The RAPS project has moved into a new phase. We are now analysing the interviews and other data gathered from our schools over the past two years.

Keen readers will know that from the 78 respondents to our Jisc ‘initial mapping of arts rich schools’ survey, we selected 40 primaries. These school represented a diversity of sizes, from just over 50 pupils to well over 700, and types – state schools, free schools, faith schools, through schools, and schools in academies large and small.

We were also keen to select a spread of locations in England. Our 40 schools were in cities, towns, villages, rural and seaside locations that ranged from Newlyn to Newcastle; from Liverpool to Lowestoft; from Bradford to Birmingham, and from London to Leicester.

In 2021-2022, we conducted whole-day visits to our 40 schools. We had guided tours of art rooms, arts spaces and art works, sometimes by the children. We looked at sketchbooks, installations, murals, outdoor arts spaces, legacy pieces, artworks that were Grade II listed, artworks loaned from galleries, exhibitions, festivals, arts assemblies, rehearsals, performances and more.

We interviewed staff – head teachers, arts leads, teachers of music, dance and drama, specialist external arts teachers, and class teachers who taught art. We learned about the arts that are done in the school, as well as how and why they do their arts-richness. We also interviewed focus groups of students from Years 4 to 6, students who were members of Art Clubs of all kinds, students who were Arts Councillors/Ambassadors/Stars, and students who attended arts-related extra-curricular clubs.

In the first half of this current school year, we selected 20 of our original 40 arts-rich schools to revisit. This time, we dug deeper, asking heads and arts staff exactly how they built and maintained their arts-richness, as well as the challenges and opportunities that have come with the Covid pandemic, rising energy bills, academisation, changes of key staff, and a host of other circumstances.

Our sincere thanks go out to all of the schools who hosted us on these 60 day-long visits. Your insights, knowledge and opinions are essential for our project and the picture we are starting to build about arts-rich primary schools. We have loved hearing from your students about the arts they do at school, at home and elsewhere.

We have emersed ourselves in arts and music rooms, dance and drama studios, and specialist spaces that house resident artists, kilns, and film-making and photographic equipment. We have been moved by the rehearsals and performances of dance, music, drama, and choral signing. We very much appreciate you arranging those and for allowing us access to all of your creative work.

We have now moved into our next phase which involves analysing the transcriptions of the student and staff interviews, coding and categorising them for themes. This will take us into the Spring.

Other aspects of the project have taken place alongside the survey, the visits and the analysis of the interviews. We have identified ‘comparator’ schools – schools that are similar in size, achievement, pupil premium, SEND and other markers to our arts rich schools but were not initially recommended to us for their arts-richness. We have also presented our work to the University of Sydney on two occasions. 

In summary: 

  • 60 whole-day visits to 40 arts-rich primary schools in England
  • 240 staff interviews 
  • Over 200 focus group interviews with well over 1000 children
  • The vast majority of the visits done on public transport (train, bike, one bus).
  • 12,000 miles of travel, if we had visited them one by one back and forth from Nottingham = more than the distance from Nottingham to Sydney!
  • Six schools in London
  • Four in Birmingham
  • Two each in Newcastle, Plymouth, Bradford, Ipswich, Liverpool, the Kent coast (Margate and Ramsgate) and the Cornwall peninsular (Newlyn and Nancledra).

You can catch up on our previous blog posts about each of the forty RAPS schools to get a sense of the diversity of their arts-richness.

About arts rich schools

Pat was recently invited to give the Radford Lecture at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference. Afterwards she wrote a post about her main points. Here it is.

One way or another, my research always concerns a “wicked” problem. I simply want to know how schooling can be made better and fairer for many more children and young people than is the case at present. I’ve taken this question into research projects on public policy and education systems, schools and school leaders work, and curriculum and pedagogy. The Covid postponed Radford lecture offered an opportunity to take one more step towards bringing some of these research strands together. So I chose social justice and arts education – or cultural education as it is called in England where I am currently based – as my topic.

Educators and researchers concerned with social justice and the arts often focus on questions of access. The broad and balanced curriculum that policymakers promise ought to include the arts. But it often doesn’t. The arts can get very short shrift compared to other curriculum areas. Or educators and researchers concentrate on how young people find their way into careers in the arts, a real social justice issue given that the creative industries are dominated by people from relatively advantaged backgrounds . And of course educators and researchers investigate how the arts can be taught well.

I wanted to add to the social justice and cultural education conversation. In the lecture I suggested that educational researchers concerned with social justice should be concerned about arts education for three additional reasons: 

1. When taught by arts teachers who understand all children to be capable, rather than starting from the position that some children have talent and some don’t, then all children can and do produce work that could be described as ‘high quality” or “excellent” . Or what I prefer to call beautiful work. Good arts teaching is a fine example of educational inclusion.

2. Good arts teaching within an “arts rich school” (see later) changes the probabilities and horizons of possibility for the students who typically don’t benefit from their schooling as they should. There is credible evidence for this proposition. Randomised control trials of arts interventions show that taking arts subjects does not undermine literacy and numeracy, or learning in other subject areas. You don’t have to sacrifice the basics to do arts. You can do it all. And several studies from the US and Canada show that young people who have studied the arts are not disadvantaged in their choices of, or selection by, universities. One very important corpus of longitudinal studies focuses on the “arts rich school” and shows that “low SES” students in arts rich schools have better attendance, are more motivated to do well and that their parents are more engaged with schooling than low SES students in arts poor schools. Most importantly, Catterall’s NELS study showed that low SES students in arts rich schools are more likely to go to college than their peers in arts poor schools. Catterall put this down to something about the culture and climate of the arts rich school, and the types of pedagogies in use. He says educational researchers have to look hard to find a more promising avenue for redressing inequity.

My own research on arts rich secondary and primary ecologies explains how the odds are changed. Arts rich school ecologies include committed senior and middle leaders who support the arts symbolically and in resource allocations. Expert teachers with capacious signature pedagogies offer children and young people a variety of ways of knowing, being, doing and relating in, to and with the world. Schools are engaged with a range of cultural organisations. Arts richness is integral to the school identity and improvement plans.

3. Students from arts rich schools are more engaged in the arts outside of school and are more civically engaged. In Catterall’s longitudinal study former arts rich school students also voted in far greater numbers than the national average. And the research that my colleague Chris Hall and I have done strongly suggests that children and young people from arts rich schools are appreciative, critical audiences and active cultural producers with the knowhow and experiences to use a range of media, platforms, genres and practices to have a say in the public conversations that matter to them. We call this cultural citizenship. Being able to “have a say” is a social justice issue and crucially important for those children and young people whose life experiences, interpretations and individual and collective views are often ignored. The arts support children to have a say.

This Radford lecture will eventually become a journal article for the Australian Educational Researcher. However, I am interested in whether there is any appetite from policy makers who say that social justice matters for a new arts based disadvantaged school programme. I reckon, as a once used political slogan said, “Its time”.

University of Cambridge Primary: A circle of creativity

University of Cambridge Primary School (UCPS) is built in the shape of a circle, a ring, a doughnut. To get to another room, you have to walk around and around. The green space in the middle has a raked amphitheatre-style seating area and a stage for performances, presentations and the occasional assembly. 

On our RAPS visits, we have seen at least one comparable unusual primary school building. New Bewerley is a spiral, a giant snail shell. USPC is a giant eye looking up at the sky!

This iconic building was erected in 2015 on mud flats in the Eddington area, about a mile or so north-east of the centre of Cambridge. The school is now surrounded by European-style apartments and extensive cycle lanes. We were impressed at how many of the 650 children arrived on their bikes.

Outside the building, we enjoyed visiting UCPS’s allotment facilities – polytunnel, raised beds and sheds. There is also a forest school area which is rapidly growing out of what was until recently waste ground.

Inside, the looping corridors are flanked on each side with door-less classrooms and are filled with displays of books, other learning resources, the students’ artwork as well as these funky reading booths and stylish high-sided bench seats. 

One wall of the reception area consists of these Perspex birds, fish and flowers around which weave the school’s mission statements and inspirational sentiments.

Students had also created this window display of flowers as a specific welcome to Ukrainian students:

One of the school’s values – courage – was neatly portrayed in these Modroc pieces:

We spoke with Executive Headteacher Dr James Biddulph (MA in Music Education, PhD in creative learning), arts team leader Harriet Lang and focus groups of Year 4, 5 and 6 students all of whom were getting excited about the school’s carnival in two-days’ time.

Students in all year groups had learned a dance to be performed en masse. They had also created head-dresses and hats, costumes, flags and banners which were to be paraded around the local streets and back into school to join 200 parents and guests who would watch the performances (including the school’s samba band), check out the Mexican-style chalked artwork that adorned the tiled playground, try their luck on stalls and games, and enjoy the fun fair atmosphere.

As well as this end-of-year Art Week, the school has weeks and special days for Shakespeare, STEAM and World Book Week. UCPS is partnered with Cambridge’s grand Fitzwilliam Museum, the art-filled house and gallery that is Kettle’s Yard, and Festival Bridge East.

It goes without saying that UCPS is centred around creativity and the arts. 

James told us about the development of the school, their ethos and goals: 

‘Because we were in new school, we had to create an enabling space that in which creativity and the arts could arise’

‘Creativity is integral, but we need to make it explicit’ 

‘At UCPS, we are trying to nurture compassionate citizenship, develop children’s agency and foster democratic voices for children through playful inquiry, habits of mind and the arts.’

If you’ve not had the privilege of visiting this inspiring and fascinating primary school, this video will give you a glimpse both inside and out:

Click the picture to watch ‘Release the Imagination’

Our sincere thanks go to Executive Headteacher James Biddulph, arts team lead Harriet Lang and to all of the Year 4, 5 and 6 students who gave us their insights on their creative education at our focus groups.

West Jesmond: ‘Here we are free’

West Jesmond is a vibrant arts-rich primary in Newcastle upon Tyne. During our visit in Jun where we interviewed staff and students and had an arts-focussed guided tour, we learned about the many creative arts-based activities taking place there. 

We also learned that the school has a long history of arts-richness. There has been a school on this site since the days of Queen Victoria. The existing school was built in 2009. It is now part of the charitable Ouseburn Learning Trust. West Jesmond has over 600 students, over 50% of whom have English as an Additional Language. 

We saw artworks that focussed on the local community. KS2 students had produced these large and colourful ‘Our Jesmond’ canvasses, all signed by the students:

KS1 had mapped their school grounds and the local area to tell ‘The Story of Jesmond’:

Now in his second year as Art curriculum lead, Glen Hopkins told us about his mission to foster individual expression and creativity, and to get children to consider themselves as artists. Glen also talked about how he has expanded the use of sketchbooks to Years 1 and 2 with an aim ‘to make them as realistic to what an actual artist sketchbook would look like … personal and lived in.’ There was a renewed focus on process rather than outcome. 

Glen also spoke about how he and the students work closely with the outreach programme at the BALTIC, a contemporary art gallery space on the Tyne. He takes inspiration from Access Arts and the school’s membership of Culture Bridge North East. West Jesmond is also partnered with Scottish Opera who work in intensive sessions with the students and staff to pull together productions in a single day. 

The KS2 choir has around 50 members. They had three performances in June which included pop up events around the city. Student artwork fills some big bords at the Jesmond Metro Centre.

Every class this year has visited the four-story Hatton Gallery which is based at the university. Year 5s were preparing for a trip to the final year art degree show that week. Students also visit the Laing Art Gallery in the city centre and participate in workshops there.

Within the school, there were two arts projects that caught our attention. Firstly, the whole-school ‘Take One Book’ project dominated the display boards around the school. The book was The Dam which had provoked a range of responses in different media. Some included a combination of creative writing and art. 

In another major display, Year 6 students had been using art to explore the conflict in Syria and been inspired by the work of Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul. The students told us how they had learned that art can be about ‘struggles and challenges’ and how art can have many deeper meanings.

They had also created art works on the subject of the shipbuilding industry in Jarrow. They told us how they had learned about workers’ rights and how women were not included in the industry.

We saw a drawing project inspired by the work of Michael Volpicelli which included interesting use of tones and shading created through the use of written text.

There were also these movement drawings based on the work of Ben Shahn:

Other contributions to the wide range of media and techniques included spoon-based art for World Book Day, artistic chairs as part of a Great Exhibition of the North project and plasticine flowers.

Finally, a large papier mache dragon sculpture hangs over the reception area. This dynamic and flaming collaborative art project keeps everyone at their creative best!

Papier mache dragon

Many thanks to Art curriculum lead Glen Hopkins, deputy head Tom Jones, and to the Year 4, 5 and 6 students and the two art groups to whom we spoke.

Here we are free

You may also be interested in reading our recently-published Art, Craft and Design Rapid Evidence Review – a survey of published scholarly literature on art, craft and design in education.

Bourne Westfield: Helping children ‘find their thing’ through Bollywood dancing, haute couture and bucket drumming

We visited Bourne Westfield, an Arts Mark Platinum school in the small historical market town of Bourne, Linconshire, during their Art Week. 

Needless to say, it was a lively colourful day with an abundance of visual arts, music and performing arts.

This year, the Art Week had a geography theme – specifically India. Staff were wearing saris. The students were getting excited about dressing in bright clothes and throwing coloured powder over each other.

Two dancers were visiting to train each year group on a Bollywood dance. The following day, the students combined to perform a coordinated dance in front of the parents, who were also there to enjoy the many other arts activities. The students had also participated in beatboxing workshops and Maypole dancing during Arts Week.

The school is linked to the Sajoni school in India. Three staff visited Bourne from India for three weeks before Covid. From our interviews with students and staff, we learned about the nature and value of this partnership. As well as being exposed to the Indian regional artwork that was gifted to the school, Bourne Westfield children and staff were taught Tamil and had yoga workshops. Year 6 teacher and oracy lead Katie Knott describes it as ‘such a spiritual time. They bought such calm and wisdom into school’. A return visit to India fell foul of Covid restrictions. However, the students told us how they meet with the Sajoni students on Teams, and exchange bits of school uniform, art works and other items.

Students across the school had produced a range of art works for the week including these kites, elephants and tie-dye t-shirts:

Year 5 had created dresses out of recycled items (crisp packets, newspaper, bottle tops, etc). The project was inspired by a study of local history, cultural and creative heritage, and the fact that ‘godfather of haute couture’ Charles Worth was born at Wake house in Bourne. 

The extensive planning work and sketches were also on display, evidence of an extended project that looked at the fashion industry and Bourne’s influential role in it.

Also on display during Art Week was this large quilt inspired by Charles Worth’s famous peacock dress. Each student had made a felt piece which had been sewn together:

We learned how Bourne Westfield has been arts rich (and specifically music rich) for many years. 

We met members of the school’s Rock Band. Music lead and Arts supervisor Becky Beavis (Degree in Music; background as an orchestral musician) told us how, a few years ago, she instigated the project to inspire some Year 6 boys who were struggling in other subjects but showed an interest in music.

For those boys’, Becky explained, ‘it was a cool thing that they wanted to do. It gave them a positive image.’ Over time, Becky worked with the boys to build their instrumental skills (drums, bass, guitars) and repertoire. Commitment to lunchtime rehearsals was insisted upon. The Band then started to perform in community settings. 

Becky talked about the transformation she saw in the boys: 

These boys were a group who were really struggling to engage with school on every level and desperately needed something to give them an identity and some self-belief. The first time I put them on a big stage, they were terrified. To see them in that position of vulnerability was quite a moment for them. But they came off the stage saying, “Can we do it again?”. And they loved it and that became their identity in school.’

When we asked a Year 6 focus group to tell us about some of the creative things that they do at school, the Rock Band was the first thing they mentioned. They mentioned that the band had performed alongside bands from other schools at the Old Town hall two days before. We spoke directly to the (now mixed-gender) six-piece Rock Band who told us about their specially designed jackets and how they have performed alongside secondary school students at external gigs. Other students attested to the band’s popularity around the school – ‘Everybody really likes them. They will listen to them, and they will sing loads of their songs.’

As well as the Rock Band, Bourne Westfield also has clubs for the Young Voices choir who had performed at Sheffield Arena, and Bucket Drumming which had been developed as an ingenious wipe-clean Covid-defying way to make music and teach rhythm. Years 3 and 4 had recently switched from recorder to ukuleles for the same reason. Members of the Bucket Drumming club told us about the three sizes of drum (soprano, alto and bass), performing ‘Seven Nation Army’ alongside the Rock Band to 100 people in a secondary school in Boston, and how physical it is (‘it really hurts your arms!)’. One of the players told us that they had broken their bin during an out-of-school performance and had valiantly kept on playing!

Assistant head teacher Gillian Goodwin also talked about the transformational power of the arts:

‘We’ve seen it work for lots of different children’ she explained. ‘I’ve just gone down to see a little girl who has major neurological difficulties and has just spent the whole week doing Bollywood dancing. She’s just in her element!’. 

Like Becky’s Rock Band lads, Gillian explained how this girl had ‘found her thing’.

Finally, Becky talked us through the many partners with which the school works – the Lincolnshire Music ServiceShakespeare for Schools, the Royal Opera HouseMusic for Youth and the Mighty Creatives – and explained the importance of these to Bourne Westfield:  

‘The world is bigger than just here. And that’s so important particularly when you’re a rural school. I don’t want these children’s minds, cultural visions, creative aptitude and passion to be limited by the opportunities within the area that they live in. So it’s really important that they learn that what we do links to a wider thing.’

Long may Bourne Westfield reach out, connect and inspire through the arts!

RAPS would like to thank Music lead and Arts supervisor Becky Beavis for her time, insights and organisation of the day; Assistant head teacher Gillian Goodwin; Year 6 and oracy lead Katie Knott; and all of the many students who contributed to our focus group interviews – the Arts Ambassadors, the members of the Young Voices choir, the Rock Band and the Bucket Drumming club, and the students from Years 4, 5 and 6.

You may also be interested in reading our Art, Craft and Design Rapid Evidence Review – a survey of published scholarly literature on art, craft and design in education.

Beecroft Garden: On a voyage of arts-richness 

We visited Beecroft Garden on a special day – their end of year Arts Exhibition where parents and invited guests could sample the school’s curated creativity. The exhibition was themed around ‘Take One Picture’ – every artwork was produced as a response to Claude-Joseph Vernet’s A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas (1773):

Firstly, let us guide you through this impressive range of paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations, a flood of media, techniques, approaches and ideas.

Reception students has produced these huge gestural drawings – expressive waves and foamy patterns that filled a large portion of one wall:

Reception had also created these ‘Baby Waves’ out of silver acrylic paint, clay, wire, plaster of Paris and … (wait for it) … silver leaf!

Year 1 were exhibiting these ships on a stormy sea. They had worked on creating a 3D effect in the waves and used cut-up and college to place them on their backgrounds with the ships:

Year 2 had looked closely (very closely!) at tentacles. Inspired by the story of the Kraken, they had created observational sketches before they chose and blended colours. Can you spot the messages in bottles?

Year 2 had also been busy creating this ‘Colossal Octopus’ out of wire, newspaper, Modroc and bottle tops. The felt fishes swimming by were made by Year 1 students.

These Year 3 pieces inspired by the work of Kehinde Wiley blend ‘the old and the new’. They used watercolour and a glaze before framing their seascapes using embossed copper corners.

Year 4 had made these clay coral pieces while learning about how climate warming is bleaching and destroying coral in the sea. The pieces were glazed and fired in the school’s kiln:

Again, on the theme of the environment, Year 4 had collected plastic waste to create this ‘Plastic Ocean’. They had fused the plastic bags and netting together using a hot iron and baking paper. 

Those busy Year 4s had also created the Pop Art signs that hung above our heads. They had been inspired by the soundtrack of the shipwreck ‘Take One Picture’ that had been composed by the National Gallery.

Meanwhile, Year 5 students had worked in groups to create these wall-length waves. They built up the layers using graphite, acrylics, oil pastels and, what appeared to be a Beecroft Garden favourite, Brusho!

Also on display were these Year 5 ‘fast fashion’ dresses made for a DT project out of fused plastic and a mix of recycled and natural materials.

Next to the dresses was this card and plaster Pride anchor inspired by Year 6’s involvement with Pride Celebrations and marches:

Elsewhere were these large lighthouses with rotating lights:

… and animations that captured the feeling of being in a stormy sea:

Our tour of the exhibition ended with this large boat hanging upside-down from the ceiling:

A series of poems were stuck to the inside of the boat:

Underneath lay a pile of small boats, symbolically sunk to the bottom of the sea on one of the many perilous daily trips across the English Channel by refugees, many of them children, just like those who had created this moving and conceptual artwork. 

During this busy event, we got to speak with a group of Year 6 students who talked us through their artworks and how they valued the arts at Beecroft Garden. On the walls surrounding our interview table were these self-portraits inspired by the work of Tamara Natalie. The students talked us through the process of creation (it involves photography and gold leaf). 

Many of them identified these pieces as their favourite and most memorable primary school artworks. They told us how they had already made space on a wall at home and how, with this piece in particular, they could express themselves. ‘It just feels like your own’, one of them explained: ‘It feels like it belongs to you’.

They also talked excitedly (‘You can be free. You can do whatever you want. There’s no restrictions!’) about the abstract work they had created inspired by the work of Frank Bowling.

They also enthused about the street art projects they had done after studying the work of Mr DoodleArt Mongers and making the most of the school’s links with Louis Masai and Lionel Stanhope.

Finally, we spoke with Arts specialist teacher Dilys Finlay (Fine Arts Degree from Goldsmiths) and Head teacher Graham Voller (Art Degree from Camberwell College. Art Specialism from Goldsmiths). Both are practicing artists.

They told us about how the school had been in special measures (It was called Brockley Primary at the time). Glenys Ingham was appointed as Head, Dilys as a supply teacher in Reception in 2009, and Graham as Deputy Head in 2010. Glenys underpinned the curriculum with accessible arts education for all children. When Glenys retired, Graham became Head and continued to make the arts and creativity central to the ethos and development of the school.

On the subject of their success as a flourishing arts-rich primary school with limited resources, Dilys told us that:

it starts off feeling really expensive, but if you got the right people there and the vision, the money makes itself. If you’ve got the right provision, you can sell the stuff and attract funding. You become an interesting entity and everyone wants to go to your school.’

Graham mentioned how parents are now queuing up to get their children into Beecroft Garden. ‘What parents want for their children’, he told us, ‘is for them to be happy and creative and think outside the box.’

On the subject of the many cultural and creative partnerships and visiting artists, Graham explained that: 

‘you have to make sure that you’ve got the rest of your community involved in what’s going on, which is why it’s so, so important for us to invite people in. You can’t be in a bubble and do this because you want your children to feel that they’re creating something that’s got longevity and an audience.’

Dilys stressed that ‘We always try and choose people who reflect the diversity of the children here’. She also raised the idea of fostering children’s life-long engagement with the arts: 

We need to have artists coming into schools because children need to see outside people making a living. This is a career opportunity. It’s a role model.’

Graham agreed: 

‘We live in London. The creative arts in London are massive. If you break down the economy of London, visual Arts, performing arts and cultural events make up a massive, massive part of the income of this city. Chances are the children are going to have some kind of role in the creative industry, so what better way than to kind of like start them off than with creativity?’

What better way indeed.

Our sincere thanks go to Arts specialist lead Dilys Finlay for inviting us to this special event, to Head teacher Graham Voller for his insights into heading up an arts-rich primary, to HLTAs Stacey and Sebastian, and to the Year 6 students for sharing their enthusiasm for the arts and the guided tour of the school.

You may also be interested in reading our recently-published Art, Craft and Design Rapid Evidence Review – a survey of published scholarly literature on art, craft and design in education.

Hotspur: Where the arts and creativity flow like the Ouseburn through Heaton

At RAPS, we have become experts at assessing arts-rich schools from the outside. Even before we step into the reception area, we pick up clues about how the school values the arts, creativity and wellbeing, how it welcomes students, parents and staff onto the site, and how it uses art to interact with families and the local community.

With that in mind …

Every street that surrounds Hotspur Primary has been ‘traffic calmed’ during school hours. No driving is allowed. Parents and students walk, cycle or park their cars further away. We were told that Hotspur are the first school in the country where this has happened. Located in the middle of the Shieldfield estate in Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, this is quite an achievement. Our visit (we cycled in!) coincided with visits from the BBC and the local press. SusTrans were fixing bikes and promoting cycling to school.

Facing the traffic-free streets, the outside fence was a long colourful art gallery created by students during lockdown:

The main school building nestles in trees and greenery – perfect for keeping cool on hot days. This dedication to nature and the outdoors extends to the school grounds and to the huge playing field and woods, the Forest School area, the sensory and flower gardens, the recycled greenhouse and the pond. 

There is also an outdoor classroom and beautifully designed areas in which to relaxed, be inspired and learn in creative and artistic ways. The students told us about an annual outdoor project where they don’t use their regular classroom for a week. 

Hotspur is well situated for cultural trips. The city centre is just 20 minutes’ walk away. The students and arts lead Jack Gardner talked about visits to the Laing Gallery and the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University. The Sage is also walkable. 

Heaton itself has a reputation as a creative and artistic district while nearby Ouseburn has a host of arts studios and venues with which the school collaborates.

As we discovered, Hotspur have many cultural partners, something we are finding is characteristic of our art-rich primary schools. For six years, the school has participated in the Shakespeare Schools Festival creating performances with and at Northern Stage (‘the largest producing theatre company in the North East of England).

While we were there, Jack (his background is in Drama) was working with students on The Tempest, both in school hours and in an after-school club. All of the children in Year 5 and half of Year 6 were involved in some way as performers. This year, the Shakespeare Schools Festival takes place in the People’s Theatre which has a 111-year history as a non-professional community theatre. George Bernard Shaw once performed there! Five schools in the charitable Ouseburn Learning Trust will perform alongside a a local contemporary dance group. 

In fact, all three of the staff we interviewed had strong professional backgrounds in the performing arts (another pointer to the school’s arts-richness). Head teacher Kevin McVittie toured the world in Riverdance and has performed at Madison Square Gardens. Kevin talked about nurturing the students with a rounded opportunity-rich curriculum ‘to help them discover their spark’ something Kevin says he found in dancing. He explained how:

They get to experience a holistic curriculum and they get to be firmly steeped in values and beliefs that are ethically strong. I would say that our children leave Hotspur being able to look at the world with the eyes of an individual and able to interact with the world with compassion and empathy. And be someone that’s looking to have a voice in the world and be able to share that.

The students told us how Kevin had surprised them with a performance in the Hall. Hotspur has installed this long mirror and a sprung floor for dance lessons.

Music lead Joe Johnston was a full-time musician. He moved into working with music in theatres and venues including the Sage, leading choirs and teaching music in schools and other settings to children and older adults. Joe talked about his use of Kodaly, talked us through his rainbow stave and showed us the range of instruments played by Hotspur students:

We were told that the previous Head was a musician and was especially keen on singing.  We discovered that Hotspur take their singing very seriously. They have achieved a Platinum Sing Up award ‘for their singing activity and ability to inspire their communities through singing’.The choir has sung at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Sage and at Newcastle City Hall where they sang with the other schools in the Ouseburn Trust. 

Apart from the fence gallery, we saw other visual art – 3D paper sculptures, a long textile map of the river Ouseburn and its buildings, and this quilted rainbow ‘No Outsiders’ handprint wall hanging.

The school had also taken part in the ‘Take One Object’ project with the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle University and two other local primary schools including RAPS school West Jesmond. Students had worked with two objects from the collection for two weeks to produce creative writing and art. The project involved families and visits to the other schools. You can see the results here.

Finally, the students talked excitedly about the BALTIC ‘art-in-a-bus’ travelling gallery that drives around local schools. 

The BALTIC art bus

Its current project is ‘What’s for Tea?’ – food themed art! The students told us that when the bus came to Hotspur, they had made art out of sour dough. They talked about pieces made of shells that were made to look like meat and explained that the work was about fake meat and the ‘cardboard’ that makes its way into the burgers made by fast-food restaurants.

Subsequently, the bus had visited the local housing estates where the students could talk expertly to their parents and families about the art displays on the bus, what they had created and make new intergenerational art.

On a hot day, it was wonderful to be in this creative, calming, car-free environment and learn all about how the arts can inspire children, their families and their communities. 

Many thanks to Arts lead Jack Gardner for arranging our visit, showing us around and giving us insight into Hotspur’s art-rich offer. Our thanks also go to Head teacher Kevin McVittie, Music lead Joe Johnston and to the Year 5 and 6 students and Arts Ambassadors for their perspective on all things creative and artistic.

You may also be interested in reading our recently-published Art, Craft and Design Rapid Evidence Review – a survey of published scholarly literature on art, craft and design in education.

New Bewerley Community School: A whirl of Arts and Music

New Bewerley Community School from the air

The whirling snail-shell design of the New Bewerley Community School building perfectly reflects the school’s dynamic and ever-evolving (and long-standing) arts-richness. The arial photo above also shows the sharp edge that represents the focus and purpose that drives the arts curriculum in this Beeston, south Leeds school. A side view of this innovative building would show that the wall-length windows in the classrooms let the light flood in. The school values are ‘Include. Create. Perform.’

We had the privilege of speaking with Headteacher Gary German (Art and Education degree), Arts Lead Paige Hurley (Theatre in Performance and Theatre in Education degree) and In Harmony/Opera North resident music and singing lead Elena Camblor Gonzalez. Between them we learned that, while maintaining their strong visual arts provision, the school is focussing on expanding their performing arts offer. From our focus group interviews with students, we learned all about the many creative and artistic projects taking place.

New Bewerley are one of five schools in South Leeds that are part of the In Harmony programme funded by Opera North to deliver first class music tuition to children who may not normally be able to access that type of cultural capital. They have been involved for six years. Headteacher Gary told us how the programme is not only a way to provide expert tuition for the children but also to up-skill staff. He described how ‘it took hold of the school. We have shaped our ethos and culture around it and have grown into a performance arts-focused school.

In Harmony display board

We spoke with resident In Harmony music lead Elena about her work. Students from Years One to Six have a choir session with Elena every week. She pointed out that, with at least 50 languages being spoken at the school by students and staff from many countries, ‘singing is a great way to includes everyone and make them understand the cultures of other people, and that singing is part of their daily lives.’ We saw Elena rehearsing a group of students on a complex operatic choral piece with actions.

The rehearsal took place in the dome centre of this snail building:

Domed roof of the main hall

We learned how students build their musicianship using the Kodály method which involves lots of singing. Years Three and Four learn stringed instruments, either the violin, viola or cello. At Year Five, they can choose to change to woodwind or brass. The big music room (‘the studio’) is full of these instruments. 

Instruments in cupboards

The older students can take theirs home; they learn how to look after and respect their instruments. We enjoyed seeing them arriving at school with cellos on their backs! When asked about the impact of the In Harmony sessions on the parents and family members, Elena told us that: 

‘Music is very powerful tool in the sense that it doesn’t only include the person who’s doing music, but it makes everyone around that person be involved and touched by music.’

As well as the substantial music provision, New Bewerley are also partnered with Northern Ballet, Leeds Playhouse and theatre company Wrongsemble

Leeds Playhouse and theatre company Wrongsemble. The companies spot talented children and invite them to workshops at weekend in order to further develop their skills. Gary spoke about his mission to instil skills in his students that could help them go further in performing arts in their future schools, universities and careers.

Speaking from a leadership perspective, Gary pointed out that ‘if we are investing in music, drama, dance and art, then that becomes the curriculum. It’s not an add-on. It’s not something we squeeze in and drop something else. We have to make sure that those opportunities are woven into our long term and medium-term plans, that they’re done properly, and that nothing else is sacrificed at their expense.’

Arts lead Paige guided us around the school’s arts displays and spaces. We were impressed by the focus on ceramics (note the kiln below). 

She guided us through the spiral curriculum where students build skills in specific media through regular revisits. For example, we learned how students make pinch pots in Year One and Two by drawing them out before adding detail with oil pastels. 

In Year Three they create a watercolour wash again adding oil pastels. By Year Four they make clay Saxon cups, scratching in their designs before applying the glaze before the go in the kiln.

Year 6 students had made these multi-media final pieces, representing London during the Blitz. They used clay tiles, oil pastels and pen. 

Year 5 students had created Anglo-Saxon broaches using clay slips, adding extra textures and embellishments before incorporating textiles in the form of weaving and sewing.

Students have also made these clay Remembrance Day poppies:

Year 3 had worked with artists Skippko on a six-week series of ceramic and multi-media Science-themed projects. Entitled ‘How does your garden grow?’, the work incorporated photography, flowers imprinted into clay, and creating and decorating clay pots with images of still life plants.

The school were also partnered with The Tetley Contemporary Art gallery in Leeds for which New Bewerley were a flagship school. Through The Tetley, Year Four had been investigating Ghanaian art, language and symbols.

The students’ sketchbooks were full of vibrant drawings and paintings, including these artworks produced after studying Jean-Michel Basquiat during Black History Month. In these activities, the students have used their reading skills of retrieval, interpretation and commenting on the creator’s choice to understand a variety of media. 

New Bewerley are working towards their Cultural Cohesion Quality Mark:

Students had created art and creating writing on the subject of inclusion with reference to murdered local MP Jo Cox:

Finally, Paige had recently created an arts ‘dictionary’ so that teachers and children can look up an arts-based word with which they are unfamiliar. Not only does it give students the vocabulary for critically engaging with the paintings, sculptures and other artworks, but it contains knowledge about art forms, artists and key ideas.

There is a clear journey to success that the arts-based curriculum takes us on’, Paige told us.

Many thanks to the students of New Bewerley and to Headteacher Gary German, Arts Lead Paige Hurley and In Harmony/Opera North resident music lead Elena for speaking with us.

You may also be interested in reading our recently-published Art, Craft and Design Rapid Evidence Review – a survey of published scholarly literature on art, craft and design in education.