School 21: Community, Openness and Humanity in Primary Arts

Arts-rich primary schools come in many shapes and sizes. The forty schools on our list were chosen to reflect this diversity. As well as ensuring a spread across the country that takes in urban, suburban, seaside, and rural schools, we deliberately selected different types of primary school.

School 21 is an all-through 4-to-18 years, three-form entry Free school in Stratford, East London. For them, Primary is Reception to Year 4. With Primary, Middle and Sixth form all in the same building, spaces and resources for their Primary arts are often shared with the older students. For example, Primary children had access to some of these amazing music spaces and resources.

Our guided tour was led by Primary Arts Lead Simon Santhanam. Simon is a trained Primary teacher with a specialism in art. We observed Simon teaching a class in the school’s large, light and open art room.

We got a good sense of School 21’s progressive approach to the arts from the art works displayed on the walls and shelves of the art room. Most noticeable were the giant papier-mâché heads of world leaders and political figures. There were also some posters and banners, all part of a project around politics and activism, a ‘The Queen is Dead’ multi-media work, and students’ models for playground ideas.

The school’s commitments to linking the arts to political and social issues was evident in the extensive work we saw around Black Lives Matter, refugees, LGBTQ+ and other issues. 

For example, in the corridors, there were two large Keith Haring-inspired murals in which each figure was based on a posed student. As part of the project, Year 3 students learned about Keith’s life, his work, and his death from Aids.

There were also a range of large, framed artworks of the school’s ‘Diversity Champions’. These two of Harvey Milk and Temple Grandin caught our eye.

Simon and Primary Head Meg Drummond told us about how diversity was central to the way that School 21 valued the arts. Students are encouraged to find their own individual style without worrying about ideas of perfection or getting it wrong. Simon explained: ‘I really want children to feel confident in their art making and to be able to express themselves’. 

The idea of self-expression is hard wired into the school’s ‘head, hand and heart’ ethos via their project-based curriculum. Meg and Simon told us how this approach fostered a thoughtful critical approach and knowledge of arts theories (head), stimulated emotions, expression and wellbeing (heart) and built technical skills in the use of various media (hand). 

The school has specialist arts teachers as well as visits by practicing professionals and ‘passionate parents’. The Primary students also make good use of their local area. The Olympic Park is very close, as are the canals that run through this area. Students had recently visited both sites to look at ecosystems, wildlife and nature.

School 21 has strong links with the nearby Discover Children’s Story Centre, an immersive space for narrative work and storytelling.

Simon, Meg and the students told us about their visits to the Science Museum (11 miles away), the Sea Life Centre (8 miles), Mud Shoot Farm (5 miles), and Tate Modern (6 miles away). With such cultural riches nearby (all are between five and eleven miles away), we learned how these trips are sometimes the first time some students have ever been on an underground train.

One of the school’s visits to the Tate was part of a project by high-profile artist Steve McQueen to photograph every Year 3 class in London. Not only were the photographs displayed at the school, but students and staff got to visit the resulting exhibition at the Tate.

We also learned about arts projects and regular exhibitions that brought parents, carers and families into the school to view their children’s work. The annual Big Draw festival and other arts workshops involve parents working alongside their children on collaborative art works.

This long exhibition of self-portrait plates on the outside fence was the product of a parent-child after-school session. Some students told us that this was one of the highlights of their school experience. As a fun and colourful display, the plates are artistic representation of the high levels of diversity at School 21.

Meg and Simon repeatedly mentioned how much they valued the role of the arts in the wellbeing of their students. Simon is training as an arts therapist. He spoke of wanting to develop this role within the school, carving out a space to work with students one-to-one and in groups. He was already helping other staff to integrate therapeutic methods into their arts teaching. Simon mentioned how such an approach helps students deal with ‘difficult lives’ and trauma.

The older Primary students told us how they had participated in arts projects around issues that were important to them and their communities. These included deforestation of the rain forests and gun crime. Simon told us how a therapeutic approach is about ‘being able to understand yourself and being able to move forward in life … about being able to be truly free and imaginative, and really focusing on the process rather than the end product’.

As an Ofsted rated Outstanding school, School 21 is now part of a growing network of pioneering, progressive schools rooted in the arts and in community. We also paid a quick visit to the nearby School 360 and learned about how oracy, play and outdoor learning are at the heart of their pedagogy.

We wish them all the very best in their important work.

We would like to thank Arts Lead Simon Santhanam for being our host and guide. Our thanks also go to Primary Head Meg Drummond and to all the students who took the time to share their thoughts about the arts 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.

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