Newlyn: The opportunities and challenges of a seafront Cornish arts-rich primary school

Newlyn is a small fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, just over a mile west of Penzance. The school of 120 students sits just up the hill from the seafront. Even on a misty morning, you can see St Michael’s Mount from the library’s big bay window.

And while Newlyn Primary school is on the same street as a long-established and prestigious contemporary art gallery, in the same village as three private commercial art galleries, and a short mini-bus drive from places of arts and culture, Newlyn is an area of high poverty. Head teacher Isabel Stephens told us that ‘50% of our children come from an estate which is in the bottom 10% economically in Europe. 43% of the children are on free school meals.’

Four years into her role, Isabel talked about the substantial changes she had made to the curriculum in order to rebrand the school around the arts and encourage parents (and staff) to apply. In fact, the arts which now drive ‘everything’. Students study a diverse range of artists, while focussing on skills progression and conceptual understanding.

For example, the students spoke of their recent visit to a workshop by ex-Brixton resident Denzil Forrester, as part of Black Voices of Cornwall’s Captured Beauty exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange. Denzil’s large canvas in the gallery was of a reggae sound-system event, full of dancers and DJs. 

Dezil Forrester

Denzil told the children how he used to sketch in the semi-darkness of the dancehalls, capturing the dynamic free-flowing movements of the dancers. The students were excited about the workshop and their own ‘gestural drawings’, sometimes created with charcoals and pencils in each hand. 

The students also talked about their visits to the dramatic cliff-top open-air Minack Theatre to watch plays and musicals and to perform themselves. We learned how Year 5 were putting the finishing touches on their performance of a scene from The Tempest in collaboration with other local schools.

Minack Theatre

We were excited to discover that Newlyn Primary has its own art gallery. A diverse range of paintings, collages and sculptures are currently on loan from Newlyn Art Gallery and Cornwall Council as part of the Think, Talk, Make Art project funded by Arts Council England, the first time such art works have been allowed into a school. These include a large canvas by local (St Ives) artist/sculptor Barbara Hepworth

The school established links with Newlyn Art Gallery to facilitate the selection of the pieces and make plans for the children to act as curators and guides once the art works had been re-installed in their original home (still delayed by Covid). The scheme has been extended by a successful application for Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development funding to get artists from Newlyn Art Gallery to work with teachers.

Isabel talked about being ‘properly terrified’ at the monetary value of the art works; one child said ‘I can’t believe that Newlyn school children are allowed something like this’. Once again, we had to remind ourselves that we were in a primary school, not a contemporary art gallery. 

Isabel described the impact of the gallery as ‘absolutely huge’:

All of the work I was doing on behaviour and respecting others could be reinforced by the fact that they had the gallery’ she explained. ‘The children were trusted with something and their behaviour towards it has always been totally respectful’.

She also talked about a rise in the students’ self-esteem and their vocabulary and language from guiding visitors (like us) around the art works and offering their commentary.

Like many other schools, Newlyn are rebuilding their strong music and performing arts provision after Covid. Cornwall schools were hit later than other regions, but just as hard, due to their geographical isolation.

The students’ art works on the walls and in their sketchbooks matched the vibrancy, diversity and impact of those in the loaned gallery:

The students talked to us about doing arts projects around the local culture and locations – tin mining, fishing, Saint Michael’s Mount, dragons and legends. They also described printing onto paper with actual fish! They were also excited at being involved in the upcoming Golowan festival parade.

‘I think you’ve got to be quite brave to focus on art’ Isabel explained.

Rest assured that the ‘brave new world’ promised in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is taking shape in the form of this fascinating arts-rich primary school.

Many thanks to Head Teacher Isabel Stephens, Art Coordinator and Year 4 teacher Rebecca Rollason, teacher Julie Wood, TA Rowena Baldwin and the Year 4 and 5 students we spoke with on the day.

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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