Senior Research Fellow in the School of Education, Uni of Nottm with Prof Pat Thomson on the Researching Arts in Primary Schools (RAPS) project looking at arts-rich schools in England.
Research interests include arts education, and issues of pedagogy in music and media made for children and families.
Extensive experience as a Lecturer in Popular Music, media and culture at a various universities and FE colleges.
His book 'Spinning the Child: Musical Constructions of Childhood through Records, Radio and Television' (Routledge 2020) looks at how recorded music contributes to constructions of childhood in specific socio-historical settings.
He performs music for children and families with his band Johnny and the Raindrops.
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:
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 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 arenewed 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 Gallerywhich is basedat 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!
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.
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’.
‘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.
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.
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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
The whirling snail-shell design of the New Bewerley Community Schoolbuildingperfectly 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 away 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.’
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:
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.
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.’
Leeds Playhouseand 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.
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.
Our visit to Springfield Juniors in Ipswich corresponded with their festival for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. All day, the school was buzzing with parents and family members.
Musical theatre performances and choirs performed in the main Hall and also in the cool performance space (pictured above) that links the two main buildings. In other rooms, parents visited exhibitions of students’ arts and craft and soaked up the creativity that flows through this arts-rich school.
Up until this point in our visits, we had only heard about schools’ preparations for the big event. Today was the real thing! But as every teacher knows, and as Head teacher Louise Everitt explained, the performances and colourful displays of Queen-themed hats, cakes (being sold to raise funds) and other art works are ‘a combination of many weeks of work and planning’.
Louise told us that ‘it’s great to have parents coming back into see exactly what we’re doing’ and how the event was an opportunity to share the students’ learning and promote conversations at home. The school also has regular Tea Afternoons where parents can learn about what their children are learning and gain some skills alongside them.
Some background: Springfield Juniors (344 students in Years 3 to 6) is a Rights Respecting school on a terraced street one mile outside of Ipswich town centre. While the school has a long tradition of arts and creativity, and still retains a strong commitment to the visual arts, there has been a recent shift of emphasis towards the performing arts.
We spoke with Assistant Head and Arts and Culture lead Beth Taylor (they also have specialist teachers for Music and Art). She described how her recent year-long training on the Leaders for Impact course with the Royal Opera House Bridge had reenergised her commitment to arts education. With only 12 to 16 places offered each year and a rigorous application and interview process, Beth enthused about the power of being immersed in workshops, sessions and networks of ‘like-minded amazing people’ who advocate for arts and cultural educational.
‘I was passionate before,’ she told us, ‘but now feel like facilitating a cultural and creative education is my calling.’ Beth has now set up an Arts and Culture Network for leaders and teachers in local schools.
Clearly, Beth’s commitment to the arts and culture was contagious. Year 5 and 6 students talked enthusiastically about visits to and performances in Snape Maltings, a concert hall in a rural area about 20 miles from the school.
They had also made ‘jewellery for giants’ out of ModRoc. These massive rings and trinkets could be found all around the school:
Annually, Year 6 students work with the Young People’s Puppet Theatre (YPPT). The students told us how they had created their own knee-high puppet from a wooden kit. They had then chosen and made the clothes, created the hair, and painted the faces and hands. They told us how they had begun creating and decorating the sizable backdrops for the staging area, all the while learning how to operate the puppets and create scenes and stories.
Since our visit, Beth sent us some of the feedback from parents and students about the puppet performances:
‘YPPT helped me realise that just because we are young, it doesn’t mean we can’t do hard work. We can do anything we want now and in the future.’
‘What a fantastic opportunity for all the children. My son said it has been the highlight of his school experience so far.’
Read more feedback on this innovative project here (parents) and here (students).
Each of the other year groups has a half-term, timetabled project with an outside organisation or artist in addition to their regular arts provision. Year 5 work with the Shakespeare Schools Foundation/The New Wolsey Theatre (An Ipswich theatre); Year 4 with African drum-makers Wooden Roots and Year 3 with dance artist Sam Moss.
The rest of the year is punctuated with additional opportunities as and when they arise. These include working with performance poet, author and script writer Murray Lachlan Young, local illustrator and muralist Catalina Carvajal and local author Fred Sedgwick as well as trips to the local libraries and museums.
Beth told us how the intention is to allow children to absorb as many cultural and creative experiences as possible so they are able to form opinions, a sense of self and learn transferable life skills.
We spoke with the Arts Ambassadors. They told us how they are involved in planning and shaping the arts curriculum. Their opinions, suggestions and ‘voice’ feed into a cycle of learning. Each cycle has to start with a ‘Wow’ moment – usually a trip or visit from an artist – and end with a product, performance or exhibition. Their planning documents were attached to their own dedicated Arts Ambassadors board:
The arts here are embedded into all subjects. It is the ‘golden thread’ that runs through everything. The students’ skills, talent and creativity were on show on the busy walls, filled with a wide range of media, and in their sketchbooks.
The Battle of Hastings was represented in these long 3D murals and as a comic strip:
Soil erosion had been investigated through dance:
We also learned about the ‘creative careers assemblies’ where students get to interview a range of professionals from creative industries. Beth told us how she was keen to ensure that ‘what we’re doing in school reflects the culture of our society and increases the cultural capital of the children in terms of experience and opportunity.’
We asked about how the school’s arts and culture impact on the local community. Beth explained how ‘some of the parents didn’t get the opportunities that were providing for their children. Every child in this building impacts a myriad of people because we’re talking about some really large families and communities in this area.’
She went on to describe how the school are ‘doing the same for the parents as we’re doing for the children. It is all vicariously through them.’
With the feast of arts on offer on this special day, it was lovely to see parents and family members fascinated, amused and sometimes moved to tears by the children’s creativity.
We would like to thank Assistant Head and Arts and Culture Lead Bethany Taylor for organising our day and sharing her thoughts and experiences, Headteacher Louise Everitt, and the selection of Year 4, 5 and 6 students, and members of extra-curricular clubs that we spoke with.
Here at RAPS, we are not only interested in what goes on in our 40 arts-rich primary schools. We are also keen to find out how each school became artistic and the reasons why they started to pursue a creative pedagogy. And while some of our schools have been arts-rich for as long as any of the existing staff can remember, Wix and Wrabness is an excellent example of how vision, purpose and inspiration can transform a school – its students, staff and the wider community.
Wix and Wrabness, a school of 117 students is sited in the small rural village of Wix in Tendring, Essex about 15 miles east of Colchester. The mixed demographic of students come from Wix, Wrabness, Clacton-on-Sea and other areas of high deprivation including Harwich.
We spoke with Head teacher James Newell and Deputy Head and Arts Lead Vanessa Lindsay about the school’s journey. Both had worked previously at Two Village Church of England Primary for several years in different roles. It was there that they developed what became the Garden of Curiosities which they describe as ‘a really creative space’ in which artists from all over the country would come to work with the students.
James took up the Headship at Wix and Wrabness six years ago. He was soon joined by Vanessa as Deputy Head and Arts and Culture lead. James’ first goal was to create a curriculum that was driven through the arts. ‘When you’re trying to make a big change like that, you need more than one person to do it’ James acknowledged.
James’ and Vanessa’s senior leadership roleshave allowed them to take their creative arts-rich child-led (‘going out and exploring rather than being told what to learn’: James) vision to new heights.
‘That’s been the beauty here’, Vanessa explained: ‘We’re both leadership and we’re absolutely driven with it, whereas before we had that drive, but the leadership didn’t really buy into it, so ultimately it wasn’t very sustainable’.
The results are evident in this intricate Year 5/6 clay work and the large topic-themed 3D door-mounted sculptures:
Also on display were other three-dimensional art works themed around the Mayans, Mexico, Egypt and China:
The pair talked to us about the importance of working with external artists and cultural partners in sustained and meaningful ways so that the staff, students and artists build productive relationships.
They have also led CPD for the Colchester teacher training consortium and staff at the school have had training via the Let’s Play programme associated with the National Theatre in London. Vanessa worked with a director from the National to create an ‘unusual’ and innovative nativity with the KS1 students. The process was immersive and multi-faceted; the play was performed in-the-round.
Wix and Wrabness also have strong links with the Royal Opera House. The students have visited the huge aircraft hangar space in Purfleet where the sets for the ROH are made and the wigs and costumes stored. ‘Broadening their horizons doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the area’ James explained.
The pair are working hard to spread their arts-rich message to the wider community and ‘bigger networks’. They have recently been selected by the Royal Opera House to act as consultants and hosts for a six-week CPD course on bringing the creative industries into primary schools.
Their outward-looking artistic approach is displayed on the walls and corridors, and in the students’ sketchbooks and art folders where BAME heroines and Jaspar Johns nestle with the Queen, Culture Club and banks of colourful ukeleles.
To seal the deal, Wix and Wrabness are an Arts Award Centre. Their Year 5 and 6s have achieved Bronze awards through artwork based around the Royal Opera House’s design challenge. They have Platinum Arts Mark status, a Music Mark award and are proud to be a Wellbeing Hub.
With Covid currently on the back foot, the team are planning to transform their summer school fete into a celebratory arts-packed festival. Building on a half-day creative den building experience with students and parents, the festival will feature a disco, circus skills, storytelling, drama and live music. Get behind us in the queue for your Access All Areas pass!
We would like to thank Head teacher James Newell, Deputy Head and Arts Lead Vanessa Lindsay, and the many children who came to speak with us about their arts-rich experiences.
During our visit to St Andrew’s Church School, we learned about two main things; the influence that the school building can have on learning and wellbeing, and how students learn outside of the school walls. Both factors – the inside and the outside – have been the subject of considerable and ongoing research (much of it involving St Andrews) which has been put into practice at this creative arts-rich primary.
The school building (the school is bigger than just the building!) is located in central Bath just behind the iconic Royal Crescent and near to other Georgian buildings, such as The Circus, the Jane Austen Centre and other places of historic and cultural interest.
Headteacher and Arts lead Jayne Rochford-Smith explained how St Andrew’s children spend extended periods (weeks) in theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural sites, learning alongside artists and the venue’s staff.
St Andrew’s have been part of School Without Walls for about 11 years, a project developed by Dr Penny Hay and late Headteacher Sue East in collaboration with the Egg theatre in Bath with St Andrew’s as one of the founding partners. Jayne, who has a degree in Fine Art and a Postgraduate in printmaking, was Head of Early Years and Special Educational Needs Coordinator at the time. She worked closely with Sue and Penny to further develop the project.
School Without Wallsis‘underpinned by the Reggio Emilia and House of Imaginationapproach of allowing children to find and follow their fascinations with the adults facilitating this and scaffolding the learning though a method of co-enquiry. School Without Walls … places the children at the centre of their own learning. By transplanting them into a cultural setting, the conventions, behaviours and habits associated with the ‘classroom’ start to fall away.’
Jayne told us that the two questions that drive the school’s approach are: Where can creativity come from? and; What can we use in our city?
We learned about the initial phase of the project which took place 11 years ago in the Egg Theatre. Jayne explained how, all through the summer term (about seven continuous weeks), the children worked with the team at the Egg Theatre: ‘Theyworked with the lighting engineer. They worked in the café. They worked in helping people on the reception. They learn about roles and jobs. They learned about communication. They learn maths. They learn English through a creative environment.’
Following this longer project, the ‘School Without Walls’ research was developed into mini projects which allowed for the wider school to experience placements within cultural centres and to use the city for learning. Each class chooses where they want to go. On some of the projects the children then work with and an artist and a documenter.
‘Through research, we have learned how we learn alongside children, and we are the co-constructors, rather than the directors of learning. You’ve got to be responsive to what’s happening on the day. We take them on a creative journey’ Jayne explained.
We learned about an actual journey to the Holburne Museum which took place when Jayne was teaching in Early Years. Fifty-four children were immersed in the theatre for a week. Jayne told us how ‘the 45-minute walk down to The Holburne and the journey back were as much of that exploration as the time there’. On their return journey, the children saw an old-fashioned horse-drawn carriage on the street transporting a couple to their wedding, which led to wedding-themed arts projects on return to the school.
This work has underpinned the development of the St Andrew’s Connected Curriculum. A curriculum designed and built around the City. We were shown a collaboratively produced map of the many local landmarks and cultural and creative places that can be walked to from the school. These include not only galleries and museums but parks, the hospital, a city farm, the council offices, the cinema and the train station. Children have also visited the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset and have collaborative relationships with Age UK, the local church, secondary schools and Bath Spa University.
‘My job as a Head,’ Jayne commented, ‘is to maintain the collaborations I have with the city. And if you don’t do that, then the school becomes a very insular place’.
This outward-looking approach is balanced by the school’s research-based focus on their internal environment. As newcomers to the school, we were struck by the emphasis on plants, natural light and fresh air. The chairs, tables, floors and other elements of the classrooms and other spaces are made of wood and natural materials. The learning spaces are decluttered.
Desks and chairs have been arranged so that every child can see outside the classroom. Classrooms are designed around a central outdoor space with a tree.
We browsed the school’s extensive Green Classrooms (a ‘collaboration with the Universities of Bath and Bristol, and CaSA Architects to understand the impact of design on health, wellbeing and learning’) Report. This gives precise data about heating, temperature, ventilation, air quality, humidity, acoustics and other factors.
The report has been acted upon with new wooden floors, automatic window vents in the roof and practical processes designed to maximise the children’s learning and wellbeing (and that of the staff) through a biophilic approach. The attention to detail has produced calm, nature-focussed, non-reverberant spaces that we as researchers responded to very positively.
St Andrew’s is also an Eco School and a Stonewall School Champion.
‘If you’re going to teach children, you need to know what language they’re speaking.’
St Andrew’s creative arts-rich child-led pedagogy is giving children the best opportunity to speak and be heard.
Our sincere thanks go to Head teacher and Arts lead Jayne Rochford-Smith for her time, insights and openness. Also thanks to Ellen Weaver (Humanities lead and Year 4 teacher), Niamh Collie (Music lead) and the Year 4, 5 and 6 children with whom we spoke during our visit.
Despite being the most remote school in our RAPS project, and one of the smallest, Nancledra Primary is a great example of how the arts can be used to connect the students to big ideas while reflecting the creativity of the local cultures, past and present.
To set the scene – the school is located about four miles inland from St Ives on Cornwall’s north coast. We drove past farms and fields – down single-track lanes with high hedges. There are no nearby shops, pubs or amenities.
Head teacher Rick Hill told us about the diversity of the 110-strong student body; farming families; alternative/creative lifestyles (off-grid, living in yurts, etc); families that own bars, hotels and restaurants; families who work for those who own bars, hotels and restaurants (the majority).
We were told how some students travel from Penzance and other towns and villages, attracted by the school’s arts-richness, small class sizes (15-20 in combined year groups), rural location, and the stability provided by long-serving staff (including Rick).
About 15 years ago, Rick and a group of other Heads of Cornish schools discussed how they could broaden their offer and better reflect the history and culture of West Cornwall. They agreed that the area has a long and ongoing legacy of attracting creative people – potters, sculptures (such as Barbara Hepworth), painters, poets and musicians. The continually updated arts curriculum reflects this local artistic culture.
Art lead and Class 2 teacher Georgia Barker told us about the students’ visit to Penlee House Gallery and Museum. Studying the local landmark paintings there taught them about the centuries-old fishing culture.
The gallery was full of ‘fishing scenes, widows who’ve lost their husbands, sea scenes and old cobbled streets. They do a brilliant thing where the characters come to life. A lady dresses up in a shawl and she talks about the paintings. We learned that, in the olden days, when the pilchards were in the bay, they would shout ‘Hevva! Hevva!’ from the top of the hill. That would mean they’d see an oily dark spill and all the men would run off to their boats.’
Lucy told us how, alongside other schools, the students of Nancledra has performed at the jaw-dropping open-air cliff-top Minack Theatre for the G7 partners and wives (and one husband!) when the conference was held in Cornwall in June 2021. Check out the BBC’s news report. Their performance – “Ocean World” – was about the migration of Humpback whales and the disastrous effects of plastic pollution in the oceans.
Despite these undoubtedly inspiring places and experiences, Rick stressed that ‘living at the very end of a very narrow peninsula with 270 degrees of sea around us’ offered relatively few places to visit. On a practical level, staff need a D1 classification on their licence to drive the mini-bus – automatic for those who passed their test 25 years ago, expensive to train and test otherwise. Parents and their cars are recruited for visits.
In recognition of their geographical isolation, the school receives sparsity funding (based the on average class size and distance from other primary and secondary schools) via the national funding formula.
Rick, himself a keen musician and singer, also points out the damage that the pandemic and lockdowns have done to the performing arts:
‘Singing used to be absolutely outstanding here three years ago. Before Covid, you could have come in on a Friday morning, and listened to our primary school choir singing with four-part harmony.’
Lucy and Rick assure us that the choir is regaining its strength. Students were learning ‘Singing in the Rain’ (from 1952) for the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
Rick mentioned that he had set up a Dads’ Choir as a plan to compensate for the gender bias against boys in the school choir. Rick and the local farmer dads rehearsed once a week and sang in schools. Mission accomplished, there are now plans to start a Mums’ Choir.
Students told us about learning the ukulele and other instruments in school, taking peripatetic lessons, and playing and singing in a lunchtime school band.
As well as the visits and performances, we saw lots of evidence that Nancledra was reaching out and connecting through the arts. Like Newlyn Primary, Nancledra has a display of loaned art from Newlyn Art Gallery and Cornwall Council as part of the Think, Talk, Make Art project. These include Plasticine Painting (1995 Laura Godfrey-Isaacs), St Ives Crabber (1949 Kate Nicholson), Judith in Hospital (1986 Timothy Hyman) and Sirens (1930 Leonard Fuller) – all included below.
Arts lead Georgia had attended network sessions with Isabel Stephens, Head of Newlyn Primary, and CPD sessions with Melanie Cox from Gomersal Primary (see previous RAPS blog posts for Newlyn and Gomersal). She told us how the students were now using their sketchbooks in a more exploratory fashion.
Georgia introduced us to the recently-arrived Ukrainian student, a sign of Nancledra’s openness to new cultures and new ideas.
Finally, after our focus group interviews with the students, a Year 5 member of the school’s extra-curricular art club was keen to show us their artwork. We will leave you with this charming selection of their animals, and celebrate the skill, talent and teaching that produced them.
Many thanks to Head Teacher Rick Gill for his time and organisation, Art Coordinator and Class 2 teacher Georgia Barker, Music lead Lucy Ainsley and all of the students who spoke with us about the arts that they do at this fascinating school.