About liammaloy

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.

Fourfields Community: Richness in the Arts and Design Technology creates the happiest primary school in the U.K.

Fourfields Community Primary is a two-form entry school in Yaxley village, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. While some parents commute from here to London or Cambridge, this traditionally rural area has pockets of deprivation. The school has doubled in size and increased its racial and ethnic diversity over the last few years due to the rapid development of the nearby housing estates. 

Like other arts staff we have interviewed, Fourfields’ Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith has a professional background in a related field. She was a design studio manager working for big clothing brands (Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Harrods) out of studios in London and Oxford. She also worked on album covers and music merchandise for pop stars in the 1980s.

We also spoke with Helen Avory, the Design and Technology Lead. From the display boards and projects that we heard about, it was clear that Helen had created a strong presence for the subject. On the displays, the students were referred to as ‘Designers’ (and ‘Artists’). DT students had won the ‘Best Presentation’ in the yearly Lego design competitions.

The art and DT work at Fourfields had been influenced not only by Irene’s previous career, but also her more recent MA in International Education. For her dissertation, she had researched the use of alternative school spaces with a particular focus on the school Hall. She told us how lots of big arts and DT projects were done in the Hall, the playground and other spaces that might not often get used for such purposes.

The school had other specialist teachers – for dance, drama and music. We heard from the Year 4, 5 and 6s how much they enjoyed the performing arts and how this area was beginning to flourish again after two difficult years of Covid.

The school was big on competitions! We learned how Fourfields was the only school to enter their Reception and Year 1 students into annual dance competitions, and how these young dancers melted the hearts of the judges and other schools’ staff. 

Assistant Head Jake Heather had also won a competition. He was voted the ‘Happiest Teacher’ in the National Happiness Awards.

In 2017, the school won the accolade of the ‘Happiest Primary School’ in the same awards. They were also highly commended in 2019.

Some of Jake’s happiness might stem from the fact that he leads the ‘philosophy for children’ lessons. As well as coaching other staff in this area, he facilitates discussions with his Year 6 students around arts appreciation and topics that are on the news. Jake told us how the discussions are informed by the school’s strong commitment to oracy, and how they foster the students’ respect for others, their listening skills and the depth of their critical thinking. Fourfields was the first school we visited where the war in Ukraine had informed classroom activity.

Fourfields is a great example of how the arts-richness of a school can flow through every child, teacher, and senior leader, and out through the school gates. Head teacher Sue Blyth is an opera singer with a professional background and a penchant for unleashing her vocal cords in corridors and classrooms.

As the Arts Lead, Irene places an emphasis on the use of sketchbooks for developmental work. These are not only used in art lessons but are ready to pull out in other subjects. The students all have a separate portfolio folder for completed work. 

Irene also told us how, when the budget allows, she provides high quality sketchbooks, paper, brushes, paints and other arts materials, especially for the Key Stage 2 students. Good resources, she explained, produce better outcomes, and the students place more value on the subject. 

There was an extensive art gallery of framed student work, complete with information about the artist, the media and the name of the piece.

EYFS students had been experimenting with texture, colour and collage inspired by the book ‘The Animal in the …’

Year 1 had been doing some block printing inspired by Andy Warhol.

Year 2 had been colour mixing, then marbling and creating silhouettes to make these pictures inspired by the Great Fire of London

Year 3 had made some collages and artworks about the rainforest.

These animal pencil portrait drawings are by Year 4.

Year 4 had also been working on their mono printing.

These Year 6 works show how they have been drawing and completing the other half of different images, as well as applying their colour mixing skills.

Irene’s design skills had been put to good use on these murals. More were planned. 

Fourfields has a lighthouse design on the front of the school, an apt metaphor for how they illuminate the local community through carol singing in the playground and visits to perform in old people’s homes.

The staff were also sharing the light by working with and learning from other schools. Irene’s progression documents are now being used in more than a dozen schools. Fourfields continue to evolve their arts curriculum through networks of practice, training days, as well as sharing ways of working and documentation.

To seal the deal, the school has a whole green-screen wall, perfect for the various film making projects that we had seen story-boarded in the students’ sketchbooks.

Lastly, Fourfields has a bright red double decker bus parked in the playground. This is the school’s library and is also used for storytelling. The interior has been converted for the purpose. Irene added some additional painting, stickers, stencils and accessories to enhance the space. The eye-catching designs were created by students through an in-house competition.

Red double decker library bus at Fourfields

Our visit to Fourfields Community Primary was organised by Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith. Thanks to Irene, Assistant Head Jake Heather, Design and Technology lead Helen Avory and the students for telling us all about the many arts things in their 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.

Lansbury Lawrence: The thriving arts-rich legacy of The Festival of Britain

Lansbury Lawrence Primary was built in 1951 as a model school for the Festival of Britain. It was originally two schools. One was named after Elizabeth Lansbury, wife of George Lansbury, socialist leader of the Labour party, pacifist and conscientious objector, and Oliver Postgate’s (The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine) grandmother. The other was named after Susan Lawrence, then the MP for East Ham.

The Lansbury Estate is situated in Tower Hamlets, an area with history of social unrest and one of the most deprived areas of London, yet less than a mile from the central business district of Canary Wharf. 98% of the students at Lansbury Lawrence have English as a second language; the majority are of Bangladeshi origin.

This student-presented video on the school website, made by the school’s Arts Council, gives a good overview of the school and its history.

The school still retains many of the original 1950s features. These include the modernist now-grade II listed (irreplaceable!) Peggy Angus tiles – a design highlight of the Festival – in the foyer, the dinner hall and infants classroom – along with large windows which provide lots of natural lighting throughout the school.

Lansbury Lawrence foyer/reception area

Despite its urban setting, the school grounds contain ample green spaces, a secret woodland and trees that the Queen Mother planted, all protected by the terms of the Festival. The school now does Forest School learning, has an Edible Classroom and keeps chickens.

The links to the immediate local community were explicit. 

The children were collaborating with architects to re-design nearby Chrisp Street Market (also built for the Festival) as a Celebration City. They had visited the area, been granted special permission to climb up in the high clock tower and started creating initial ideas. Their models contained dream venues such as a zoo, funfair and a donut shop.

How has Chrisp Street Market changed over time?

Another project in progress was designing a new sculptural structure for the front reception area. This would display the school’s archive collection, and the models of structures contained photos of the school from the 1950s.

There was a wide range of media, styles and techniques on show in the art room, a large light (modernist!) space with lots of space to dry and store works in progress. 

There was also student art works on the walls and in the corridors including a mouth-powered drawing tool, movable cam machines and impressive Year 2 portraits of Emmeline Pankhurst (see top right)!

In the main foyer, next to the Peggy Angus tiles, sits the Michael Rosen Story House – a doll’s house in which each room, and the tiny objects inside them, represents a key incident in Michael’s incredible life.

Arts Lead Kerri Sellens gave us more information:

‘The box is a Barbican Box project. They used to do them annually. It was devised with Michael, around storytelling and his family history, then they invited schools to use the resource within the curriculum. The box has been gifted – one of four and ours to keep, and the children love it! We’ve been creative where we use it within our English and History curriculum, but it has been used within RE and P4C too’. 

The box contained a ‘volcano bag’ – full of essentials – always ready to grab if you had to leave your home in a hurry. Students are asked about what they would take with them and the things that are really important to them. Some of the rooms represent Michael’s family escaping persecution and the Holocaust. Kerri told me how one of the Year 6 topics is refugees, immigration and migration routes. To the students and staff at the school who came to the UK as refugees, the Box helps to make the learning purposeful and relevant.

There was also a shoe with diamonds hidden in the heel as a way for the family to pay and bribe their way across Europe. We are great admirers of Michael’s work, and having some knowledge of his links to Oliver Postgate and hence to George Lansbury, the Box seemed like a very precious and pertinent thing to be found in this school foyer.

The children had created their own 1950s-style box rooms complete with in-progress clay furniture. 

In a design project to create a set for a theatre, one of the students had won a competition run by the Royal Opera House. He won tickets for his whole class to watch the Romeo and Juliet ballet at the Royal Opera House.

Dance has been a focus of arts development at Lansbury Lawrence over the past few years.

While the students’ many and diverse art works show how the immediate area has changed physically and cultural since the Festival of Britain and the early 1950s, the school continues to radiate the sense of growth and optimism that characterise its modernist roots.

The Creativity Cart

Thanks to Arts Lead and Assistant Head Kerri Sellens for organising our day and showing us around, Head Teacher Owen O’Regan for the warm welcome, and to all of the students whom we met and interviewed about the arts they do at Lansbury Lawrence.

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.

The ArtsMap video for this school and others in the RAPS project are available on the RAPS Youtube channel. The videos have been produced by students to showcase the arts in their primary school.

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.

Cherry Grove: Art is your Human Right

Being a researcher of the arts in primary schools is a privilege. You’ve probably worked that out from our previous blog posts. Our visits to the schools on our list are a combination of a bespoke guided tour around an art gallery, where we can learn why and how the works took shape, and a backstage tour of a theatre where we get to see the nuts and bolts. The experience is overlain with the excited creative buzz of children in classrooms and corridors, some of whom share with us their insights into their arts lessons and clubs in focus groups.

This sense of privilege was at the forefront of our minds as we looked around Cherry Grove Primary near Chester, a Rights Respecting School who, like Torriano and Billesley, embed the workings of their school in UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Firstly, we were overwhelmed by the vibrancy and colourfulness of many of the student’s art works. The first room we entered was strung with paintings based on the work of Bob and Roberta Smith. With slogans such as ‘Art is Life’ and ‘Your mind belongs to you’, we knew we were in the right place.

Our visual senses were further stimulated by displays of art based on the work of Paul Klee, Jan Gardner and Marc Chagall, and a wall of eye-popping Pop Art/Shakespeare pieces.

Secondly, the students’ work on local buildings and landmarks gave us a strong sense of where we were. 

Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson is the driving force behind Cherry Grove’s arts-rich curriculum. She told us how she places an emphasis on the students’ skills in observation, of looking closely, and of ‘opening their eyes’ to see what is in front of them, not what they imagine. She also prioritises children’s skills in drawing.

As a long-standing leader of the school’s creative arts, Zoe is embedded in networks of arts practice. As well as keeping the arts lessons fresh and creative, the visiting artists and CPD sessions seem to be creating something of a regional visual arts style. We have seen this in other regions.

Thirdly, the students had produced art works in a range of media to explore topics such as the Mayans, Romans, Vikings, Galileo, Shakespeare and endangered animals.

Fourthly, while colour was the overriding theme of the first displays we saw, Zoe had worked with the students on a series of striking landscape projects that explored Henry Moore’s ideas of shelter, and the historical transport of paintings from the galleries of the big cities to the caves and mountains of nearby Wales during the Second World War.

Fifthly, the school were partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. Deputy Head Roz Artist told us that the students had been to Stratford upon Avon and performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She talked about how it was important to provide such ‘life changing opportunities’ that allowed the children to see the bigger world, and that would be remembered years down the line.

Zoe enthused about how these links had enriched what the school offered and had ‘taken things to another level’. Students had also visited the Tate in nearby Liverpool, all of which, Zoe explained, helped to put the school’s art into wider context, especially around widening the students’ perceptions about the scope and scale of the arts industry, and the possibilities of working in the arts.

Lastly, we were shown some of the students’ sketchbooks and their highly creative topic books. The fold-out flaps and cut-into designs created a sense of interaction while the students’ comments told us how much they loved exploring topics using art and creativity.

Thanks to Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson, Deputy Head Roz Artist, and to the focus groups of students from Years 4, 5 and 6, the Arts Ambassadors and those who attend extracurricular clubs.

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.

Nottingham’s favourite outlaw has an arts-rich school named after him. Welcome to Robin Hood Primary

Robin Hood Primary is a lively arts-rich school in Nottingham. To be precise, the school is situated four miles north of Nottingham in the large Bestwood housing estate, not far from the local town of Arnold. 

Robin Hood Primary in Nottingham

Despite our previous visits to Robin Hood primary on other arts-related business, there were so many new things that we learned about the school during our visit there on a frosty day in January.

For example, we never realised that the school buildings are completely surrounded by green space. It’s perhaps no surprise that the school keeps chickens and that all of the children do Forest School activities in specially created areas. 

Arts Lead Kerry Whiting told us how the students had been making art out of mud and sticks. There was lots of outdoor space for on-stage performances and the reading/learning Tepees, as well as an impressive Gaudi-esque structure that doubles as learning space. 

On our tour, Kerry pointed out lots of individual outdoor and indoor areas that had been developed for break-out, chill-out and small group learning purposes. 

We spoke with Clare Farrelly who has recently started leading Key Stage 1 Music. She also leads the Forest School sessions. We knew that this school takes their music seriously, and it was interesting for us to find out more about how they had been working with Nottingham Music Hub for the past nine years. As we discovered, Nottingham is one of just seven cities running the In Harmony programme, part-funded by the Arts Council. Robin Hood’s KS2 students all get to play either violin, viola or cello.

Clare told us how her KS1 students were enthusiastically working through some of the BBC’s Ten Pieces units. She told us how the singing in class and in assembly, coupled with rhythm and pitch work, was providing a valuable foundation for the extensive instrumental and vocal work that the students do in KS2.

Classroom made of hay!

Unsurprisingly, Robin Hood has a large hall for group rehearsals and public performances. Both ends of the hall can be used as a stage. Like the other musical schools we have visited, Covid has had a profound impact on rehearsals and performances. In 2021-22, Robin Hood are redoubling their commitments to music, dance and drama. 

The school also has a decade-long links with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the associate artists in drama, dance and visual arts. The partnership has led to Robin Hood students performing a Shakespeare play in Stratford.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream display

The school also has long established relationships with Nottingham Contemporary. Working with Assemble – architects from London – students’ clay work will form part of a big exhibition there in the Spring. Robin Hood also partners with Lakeside ArtsNew Art Exchange and Nottingham Castle. We know that there has recently been a big Paul Smith (Nottingham-based clothes designer) exhibition at the Castle. So we were excited to see that the students of Robin Hood had been recreating Smith’s trademark stripes and designs in their sketchbooks. 

Lastly, Robin Hood has an artist in residence who is bringing out the play in everyone. Laura Eldret specialises in multimedia work, installations and play – paper play, water play –  and getting older children and adults to play as part of their art making. Kerry was excited at how Laura was introducing new activities and methods to get staff and students to think about art in playful productive ways.

The school is looking forward to further embedding their dance offer by working with nearby Park Valley Academy, and to working on arts projects for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer.

We would like to thank Head teacher Nicky Bridges, Arts Lead Kerry Whiting, music teacher Clare Farrelly and all of the staff and students at Robin Hood.

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.

Everything with a purpose: Decluttering and decolonising at Billesley Primary

There is a sense of purpose at Billesley. Everything is done for a reason and often, that reason is research. 

The school’s 11-year journey from special measures to outstanding has involved centering the arts and embedding them in everything from the curriculum to the redesign of the physical infrastructure. Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal explained to us how, working with Billesley’s then Executive Principal and now Head of Curriculum and Virtual School for The Elliot Foundation Multi Academy Trust Johanne Clifton, they made the decision to address issues of student engagement, behaviour and communication, and build morals and respect through a well-informed arts-rich approach.

Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, currently studying for an MA in (Arts) Educational Leadership, told us how, as one of the Education Endowment Foundation’s 28 Research Schools, Billesley serves as a hub for educational research, sharing and discussing findings with other schools (including the other 28 schools in the Trust) through courses, webinars and coaching programmes. Research is also shared and utilised in the school through an extensive CPD and mentoring programme. 

Research on the impact of classroom design on students’ learning by the University of Salford led to changes that have included decluttering the learning spaces and corridors, making classrooms and reading spaces more comfortable and ‘homely’, adding lots of plants, softening the lighting and completely re-vamping the toilets. This is known as Biophilic design. 

Responding to the idea that the physical environment can improve not only academic success but behaviour and wellbeing (of staff as well as students), the school was ‘cleaned up’, redecorated and rebranded using just three colours – white, purple and green – the colours of the Suffragettes. Karl, Asima and others took an analytical child’s-eye view of the classrooms before removing anything that might distract the students from their learning by overloading their working memory. This included taking down many of the arts displays on the walls. We learned that the students had visited the nearby Digbeth Custard Factory and Selfridges store to get a perspective on what their new school environment might look like.

The critical analytical approach extends to the students. As part of the Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme, students regularly practice their skills in questioning, discussion and reflection, digging deeper into what they feel about the arts and what particular art works and artists might mean to them.

Billesley is also a Rights Respecting School (see also our blog post about Torriano). They have used their focus on the Articles of UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to frame projects on child refugees, child slavery and other issues. Asima told us how this works in practice at Billesley. Students not only know how their arts and other work links to one or more of the Articles, but also discuss how they can be proactive about their Rights. More importantly, Asima asserts, the students think about how to be proactive about the Rights of children in countries where they don’t have Rights, countries that have not ratified the treaty (such as the USA and Somalia). 

Billesley is a Rights Respecting school

Asima told us about a scheme in which the students boxed up presents and items for children in need. She told us how ‘that second level, about being proactive as a global citizen for children across the world, is probably more relevant for these children now because, even though we’re in an area which is quite deprived, they do have a standard of living and quality of life that wouldn’t be on the same level as children who haven’t in terms of Rights’.

Relatedly, Billesley has the Red Tree Fund, a charity set up following the death of a much-loved TA. The Red Tree Fund which focuses on developing the physical and mental well being of all children and has contributed towards developing ‘safe spaces’ across the school , and a Community House that distributes food boxes and serves as a comfortable space for families, carers and support workers.

Of course, we got to see some of the students’ art work, in their sketch books, in the corridors and on the new plinths. We also got to hear about their dance, drama and music lessons; Ray’s whole-class drumming sessions were proving very popular!

We aso learned about the school’s decade-long association with Stans’ Café who have worked on theatre projects, a giant marble run, the long roll of local neighbourhood-focussed art work that we saw on our visit, and the whole-school student-led research-based ‘What is a School?’ performance and book.

Billesley, which represents over 40 languages and 50 cultural backgrounds, also partners with Birmingham Rep, The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games (through the British Council), the RSA’s Performing Pedagogies, the Open Theatre (with a focus on autism) and is involved in other university research projects such as the Durham Commission and their research into creativity in education.

During the lockdown in 2020, Billesley conducted a thorough review of their curriculum, embedding the arts more deeply, and making sure that it reflected the needs of the ever-changing community. Decolonising the curriculum meant that Columbus and Darwin were replaced by radical women.

While there is comparatively little mention in this post of the specific arts activities in which the students are involved (rest assured, the students told us about plenty), we want to thank all at Billesley for helping us build a detailed and nuanced picture of what arts-rich schools do, how they reflect the community, who they link with, what they look, sound and smell like, and what they stand for.

Thanks to Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal and the students of Billesley for sharing their thoughts and experiences and for welcoming us into their 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.

The ArtsMap video for this school and the others in the RAPS project are available on the RAPS Youtube channel. The videos have been produced by students to showcase the arts in their primary school.

‘There isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’: Hillstone Primary

Music and drama run through Hillstone Primary like the River Rea and the Digbeth Branch Canal run through nearby Birmingham, a city named after Boerma, its Anglo-Saxon founder.

How do we, from the East Midlands, know so much about our West Midlands neighbours? Well, Hillstone’s music and drama teacher Keith Farr wrote a musical for the students called The Birmingham Cantata, full of facts about history, heritage and culture.

The songs evoke the sights and smells of the region’s Industrial Revolution, detail the contributions of steam engine pioneers Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and celebrate Birmingham’s multi-cultural past and present.

In fact, turning topics into mini-operas is something of a speciality for Keith and his students. For example, after the school had been to watch the full 3-hour version of Madame Butterfly performed by school partners Welsh National Opera, students spent a week rewriting the story and songs in English. Forty-eight of them performed it onstage for their parents back at school.

After watching performances of Stravinsky’s Peter and the Wolf and The Firebird they wrote and composed music for their own Russian folk tales and performed them with a group of schools. They have also created a piece called Three Planets based on the three primary colours.

Students have also worked with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Rep, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many other cultural partners. 

We have written before about how little we get to see music and drama performances during our research visits. At Hillstone, we were lucky enough to watch (and sing along with) Keith’s pre-school rehearsal of a recently composed musical nativity, and attend (and participate in!) the after-school choir session.

The students’ enthusiasm for music performance was palpable. Immediately after one of our focus group interviews, Year 5 students insisted on playing for us on their guitars, trumpets, violins and clarinets, and singing some of the songs that they were rehearsing. 

With all of this musical confidence flowing through the school, it is no surprise that Keith places his emphasis on the process – the various problem solving, technical and other skills that the students learn while they are creating, shaping and rehearsing a work. 

Head teacher Gill Sparrow told us of her passion and support for the cross-curriculum integration of the arts, and for Keith’s methods. ‘There’s nothing that you couldn’t write a song about or create a dance to’ she explained, before adding ‘there isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’.

School bandstand

In addition to the benefits of the process, Gill stressed that everything that the students did had to have a purpose. That might be in the form of an exhibition, or a performance at the school or at local old people’s homes, or in the toy designing-and-making project they did with a professional toy maker.

As well as enhancing the curriculum and making it more enjoyable, Gill told us how the arts were particularly important for her students, their families and the local community. 51% of the students are on Free School Meals; the children’s families score high on markers of abuse and deprivation; many parents are third generation unemployed.

Gill told us that while many middle-class children may have easy access to ballet, the theatre and the wider arts, her mission is to provide ‘brilliant opportunities’ – high quality arts experiences that children have the right to access. As an arts-rich school for all of Gill’s 20 years as Head, the arts were enriching the school and transforming individual lives.

For example, one student had been taught some photography techniques by a teacher. He then went on to win a photography competition.

Every year, parents and carers attend the ‘Music for a Summer’s Evening’ concert in which at least a quarter of the children are involved (after auditions!). Teachers dress in posh clothes and local dignitaries attend. The audience has learned to take the event seriously – parents now stay until the end, watch all of the students perform, and clap after each act.

While Gill talked of the precarity of having arts specialisms driven by just one person, she has been keen to share her passion and knowledge by setting up ArtsLink, a network for Birmingham primary arts teachers.

The immersive environments in the school, produced through weekly workshops with arts professionals, themed around A Midsummer Night’s Dream (corridor installation, costume design, banners, performance, etc) and a Chinese Temple are lasting testaments to Gill’s commitments to an arts-rich education. 

The students’ enthusiasm for music, drama, and the wider performing arts were matched by the liveliness of their sketchbooks and by the art works on display around the school. 

So, in the words of one of the songs from The Birmingham Cantata:

Ignite the torch and lead the way. The light spreads far and wide.

Opens eyes and strengthens ties. Forward to the future.

Thanks to Head Gill Sparrow and Music and Drama lead Keith Farr for their warm hospitality and insights into their arts-rich school. Thanks also to all of  the students we met and interviewed.

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.

Suffragettes, STEAM and Sustainable Development at Torriano Primary

Torriano is a Rights Respecting arts-rich primary school in the Camden/Kentish Town area of London. With a socially and economically diverse community, this school values the rights of all children. 

Since 2009, the school has been part of this UNICEF initiative to embed the rights of children and young people’s in their practice and ethos. This means that much of the curriculum, learning and school dialogue are framed by the 42 Articles. For example, Article 29 states that ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full.’  

The work displayed around the school reflects both an understanding of these rights of the child and the school’s strong focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In practice, this means that many of the works of art and creative products that we saw on our visit had SDGs and articles referenced. This ensures that everyone can clearly see which issues and Articles are being addressed.  

Our lead for the day was Kat Branco, Head of Curriculum, Culture and Innovation and Year 6 teacher, with a degree in philosophy, a professional background in charities and non-governmental organisations, currently studying for a Masters in education policy. 

On our guided tour, we saw a number of these large Suffragette banners on the walls. Gender equality signs (SDG 5) appeared on a number of the displays we saw, hilighting the legacy of work on gender equality. 

There were large displays of Black History Month art work in the main hall. One project focused on a soldier from World War 2, others on local artists Michael Kiwanuka and Daniel Kaluuya. Daniel is an alumni of the school and spoke to the children from Hollywood in 2020.  

The students had also recently done work based on the French Tunisian artist JR who creates community based participatory art works, often with a socially political theme. The students, supported by the school’s Artist-In-Residence Jim, adopted JR’s black and white cut and paste aesthetic to create (sometimes huge) self-portraits. These represent who the children are ‘Proud To Be’ and link to the 2021 Black History Season national focus.

Torriano was full of plants! The school had worked on projects based on sustainability, green energy, recycling, urban regeneration, bees, cleaning up the air, and making art out of rubbish. Recycling, re-using and rewilding are evident across the school, both inside and out. 

Students had created a ‘Harnessing the Sun’ machine as a way to use solar energy for ‘Repowering Torriano’. This was their Year 4 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths ) project focus in 2021, linked to their Electricity science unit.  

The school also has a vegetarian ‘Earth Kitchen’ – a separate building which the children use for Food Technology lessons every half term. Fortnightly, the Waste Food Café opens; left over food from the school canteen is used to make nutritious smoothies.

As you have probably guessed, there was strong focus on STEAM. We have read all about how the Arts could be seamlessly integrated into a curriculum that also covers Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In fact, we have recently finished a 3-month Rapid Evidence Review which included us looking at STEAM education from all over the world. Torriano showed us exactly how well this could work in a primary school.

These displays in the large main hall use art, craft and creativity to explore issues that combine maths, coding and computing, as well as historical and social context.  

This large head is Ada Lovelace, created to celebrate her crucial role as the first computer programmer, algorithm writer and skilled mathematician. The students had made Ada from long hole-punched strips of paper, imitating the first coding from the Analytical Machine. In class, they had also created hole-punched card computers and other work on the topic. Fans of Ada will know that her mum was also a mathematician and her Nottinghamshire-based (like us) father was a poet. Ada was breathing STEAM before it became popular! This was a good example of how learning about historically significant polymaths could help to give context to coding lessons for all children. 

While giant heads and sun-capturing machines are eye-catching products that showcase the behind-the-scenes learning processes, we were excited to see a number of (again, sometimes large) displays which used art, design and creativity to make exploratory processes visual, and to show how parts of systems connect. The students had created these biological artistic info-graphic pieces based on the work of Fritz Kahn. 

Referring to Torriano’s arts-integrated curriculum, Kat said: ‘It helps us understand new ways of thinking, ways that we didn’t necessarily think of before’. She stressed the need for the various dance, animation and other projects to be linked to a meaningful context.

Executive Head Helen Bruckdorfer explained how the arts were perfect for making complex issues such as social justice, inequality and citizenship understandable and tangible. She talked of the arts’ role in developing the advocacy and agency of the students, and of promoting their right for self-expression and their right to be heard.

Ongoing plans are looking to further develop and create more meaningful partnerships with local schools, parents, communities, and the many cultural organisations that are within a short bus ride of the school. We wish them well. 

Thanks to Head of Curriculum, Culture and Innovation Kat Branco for organising and hosting our visit, and to Executive Head Helen Bruckdorfer (on Zoom) and Head of School Holly Churchill for their sharing their insights.  

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.

Beneath the streets and above our heads: London’s Soho Parish Primary

In this phase of our RAPS project, we are visiting 40 arts-rich primary schools all over England. Apart from their distinctive arts-richness, our schools were chosen (from a much longer list of recommendations from arts bridge organisations) for their diversity. We have deliberately selected a variety of locations (urban, suburban, seaside, rural), counties, types (academies, faith schools, free schools, etc.), sizes (from less than 100 students to over 700), demographics (affluent, deprived, a combination – economically and culturally) and interesting arts curricula, pedagogies and ways of timetabling. Our job is to capture the uniqueness of each school with all its opportunities and challenges. RAPs project leader Pat Thomson refers to the ‘thisness’ of educational institutions.

With all of that in mind, let us introduce you to Soho Parish Church of England Primary, situated in the heart of London’s West End.

The school  is linked to the 450-year-old St Anne’s Church, a 4-minute walk down Wardour Street and Old Compton Street. The church gardens are often used for outdoor learning, so much so that an ‘Art Loo’ has been installed that only students from the school can access with a special key.

Now a tall Victorian building built in the 1870s, Soho Parish is situated on the corner of a busy block of offices, bars and shops. There is evidence that there has been a local school since the 1600s. One side of the school has ornate architecture, the other, a plain doorway. We suspect that most people may walk past daily and not know that the school was there. Staff told us that, for as long as anyone can remember, Soho Parish has been an arts-rich school. 

The school rubs shoulders with the many nightclubs, theatres, performance venues, cabaret bars and visitor attractions that characterise Soho and the immediate area. 

Inside, the school is a maze of brightly-coloured corridors and staircases (so you can tell which area you are in) and has retained many original features – high ceilings and school bells.

Soho Parish school hall

There are three floors above ground and one below. It amazed us to think that the main Hall, the music room and other spaces were beneath the busy streets and pavements.

View from the playground

Standing in the small playground, we were surrounded on every side by offices and tower blocks which are a mix of private and social housing.

Innovatively, the playground had been extended upwards with a multi-level structure made of netting, ropes, decking and a roof terrace.

However, an unusual location and a quirky building alone are not enough to make it onto our list! Arts lead Hannah Peaty showed us some of the students’ art work – based on the work of James Rizzi (‘Mapping the City’), the alien book character Beegu (about the idea of home) and the British/Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (a library of individual book spines), and others.

Students from all year groups had also helped to make this impressive wall-sized mosaic that reflected their diverse backgrounds and the local environment.

Large mosaic

Three years ago, Hannah set up a network for arts teachers in Westminster schools which now links the school to the Craft Council, the Primary Shakespeare Company and other partners. She spoke of the benefits that an art-rich curriculum can offer the students – self-confidence, self-esteem, self-expression, and the creativity that helps them think outside the box and make connections.

While the school faces specific challenges (like other Westminster primaries, applications are down by 25%), the countless museums and galleries within walking distance, or a short hop on the bus, provide Soho Parish with perhaps unparalleled cultural learning opportunities for primary school children.

For example, Hannah told us how the Year 6s do a yearly scriptwriting project with the Soho Theatre in which professional actors perform the students’ scripts. We learned how the West End theatres sometimes offered the school unsold tickets for matinee performances. Staff spoke about links with the National Gallery and, more unusually perhaps, art and design projects with the London Transport Museum. In addition, the school choir had sung at the Christmas tree lights switch-on at Downing Street. Like one or two other staff on our visits, Hannah told us that she politely has to decline some of the many offers of projects and partnerships.

As part of a project with local architect Antonio Capelao, the students had designed Christmas lights, 21 of which were chosen to be made into actual illuminations that surrounded the school’s block. The big switch-onwas conducted by the Mayor of Westminster and the school’s two student Mayors, dressed in their robes with the keys to Soho for the day.

Mindfulness room - green with cushions on the floor and soft lighting

Finally, to balance and compliment all of this busy creative activity, Hannah teaches mindfulness. For 30 minutes each week, each student gets to chill out, focus and be alert in a dedicated basement room. This quiet space seemed far away from the hustle and bustle of the central London streets above our heads.

A small beige dog lying on a green blue tartan rug

Relatedly, we got to meet Crawford, the in-training school therapy dog, a calming presence for us during our interviews and for all who inhabit this truly unique primary school. 

Many thanks to Art Lead Hannah Peaty for her time and efforts in organising our visit and explaining everything. Thanks also to Head Louise Ritchie and all of the other staff and students for their insights. 

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.

The ArtsMap video for this school and the others in the RAPS project are available on the RAPS Youtube channel. The videos have been produced by students to showcase the arts in their primary school.

Music and the performing arts thrive at Anston Greenlands – Here’s how

If, like Anston Greenlands, your primary school has a strength in music, you will know that your ability to sing together and play instruments has been severely limited over the last 18 months or so.

As a band member (since the age of 12) and a songwriter, Head teacher Alex Wirth is not only passionate about the music (and the arts in general) in his school, but has come up with innovative ways of providing exciting musical learning experiences. The methods may have been influenced by lockdown but are now proving valuable in themselves.

From our point of view, researching music and performing arts in schools can be challenging when compared with visual arts. Only occasionally do we get to see dance, drama, instrument or singing rehearsals, and so far on our RAPS visits, we have not seen a final performance.

Unlike drawings, paintings and other visual arts, music is not displayed on walls or tables. We rely on students and staff to give us their verbal insights into music and performing arts activities. So, when we can, we love to see it and hear it!

So it was exciting to discover how Alex and the team at Anston Greenlands had been using songwriting, singing and recording during lockdown to produce songs and videos for the school’s YouTube channel (200+ videos).

For example, ‘These Four Walls’ is a whole-school lockdown-themed rock anthem, features ideas, words and singing from the students and playing from the Head and musician parents and friends. Most importantly, the song was put together while many of the students were learning from home. They sent in their remote vocals and air-guitar videos to sit alongside those of their in-school classmates.

Screen shot from Anston Greenlands' 'These Four Walls' video on Youtube

The school’s dedication to creating original songs (and videos and artwork) for YouTube dates back to ‘My Fight’, a song they did in aid of WarChild.

As well as music videos, YouTube was integral to projects about the environment, history and other topics. For example, Alex had posted a series of video messages ‘from the future’ which were tied to the arrival of a big mysterious package in the playground and a sustainability theme.

Not only are the videos a great way to showcase students’ work (to families and arts-in-schools researchers!) and engage them in time-travel adventures, these short films have kept students and families tuned in and involved during lockdown and beyond.

Finally, Alex and the team had made another Covid-inspired change to the school, this time to the physical structure. Last Spring, frustrated by the lack of opportunity for his students to sing, dance and make music together indoors, they had a light bulb moment. 

In a blur of activity, Alex got on the phone, hired a digger, went out onto the school field with the caretaker and a TA, and dug the school an amphitheatre. The curved and raked seating was completed with a substantial wooden stage, perfect not only for the music, dancing and drama work they were doing in school, but also for hosting parents, families and the local community to open-air performances.

While the sun struggled to get over the horizon during our wintery visit, the photos of the children singing in the summer sun lifted our hearts. We could almost hear the music – a sure sign that whatever the challenges, schools like Anston Greenlands will keep primary music and performing arts alive and thriving.

Many thanks to Head Alex Wirth, Deputy Kate Roberts and all of the Year 4, 5 and 6 student who gave us an insight into the arts in their 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.

The ArtsMap video for this school and the others in the RAPS project are available on the RAPS Youtube channel. The videos have been produced by students to showcase the arts in their primary school.