About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK

summer time and the researching is…

Although universities are now on holidays, most researchers use some of their holidays for getting on with work they can’t do during the term. Just like school teachers. We have been spending some of our summer working on various RAPS survey results.

Our ITE study is now more than half way through. We have completed the first part of the work where we look at the arts in teacher education programmes provided by universities and Teach First.  We’ve started on surveying and interviewing school ITE providers too. The holidays are a very good time for us to write the first draft of the report of the first part of the study. However, we won’t be reporting that separately here, as we will release all of the ITE results together early next year. 

The arts rich school study is also now well underway. Nearly eighty primary schools have agreed to participate! We are very excited about this number, and who they are. The RAPS project will be the first to get a systematic overview of such a big group of outstanding primary school arts programmes. All of the schools have completed a basic questionnaire about what they do and how it is organised. We have also invited the schools to send us a short film or powerpoint made by children which tells us about their arts programmes. We have established a youtube channel for these films and we will let you all know when the first tranche of children’s films are published.

The group of 80 schools will eventually become about 40 in the second stage of the research. We hope to visit all of the 40, pandemic willing. But of course we are thinking now about how we get from 80 to 40. It is important that we get a wide spread of schools – for instance we want to see schools located in different parts of the country, serving rural, city, suburban, regional and coastal communities, of different sizes, with different kinds of school populations. We also want to make sure that we have local authority as well as single and  multi-academy trusts. As well, we need to make sure that across the schools we cover all of the art forms. 

It is a tough job to make the selection and we are taking the job of selecting the “sample’ slowly and seriously. Analysing the questionnaire is part of that process of selection, but it is also an interesting set of information in its own right. Summer is a good time for us to make difficult decisions.

We will be telling you more about the 80 schools later this year. 

Image: Sketchbook from Gomersal Primary Art blog – thankyou. Yes, Gomersal is one of the 80 RAPS schools. We are very interested in the way that teachers and children use sketchbooks across the curriculum and across year levels.

teacher education research underway

The first part of the RAPS project is a survey of how the arts are taught in initial teacher education.

This piece of research has become a lot more complex (a common story in research). Initially we thought that we would contact university and school providers and speak to Directors about their primary teacher education programme. It soon became apparent that we also needed to speak to arts specialists in universities. The research doubled overnight! We could also see that we would know more if we talked with partner schools and students! A much larger endeavor.

But big or small, getting started was all a lot easier said than done. We decided to focus on universities at the outset because we thought that schools would really not want us to bother them. But making initial contact with university providers took a lot longer than we thought. In part because of the times we are living in – difficult and uncertain – and in part because of the difficulty of finding contact names and emails on university websites.

“Access”, as it is called in research, is inevitably an issue, and researchers always need to spend time finding their volunteer participants. We are no exception. We had to use lots of different ways to find and connect with the right people.

Once we had made contact, we wanted make the process as painless as possible. We decided to offer people a choice of how they provided information so we offered either an online survey or a recorded online structured interview. Most people opted for the interview, but we do also have some survey responses. The interviews are of course richer in information than the online survey but both cover the same basic questions.

To date, we have information from half of the current university primary ITE courses. While we could see this as disappointing, not everyone, a 50% return is considered pretty good these days. And the responses do come from all parts of the country and a variety of institutions. We also have information from Teach First.

We are now doing getting ready for approaching school based ITE providers when they go back to work in September. Once again, we will offer a choice of recorded interview or online survey. We hope that we will have a response rate as high as the university sector.

It is too early to say much about our results. We can see however that focusing on the arts is going to show something about the ways in which foundation subjects are dealt with in different kinds of teacher education courses. And, given the current debates about teacher education in England, we hope that we are important time to provide useful evidence for future developments.

Image: Thomas Tallis on Flickr.

Finding the arts rich primary schools

We started the process of deciding where to research by listing schools that had platinum Arts Mark, schools that had been involved in previous arts and creativity research and schools that were “known” for their arts activities.

We then went to our critical friends in the bridge organisations and asked them for help. They all had loads of ideas about which schools in their region were arts rich and why we needed to research them. They nominated so many that we had to ask them for their top three! We were really heartened to see so many primary schools seriously engaged with the arts. A total of 167!

Our very big starter list of arts rich primary schools of 167 is spread across the country. We have to whittle this number down to about 40. We need to get a balance of types of schools, locations, student populations and art specialisms. It’ll be a tough decision. We have sent all 167 schools an initial email asking them to answer a few questions that will help us understand them better.

We know that it is a terrible time to be emailing schools and that it is tricky just emailing a generic school address. So we will need to follow up in lots of different ways to make sure that we do reach the heads or arts specialists in arts rich schools. Of course, they will then need to decide if they want to be involved or not.

Our initial questions won’t be enough to help us sort out our research “sample” so we have decided to ask schools if they would get some children to make a short film about their arts activities.

We have asked Bill Leslie from Leap Then Look to make a resource that will support children to make a filmed arts map of their school. Children are asked to respond to five questions:

  1. Which arts do you learn about in schools?
  2. Where do the arts happen?
  3. What equipment and materials do you use?
  4. Who teaches you about the arts?
  5. Tell us about any arts projects that you think are special or interesting. 

The final films will be sent to us, and we want to publish them on a new RAPS youtube channel. We hope that schools will want to use the films on their websites too.

We are very excited to see what children can tell us about their arts rich schools and we hope you will be too.

Image: Leap Then Look.

International Arts Education Week 2021

We made a set of postcards from TALE data which shows the benefits of studying the arts in an arts-rich school. We hope to do this exercise again with RAPS data at some time in the future.

We have now converted the postcards into a downloadable PDF. The PDF is Creative Commons licensed so the PDF can be printed out and used. Please link back to the TALE project if you find them useful. You can also credit Thomas Tallis for many of the pics.

our research finds a “critical friend”

We’ve been making some significant decisions about our arts rich schools research project. Our funded proposal states that we will select the case study schools on the basis of recommendations from people in the know, as well as from published materials such as the Arts Mark lists. 

So who are people in the know, you might ask? We had in mind the ten regional youth arts “bridge”organisations ( see the list of bridge organisations here). The bridge organisations are funded in part by Arts Council England. Their job is to support schools to work for an Arts Mark and to take up the Arts Award. But each of the ten also has a lot of other things going on – they run, for example, professional development programmes for teachers, support cultural sector initiatives for schools and students, develop and help to sustain cultural education partnerships, and offer development programmes for young artists. 

We were able to hold a virtual meeting with all ten organisations (thankyou to Rob from Arts Connect, West Midlands who convenes the bridges’ network) to explain the project. Each organisation then sent us a list of primary schools they thought we would be interested in. As you can imagine, we are now working through a VERY big list of their suggestions – and more on this in a later post. But we decided that the conversation between us shouldn’t stop at this beginning stage.

The ten organisations have agreed to be our critical friends as we go along. Having critical friends means that we can test out our processes with people who understand what it means to be “external” to schools, but deeply committed to what happens in them. Our critical friends can help to keep us grounded, help keep our eyes on the realpolitik of arts and education practice and policy, help keep us focused on the importance of being able to communicate our results and emerging ideas.  

Critical friends are not a new idea in educational research. They are well established as a helpful support for inquiry. As one US reform site explains

A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.

We are sure that the bridge organisations will do exactly this for us.

Prof John Macbeath is a strong advocate of the benefits that arise from having critical friends in both reform and research. He agues that

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

We are looking forward to becoming good friends with the ten youth bridge organisations in the next two to three years, as we all learn more about arts rich primary schools. 

Image credit: Thomas Tallis on Flickr

arts in initial teacher education: the survey

It’s time to report progress on the initial teacher education research we are doing. Our research aims to explore what primary ITE students in England are taught about the arts, for how long, where and by whom. The research is quite complex as we have to get perspectives and information from:

  • University course leaders, university arts specialists, university partner schools
  • School based course leaders, school based arts specialists
  • Teach First course leader and arts specialists

We are also considering whether we can squeeze a small ITE student survey before the end of this school year.  Another possibility, very much dependent on time, is to add in the various support networks run by arts organisations, and subjects associations. 

We will provide the information from the research to several APPG groups that are interested in teacher education and in the arts. While our research is specifically about the arts, it will also shed some light on foundation subjects more generally. 

Can you help?

We are having some difficulty finding the right people to contact in universities and are working our way through several routes to get in contact with all of the ITE courses. We also know of course that everyone is really busy and our request sits alongside many others. 

We are talking with people using a structured interview, but we do also have an alternative – an online survey. If you are a course leader or arts specialist and we haven’t found out how to reach you, and you would like to help, you can complete our online survey. We would be very grateful for your participation. 

Primary university based ITE course leader: 

https://nottingham.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/art-in-primary-itt-survey-hei-course-leader

Arts specialist for university based primary ITE course:  

https://nottingham.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/art-in-primary-itt-survey-hei-art-specialist

Photo: Tate teachers summer school

What is an arts rich primary school?

Story-tent

We have now begun the crucial process of selecting arts rich primary schools. We’ve made an initial list form various awards and networks that we know about. We are speaking with the youth arts bridge organisations next week and we know that they will add to our beginning list, and also help us to refine it. These organisations have very good knowledge of schools that are active in arts education.

As part of the selection and recruitment process, we have thought more about what arts richness might mean in the primary sector. We expect our research to test out these initial selection criteria and also to allow us to go much deeper.

Here is the information we sent to the youth arts bridge organisations ahead of our meeting.

We are looking for nominations for a long list from which we will select 20 arts rich schools. Schools will be selected to ensure a balance of location, size, sector, population. We are primarily interested in state schools that serve both ordinary and disadvantaged communities. We are considering the possibility of focusing on some locations, but also do not want to miss any interesting outliers. We want to avoid “over-researched” schools.

These are the criteria we are working with at the moment. Individual schools may not meet all of these criteria, and we are looking for different combinations. We would like to construct a sample that allows us to focus on a mix of art forms. 

  1. The arts are part of the school identity and school culture. They are integral to who they are and what they do each day. The schools have a long history of arts and cultural education. The arts are not used simply for promotion.
  2. Resources are allocated to the arts and material space is made for them. There is visible “kit”.
  3. There is a broad and balanced curriculum in which the arts are taken seriously – the arts are integral to the curriculum on offer to all children. There is regular and separate teaching of “arts subjects” – there is a curriculum plan which shows the sequential development of theory and practice (knowledge and skills). Children understand the arts to be important. The school may specialise in one arts subject, but does not ignore the others.
  4. There is a coherent and explicit philosophy for teaching the arts which underpins the selection and nature of key concepts and skills.
  5. The school has productive partnerships with arts organisations, including galleries and museums, local artists, and arts in the parent community and neighbourhood. The school is permeable, acts as a hub.
  6. The school is connected to local, national and/or international networks which bring arts resources, conversations and practices – post pandemic these may be strongly geared to the digital.
  7. The school has specialist staff or consistent access to arts expertise (bought in, artists in residence).
  8. There is a strong arts lead with time and resources. Staff, including the lead, have continuing PD in the arts.
  9. There are extra-curricular arts activities.
  10. The arts are included in work and careers focused education and activities.

The projects begin

ITT Study

Zhe has been very busy trying to get to grips with the organisation of initial teacher training in England. It is very complex. We have begun to design the survey and have conducted three pilot structured interviews using the survey questions. We have made a number of modifications already. Piloting is very important.

Zhe is also compiling a list of ITT contacts in universities – we will begin with the telephone survey in universities as we don’t want to bother schools just yet.

We have already realised that we need to do more work than was originally anticipated. We need to talk to primary ITT course leaders, but also to at least one of the people who teaches one of the arts disciplines. We also need to try to find out what is offered in at least two of the partner primary schools, as it is clear to us now that universities may not be the place where the creative arts are “taught”. This may happen in the school. We have decided to ask university course leaders if they can suggest two schools we might approach for information. We are also aware that it would be very helpful if we could get some kind of picture from the IT trainees themselves about how much creative arts they actually “learn” about in the partner schools.

We have been tempted to pursue what is actually taught about creativity and the creative arts, as well as where, and for how long, and we will do some of this – but we can’t get too much detail. Just not enough time. We now suspect that there may be follow on work to do once we have done this initial project.

We are currently intending to go to school providers in the next school year, but we are also aware of the advice about another Covid19 spike in winter which would disrupt this plan. Timing is so tricky!

Art rich primary school project

Helen began working on the arts rich primary school project on March 8. The first task is to establish the criteria and process for choosing our 20 arts rich schools. We are also revisiting several other primary school research projects to see what they examined and how. We can see already that most of the case-study based projects did not get any, or much data from children, and this reinforces our decision to include pupils. But it also means that we need to think very carefully about what we ask children, when and how.

Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash