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 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.

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.

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.