Our first RAPS visit: Sidegate Primary, Ipswich

It’s not everyday you get to meet the Prime Minister or the Secretary for the Arts. So we were excited to have the opportunity to ask them probing questions about the arts in primary schools, or, more specifically, the arts in their primary school.

Because these dignitaries were all in fact students at Sidegate Primary in Ipswich, the first school that we visited in the RAPS project. The school parliament (all the members were proudly displayed in the foyer) and the dedicated Arts Council were clear signs that Sidegate was taking the teaching of democracy and the student voice seriously. As we found out, this dedication to student-centred and collaborative learning activities ran through the many arts projects that we saw and heard about.

Sidegate is a school of around 650 students set just outside the town centre with a long established commitment to the arts. Staff could not remember a time when the arts were not central to the school’s curriculum and ethos. This history was evident in the large stained-glass window that commemorates the school’s first 75 years. The students who showed us around said that every child got to insert some coloured glass into the design.

Displays of art covered the walls and ceilings of the corridors, classrooms and other spaces. The large bird-like display in the main hall was mentioned repeatedly during the focus groups that we conducted with students. Each of them made a coloured feather to contribute to the whole. The experience was obviously memorable and meaningful to them. The students talked repeatedly about teamwork in the context of artistic creativity.

Butterflies, caterpillars and chrysalises were everywhere at Sidegate – hanging from the ceilings and climbing up the walls.  This was a whole-school creative project that embraced the themes of hope and change after the challenging months of being in lockdown. The metaphor of transformation was apt; a large choir was rehearsing in the main hall, their first chance to sing together in many months.

We were lucky enough to meet Trunks, an elephant who had long inhabited the school’s heated swimming pool but was now roaming a classroom. Trunks had been part of town-wide project that took the students’ collaborative ethos (each of them had decorated Trunks with their thumb print) into public spaces.

There was another public-facing arts example of Sidegate’s collaborative spirit on the waterfront, this time in the form of a long mural of sea creatures that had been created by a number of schools. The word ‘Sidegate’ and the colourful paintings must be the first things that many visitors to Ipswich see, as they were for us.

The Arts Council had lots to say about how they wanted to make the arts more enjoyable so that everyone in the school would want to get involved, and for there to be more arts (even more!) in the school. Their comments showed a nuanced understanding of the value of the arts in people’s lives (including adults) and a desire to diversify the arts that they do in school.

Thanks to Arts Lead Jane Ryder and all at Sidegate for a warm welcome on our first visit.

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.

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

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.