Springfield Juniors: Giant Jewellery, Jubilee and Puppetry

Our visit to Springfield Juniors in Ipswich corresponded with their festival for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. All day, the school was buzzing with parents and family members. 

Musical theatre performances and choirs performed in the main Hall and also in the cool performance space (pictured above) that links the two main buildings. In other rooms, parents visited exhibitions of students’ arts and craft and soaked up the creativity that flows through this arts-rich school.

Up until this point in our visits, we had only heard about schools’ preparations for the big event. Today was the real thing! But as every teacher knows, and as Head teacher Louise Everitt explained, the performances and colourful displays of Queen-themed hats, cakes (being sold to raise funds) and other art works are ‘a combination of many weeks of work and planning’. 

Louise told us that ‘it’s great to have parents coming back in to see exactly what we’re doing’ and how the event was an opportunity to share the students’ learning and promote conversations at home. The school also has regular Tea Afternoons where parents can learn about what their children are learning and gain some skills alongside them.

Some background: Springfield Juniors (344 students in Years 3 to 6) is a Rights Respecting school on a terraced street one mile outside of Ipswich town centre. While the school has a long tradition of arts and creativity, and still retains a strong commitment to the visual arts, there has been a recent shift of emphasis towards the performing arts. 

We spoke with Assistant Head and Arts and Culture lead Beth Taylor (they also have specialist teachers for Music and Art). She described how her recent year-long training on the Leaders for Impact course with the Royal Opera House Bridge had reenergised her commitment to arts education. With only 12 to 16 places offered each year and a rigorous application and interview process, Beth enthused about the power of being immersed in workshops, sessions and networks of ‘like-minded amazing people’ who advocate for arts and cultural educational. 

I was passionate before,’ she told us, ‘but now feel like facilitating a cultural and creative education is my calling.’ Beth has now set up an Arts and Culture Network for leaders and teachers in local schools.

Clearly, Beth’s commitment to the arts and culture was contagious. Year 5 and 6 students talked enthusiastically about visits to and performances in Snape Maltings, a concert hall in a rural area about 20 miles from the school. 

They had also made ‘jewellery for giants’ out of ModRoc. These massive rings and trinkets could be found all around the school:

Jewellery for Giants: Author’s hand included for size!

Annually, Year 6 students work with the Young People’s Puppet Theatre (YPPT). The students told us how they had created their own knee-high puppet from a wooden kit. They had then chosen and made the clothes, created the hair, and painted the faces and hands. They told us how they had begun creating and decorating the sizable backdrops for the staging area, all the while learning how to operate the puppets and create scenes and stories.

Since our visit, Beth sent us some of the feedback from parents and students about the puppet performances:

‘YPPT helped me realise that just because we are young, it doesn’t mean we can’t do hard work. We can do anything we want now and in the future.’

‘What a fantastic opportunity for all the children. My son said it has been the highlight of his school experience so far.’

Read more feedback on this innovative project here (parents) and here (students).

Each of the other year groups has a half-term, timetabled project with an outside organisation or artist in addition to their regular arts provision. Year 5 work with the Shakespeare Schools Foundation/The New Wolsey Theatre (An Ipswich theatre); Year 4 with African drum-makers Wooden Roots and Year 3 with dance artist Sam Moss

The rest of the year is punctuated with additional opportunities as and when they arise. These include working with performance poet, author and script writer Murray Lachlan Young,  local illustrator and muralist Catalina Carvajal and local author Fred Sedgwick as well as trips to the local libraries and museums. 

Beth told us how the intention is to allow children to absorb as many cultural and creative experiences as possible so they are able to form opinions, a sense of self and learn transferable life skills.

We spoke with the Arts Ambassadors. They told us how they are involved in planning and shaping the arts curriculum. Their opinions, suggestions and ‘voice’ feed into a cycle of learning. Each cycle has to start with a ‘Wow’ moment – usually a trip or visit from an artist – and end with a product, performance or exhibition. Their planning documents were attached to their own dedicated Arts Ambassadors board:

The arts here are embedded into all subjects. It is the ‘golden thread’ that runs through everything. The students’ skills, talent and creativity were on show on the busy walls, filled with a wide range of media, and in their sketchbooks.

The Battle of Hastings was represented in these long 3D murals and as a comic strip:

Soil erosion had been investigated through dance:

We also learned about the ‘creative careers assemblies’ where students get to interview a range of professionals from creative industries. Beth told us how she was keen to ensure that ‘what we’re doing in school reflects the culture of our society and increases the cultural capital of the children in terms of experience and opportunity.’ 

We asked about how the school’s arts and culture impact on the local community. Beth explained how ‘some of the parents didn’t get the opportunities that were providing for their children. Every child in this building impacts a myriad of people because we’re talking about some really large families and communities in this area.’ 

She went on to describe how the school are ‘doing the same for the parents as we’re doing for the children. It is all vicariously through them.’ 

With the feast of arts on offer on this special day, it was lovely to see parents and family members fascinated, amused and sometimes moved to tears by the children’s creativity. 

We would like to thank Assistant Head and Arts and Culture Lead Bethany Taylor for organising our day and sharing her thoughts and experiences, Headteacher Louise Everitt, and the selection of Year 4, 5 and 6 students, and members of extra-curricular clubs that we spoke with.

Stained glass window with individual students’ self-portraits

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.

Newlyn: The opportunities and challenges of a seafront Cornish arts-rich primary school

Newlyn is a small fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall just over a mile west of Penzance. The school of 120 students sits just up the hill from the seafront. Even on a misty morning, you can see St Michael’s Mount from the library’s big bay window.

And while Newlyn Primary school is on the same street as a long-established and prestigious contemporary art gallery, in the same village as three private commercial art galleries and a short mini-bus drive from places of arts and culture, Newlyn town is an area of high poverty. Head teacher Isabel Stephens told us that ‘50% of our children come from an estate which is in the bottom 10% economically in Europe. 43% of the children are on free school meals.’

Four years into her role, Isabel talked about the substantial changes she had made to the curriculum in order to rebrand the school around the arts and encourage parents (and staff) to apply. In fact, the arts now drive ‘everything’ – students study a diverse range of artists while focussing on skills progression and conceptual understanding.

For example, the students spoke of their recent visit to a workshop by ex-Brixton resident Denzil Forrester, as part of Black Voices of Cornwall’s Captured Beauty exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange. Denzil’s large canvas in the gallery was of a reggae sound-system event, full of dancers and DJs. 

Dezil Forrester

Denzil told the children how he used to sketch in the semi-darkness of the dancehalls, capturing the dynamic free-flowing movements of the dancers. The students were excited about the workshop and their own ‘gestural drawings’, sometimes created with charcoals and pencils in each hand. 

The students also talked about their visits to the dramatic cliff-top open-air Minack Theatre to watch plays and musicals and to perform themselves. We learned how Year 5 were putting the finishing touches on their performance of a scene from The Tempest in collaboration with other local schools.

Minack Theatre

We were excited to discover that Newlyn Primary has its own art gallery. A diverse range of paintings, collages and sculptures are currently on loan from the Arts Council Collection and Cornwall Council Schools Art Collection as part of the Think, Talk, Make Art project. The gallery includes an abstracted print by St Ives artist/sculptor Barbara Hepworth which you can see alongside some of the other artworks in the slideshow below.

This two-year programme of CPD has been funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development Fund and enabled nine primary schools in West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to create in-school galleries. 

The galleries form the basis of a programme of artist-led CPD. The teachers involved share what they learn with staff and students. Their new knowledge and understanding informs the curriculum. There are plans for the students to act as gallery guides, covid permitting. 

Cat Gibbard, Programme Curator for Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange told us:

‘The project was inspired by an earlier collaboration in 2019 between the school and Newlyn Art Gallery where Year 5 students selected ten pieces of artwork to hang in their school from the Arts Council Collection (funded by The Arts Council Collection and Cornwall Council). 

This was part of the gallery’s New Voices programme which invited underrepresented groups from the community to curate. It was the positive impact of this in-school gallery on the whole school community that inspired the gallery to develop their learning and reach more schools, inviting Newlyn to be the lead school for the Think, Talk, Make Art funding bid.’

Isabel talked about being ‘properly terrified’ at the monetary value of the art works; one child said ‘I can’t believe that Newlyn school children are allowed something like this’. Once again, we had to remind ourselves that we were in a primary school, not a contemporary art gallery. 

Isabel described the impact of the gallery as ‘absolutely huge’:

All of the work I was doing on behaviour and respecting others could be reinforced by the fact that they had the gallery’ she explained. ‘The children were trusted with something and their behaviour towards it has always been totally respectful’.

She also talked about a rise in the students’ self-esteem and their vocabulary and language from guiding visitors (like us) around the art works and offering their commentary.

Like many other schools, Newlyn are rebuilding their strong music and performing arts provision after Covid. Cornwall schools were hit later than other regions, but just as hard, due to their geographical isolation.

The students’ art works on the walls and in their sketchbooks matched the vibrancy, diversity and impact of those in the loaned gallery:

The students talked to us about doing arts projects around the local culture and locations – tin mining, fishing, Saint Michael’s Mount, dragons and legends. They also described printing onto paper with actual fish! They were also excited at being involved in the upcoming Golowan festival parade.

‘I think you’ve got to be quite brave to focus on art’ Isabel explained.

Rest assured that the ‘brave new world’ promised in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is taking shape in the form of this fascinating arts-rich primary school.

Many thanks to Head Teacher Isabel Stephens, Art Coordinator and Year 4 teacher Rebecca Rollason, teacher Julie Wood, TA Rowena Baldwin and the Year 4 and 5 students we spoke with on the day.

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.

Somerleyton: Small school. Big on the Arts

Somerleyton Primary is in the village of the same name about four miles inland from Lowestoft in Suffolk on the edge of the Norfolk Broads. Despite being the smallest school in our project (60 students), they punch well above their weight when it comes to the Arts and DT.

In the context of our project, Somerleyton are unique in other ways. Like many other houses in this ‘model village’, the school has a thatched roof. And they use the village green as their playing field for PE and other activities.

Before we got to talk with headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the students, we watched a pre-school street dance lesson. While the session was led by a dancer who rotated around the other schools in the MAT, we found out later that arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews had a degree from the Royal Academy of Dance on the art and teaching of classical ballet and had worked as a dance teacher for about six years before returning to university to qualify as a primary school teacher. Needless to say, the lively street dance set us up for a day of hearing, watching and learning about the performing arts, Somerleyton’s specialist area. 

We heard about how students had recently performed in front of five hundred or so people at Snape Maltings, an internationally renowned concert hall with which Somerleyton has an ongoing relationship. In previous projects, the students were singing alongside the National Youth Choir for Scotland and the Choir for Cornwall. They had built their performance skills (‘They’re unfazed by that scale of audience or that scale of venue’: Victoria) through the extensive music provision at the school. 

Listen to the orchestra below:

Orchestra rehearsal – The Pink Panther

It was a treat to sit in the middle of the school orchestra as they rehearsed. Half of the students in the school were participating (nearly 30 students) – on flutes, saxophones, clarinets, and glockenspiels. The instruments and teaching are provided by the Suffolk Music Service. Year 6 had built their flute skills through daily ten-minute practice sessions during term one of Year 3 and were now able to read from the scores of the Star Wars theme and a swung jazz piece that we heard.

Victoria told us about the many benefits the students derived from the music sessions: ‘There is a lot of collaboration and teamwork that gets developed through just the orchestra alone … they develop their ability to listen to others. You can’t work on your own. You’ve got to be empathetic’. 

The school are keen to make high quality music tuition accessible to every student. We learned how the children don’t pay for their music lessons or instrument hire. The service is part-funded by PTFA funds through a big annual fete on the village green. The teachers told us how they had fond memories of attending the event when they were children. Somerleyton students are preparing for their appearance at the fete this year – we were thrilled to hear that they were going to sing ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, a Kinks’ song that wistfully captures the idyllic picture postcard setting of duck ponds, thatched cottages and old oak trees in which the school is set. 

The cottages on the green and many in the village are in fact former workers’ cottages for Somerleyton Hall and the Estate. It was fascinating to hear how two of the students had family members who were ex-blacksmiths who still had their forges, bellows and anvils at home. One girl talked to us about making a sword (‘quench it in strong coffee to give it a dark and old fashioned texture’), another about making jewellery with her blacksmith dad. 

With only around ten new students each year, Somerleyton combine year groups; Years 3 and 4 form a single class of around 15 students, Years 5 and 6 combine in a class of 19. Demand is high for the school’s arts-rich offer.

Victoria explained how: ‘because of the region that we’re in, predominantly white, middle class and rural, it’s important for students to have a broad diet and to expose them to other cultures and other people’s opinions. The art and the music are ways in which we can deliver that those experiences for them’.

Years 3 and 4 had just starting a unit on Surrealism (‘it’s really cool because there’s endless possibilities’: Year 4 student). Their studies of Jazz music had expanded to look at Black artists who challenged racial stereotypes. Art teacher Naomi and the team were consciously focussing on diversifying the artists and art movements that the students studied.

As well as the visual arts and DT work that we saw (including the electric powered light-up cars below), the school had links with the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft where they had been involved in a dance festival, and a playwriting competition where the children had their plays brought to life by a team of professional actors. 

The school also work with the Benjamin Britten Pears charity. They have recently produced a fabulous video of their virtual choir performance of ‘Movement’ from EVERYTHING by Russell Hepplewhite and Michael Rosen for the Britten Pears premiere.

Somerleyton are currently involved in the First Light Festival, an event in Lowestoft set up by filmmaker Danny Boyle (his Yesterday was partly filmed in Lowestoft) and fashion designer Wayne Hemingway (local boy!) hooked around a 24-hour solstice party! 

Head teacher Oli told us how creativity was very much at the heart of the school (it is one of their four core values) and how it impacts every part of the curriculum.

In this Jubilee year, Somerleyton are gearing up for extra performances on the Green, at street parties and beyond. As a tiny school that makes a big tuneful and rhythmic noise, we wish them all the best now that singing and performing to an audience are very much back on the agenda.

Listen to the choir below:

Somerleyton choir

Many thanks to Headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the selection of Year 4, 5 and 6 students whom we spoke with on out visit to Somerleyton Primary.

Note: If you are ever lucky enough to visit this bucolic village, bear in mind that the train only visits every two hours. We made sure we got to the station in plenty of time!

Somerleyton station
Somerleyton station

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.

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.

‘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.

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.