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