Collaborative Creativity at Kelsall

On our recent travels around England visiting arts-rich primaries, we have noticed that many schools have developed, and continue to grow their arts-richness through a close working relationship between the Head Teacher and the Arts Lead. This is one of our ‘emerging themes’ – something we will explore in more detail later.

One such creative double-act are doing wonders for the arts at Kelsall Primary school, a rural village school about 4 miles away from Tarporley in Cheshire.

While we have met other dynamic arts duos on our travels, what was perhaps most interesting here is that Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton have developed their visual arts skills, ethos and pedagogy alongside, and in combination with their roles at the school. 

While their active status as musicians pre-dates their days at Kelsall (David has been here for 10 years, Jon for 20), neither had a background in the visual arts when they arrived. Jon told us how his passion for visual art and his ‘loose’ experimental style took shape through primary teaching.

As examples of idiosyncratic primary arts practice and pedagogy, we were drawn to these Year 2 pieces from recent visits to the nearby woods:

Under Jon’s tutelage, the students at Kelsall have developed a distinctive semi-abstract style based on the extensive use of sketching, reworking, and a ‘no mistakes/no rules’ approach to art making. Jon explained to us how after building basic skills through structured lessons, the students could enjoy the freedom, independence and confidence of art making. He encourages the students by telling them to ‘go with it’ and asking for their thoughts. Jon repeatedly referred to the children’s sense of joy and play when creating art in this way.

Displays included students pictures of animals (gorillas, tigers, orangutans, deer, turtles, crows, etc.), self-portraits, buildings, Guernica, and astronauts. They were using art to explore issues of plastic pollution, endangered species, refugees, war and other subjects.

While Jon told us that the students’ art was always based on something tangible, he described how working in semi-abstraction avoids many of the frustrations that students encounter then they strive for realism and a closely copied photographic approach. ‘They’ll always be rubbing out’, he explained.

Jon and David were also creating their own artwork in the Art Room, after school and in the holidays. Their work was stored alongside the students’ work in the Art Room and other spaces in the school, there to inspire students and to use as explanation of techniques and approaches. Both men self-published a series of books of their art works. These could be found in corridors and classrooms.  

The students’ work had been entered in many local primary arts competitions. David told us that the school had voluntarily withdrawn from many of them in order to let other schools win occasionally (!). 

Kelsall’s whole school curriculum is based entirely around ‘high-quality’ books, used as ‘pathways’ to link specific artists, topics and issues. For example, there is a display of ‘No Outsiders’ portraits in the reception area.

As with all of the arts-rich school we have visited (browse this blog for more examples), there are many more arts activities taking place at Kelsall that could not be covered in any detail in a short blog piece. The short list for Kelsall includes:

  • A full-size statue of Nelson Mandela and extensive Black Lives Matter art works in the reception area
  • Twenty glockenspiels (!) plus equipment and performance spaces for the school Rock Band and other performance work
  • An in-development Room 13-style student-lead outdoor arts space
  • Gilbert and George

Thanks to Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton for inviting us into your school and to the students of Kelsall for sharing their experiences of their arts-rich education.

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.

DaVinci, Dewali and Dragons at Blackrod Primary

When we arrived at Blackrod Primary in Blackrod village (4 miles from Wigan, 7 miles from Bolton), we didn’t realise we were visiting the location of a popular television show.

Three years ago, parents participated in Channel 4’s ‘The Class of Mum and Dad‘ in which they spent a half term experiencing the everyday experiences of their children – uniforms, including uniforms, SATs tests and sports day. Luckily, we were spared such treatment! Our mission was to immerse ourselves in the arts spaces, arts works and arts-focussed conversations with staff and students.

Blackrod Primary School drawing/painting

Our first interviewee was Head Teacher Ian Dryburgh. Despite his 35 years as a Head here, Ian told us that was always open to new ideas. The school’s prioritisation of the arts over the last few years is evidence of Ian’s embrace of change and of his ethos of developing and celebrating the children’s humanity and individuality. He talked of a revelatory moment when he was looking through the children’s sketch books, comparing the same child’s work across a number of years, and seeing little in the way of development. Arts lead Rachael Littlefair told us that the need to reapply for their ArtsMark (they now have a Platinum status which has been mentioned in Parliament) also helped them focus on developing an integrated arts-rich curriculum. 

Ian stressed to us that all children were entitlement to the arts and that the school’s job was ‘to widen children’s horizons, not to narrow them down’. 

We were struck by the diversity of artists and artworks on display. With each class named and themed around a specific artist, we had a great opportunity to learn more about Milhazes, Ringgold, Mahlangu, Weiwei, Gauguin, Kahlo, Mackintosh, Lowry and others. 

Each classroom had a quote from the artist on the wall and a big wall-sized ‘Where our learning takes us’ display.

The arts were clearly being combined with geography, history, cultural issues, and other subjects. The curriculum is cyclical allowing topics to be revisited to add depth of understanding. Students were learning both about and through the arts.

Ian had talked passionately about one particular piece of student art. The Dragon pictures were drawn from memory; each was highly individualistic. In terms of its unique expression of the Year 4 artist’s depiction of a character from ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes, and their displays of shading, perspective and other technical skills, the Dragon seemed to exemplify the school’s evolving vision for the arts. 

The students told us how they had greatly enjoyed creating work in the style of local artist L.S. Lowry. Rachael told that many of the locations in the paintings of Lowry and another local Roger Hampson that were displayed in the school were within walking distance and would be familiar to the children.

Students were making art works for Diwali that week.

They told us how they really enjoyed the textiles work they do. Creating batiks, tie-dies and cross-stitch was clearly very memorable for them.

Ian’s vision of honouring the individuality of his students and staff has secured the school an outstanding Ofsted rating. Yet, in their links with Bolton Octagon Theatre, in their role as Bolton cultural ambassadors and in their emerging commitment to outdoor learning, the school continues to change and develop. Rachael has recently gained her Forest School Leader qualification. The children can now use tools, ropes, tarps and other equipment to explore the wooded areas on site. She also talked about starting a Rock Band club. Onwards and upwards!

Thanks to Head Ian Dryburgh and Arts lead Rachael Littlefair for letting us into their school and to the students of Blackrod for their important insights.

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.

Narrative immersive, a double decker bus and a giant illuminated sculpture: Leamington Community Primary

When Leamington Community Primary was built 90 years ago, it was located on a farming estate. It is now in the middle of the Norris Green housing estate in Liverpool. Despite this being an area with high levels of multi-generational unemployment and other markers of social deprivation (34% of the students have special educational needs), it has spawned notable musicians (Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen; Holly Johnson and other members of Frankie Goes to Hollywood; A Flock of Seagulls), actors (Geoffrey Hughes and Tom Baker) and radio presenter Winifred Robinson.

Leamington’s links with the local community and the creative initiatives the school has taken to address some of the challenges, especially through the arts, were the most memorable aspects of our visit.

It’s not every day you get to visit Narnia. On our tour of the school, we found ourselves in the middle of a narrative immersion session designed to bring this topic and text to life. Teachers use props, costumes, storytelling and characterisation to stimulate emotion and imagination. 

In this session, the students had gone to another room where they touched and interacted with objects from a pre-prepared box (ice packs, snowflakes, etc.). When they returned to their classroom, it had been decorated with furry coats across the door and other props. Students could then react to the space and the objects, and ask questions of the teacher who was in costume and character. We could almost taste the Turkish Delight! This was the first part of a project that looked more closely at the story. Apparently, the class did get to taste some of those pink squidgy sweets later.

Other areas of the school were dedicated to creating similarly immersive environments (forests, under the sea, space, etc.). 

The school had strong links with The Bluecoat, a gallery in the centre of Liverpool. Among other ‘Out of the Blue’ initiatives, The Bluecoat had provided free bus tickets and café vouchers for children, parents and families to visit during half term.

Mock up of Bruce Asbestos' work in the Bluecoat courtyard

The partnership was working towards the design and installation of a large sculptural illuminated piece of art in the school grounds as a permanent structure – something to bring fun and light into the dark days of winter, arts lead Steph Leach told us.

We were lucky enough to attend an after-school Art Club session in the art room with a Zoom link to Bluecoat-linked commissioned 3D sculpture artist Bruce Asbestos, who is based in Nottingham (like us!). The Art Club children were working with Bruce to design the new work around themes of community, love and friendship. Bruce showed how simple objects could signify emotion and connection – a big red bow tie, a happy/sad faced Japanese doll, a hat in the shape of a slice of cake, and his ‘cheap’ wedding ring.

The students had brought objects (lots of teddy bears) and ideas to the session. They made quick five-minute sketches and worked with plasticine to create models for their ideas.

Bruce came into school the week after and worked with the children, using air dough, on their initial ideas which included food, monsters and cartoon characters. More Zoom links will refine the ideas. The plan is to install the final sculpture in the playground in February 2022 in a place where families and the local community can see it.

The newly extended art room was just one of the ways the school was developing their arts rich profile. 

The main hall had also been extended specifically to include raked seating, stage blocks, black wrap-around curtains, and high-end stage lighting. The children talked to us a lot about the performing arts they do in school. 

Finally, Head teacher Paul Vine had just bought a double decker bus. We sat on the bus in the playground while we heard about Paul’s plans to convert the downstairs into a space where parents could come to wash and dry clothes, make meals, have drinks, and get information and advice. Upstairs is planned as an immersive area for the children – blacked-out, full of stars, moons and rockets!

A green double decker bus

Along with the big colourful illuminated sculpture, the extended art room and performance space, and the immersive areas, the bus was a great example of how school-centred arts, could fire the students’ imagination and creativity whilse engaging, inspiring and supporting the local community. 

Thanks to Head Paul Vine and Arts Lead Steph Leach for arranging our tour of the school and interviews with students and staff. We look forward to seeing the finished sculpture in February.

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.

Sidegate Primary, Ipswich: Our first RAPS visit

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.

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.

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.