Local and global diversity at Gomersal Primary

Gomersal is an arts-rich primary school less than 10 miles from Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield, situated in extensive green space. Deer and sheep are regular visitors to the woodlands that adjoin the school.

During our tour of the school, we saw many student art works created during class walks to the nearby woods and fields: flowers, insects, leaves and trees were all used as inspiration for work in textiles, ceramics, painting and installations.

Year 4, 5 and 6 students told us about their many visits to local arts places. The school has links with the nearby Longside Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The children talked excitedly about the work of Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy and Barbara Hepworth. They had recently created figures in the style of Antony Gormley who was born just 3 miles from the school. 

Students also spoke about their visit to the nearby David Hockey-associated ex-mill now art gallery and studios Salts Mill. Some mentioned going to the art gallery in Cartwright Hall, just 7 miles away, with their families to see pieces by Hockney, Anish Kapoor and LS Lowry.

In the legacy of Titus Salt and the dominant local industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the school had just secured funding to set up a textiles base that will help raise the profile and standard of textile work in this and other local schools. 

As well as the richness of the arts and culture in the immediate area, we were struck by the diversity of the art forms and artists with which the students were working. 

Much of this was either on display or being created in the large, light and vibrant Art Room. Our tour of the school coincided with a class doing a printing project. 

The Art Room was full of the students’ art work; Celtic crosses, shop fronts, skeletons, skulls, dresses and masks packed this busy space. 

As academics and researchers, at home in libraries and archives, we were thrilled to see these roller storage units being used for the copious arts materials. 

The Art Room also contained its own library: the books here covered a dazzling diversity of artists and their art.

Our photos don’t capture the music that was playing while we were in the Art Room, or the buzz of excitement from the children as they created their prints.

Speaking of music, one of the parents and school Governor is Andi Durrant, a high-profile DJ, producer and broadcaster. He now takes time to teach the students how to use the equipment in the music production/radio room – a well-resourced facility stocked with sample pads, midi keyboards, sampling and sequencing software, a mixing desk and microphones. Students had been creating own dance music recordings.

The sense of diversity extended to the themed art works that were on display from recent cultural and religious celebrations – Dewali, Hannukah, Black History Month, Bonfire Night, and Remembrance Day.

The striking minimalistic art works in the library took us back to our childhoods and returned us to the school’s immediate environs. The creator of The Mr Men and Little Misses, Roger Hargreaves, was born and raised in the adjoining village of Cleckheaton.

Finally, we saw some bespoke paintings which included lines from a poem, co-created by staff and students. Located in and around the Head’s office, they seemed to sum up the whole-school arts-focussed ethos that underpins this, and the other arts-rich primaries that we are privileged to visit during our RAPS research project. 

Thanks to Head Teacher Melanie Cox and Arts Lead Mandy Barrett for their warm welcome, insights, guided tour and coffee.

The buzz of Ramsgate Arts

Ramsgate Arts Primary school
Ramsgate Arts Primary

Every day at Ramsgate Arts Primary, Key Stage 2 students finish their school day at 2pm. An unusual way to maintain and develop their arts-rich status, you might think. That is until you find out that from 2pm until 4:15pm, the students attend arts-focussed ‘compulsory’ after school clubs. During this time, class teachers do their PPA and CPD activities while the six specialist staff in the visual and performing arts take over. 

The school’s timetabling was clearly benefiting the students (and the staff) that we spoke with during our day-long visit.

Since 2017, Ramsgate Arts has existed in the Newington suburb, very close to four other primary schools. It’s decision to brand as arts-rich was based on existing staff’s experience, passion and professional engagement with the arts. As a new build and a relatively new venture, there is a palpable buzz of excitement from staff and students. 

Here are just a few examples of the art works and projects that we saw. 

The professional work of one of the art teachers and trained arts psychotherapist Karen Vost was displayed in the light and open reception area. The vibrant light boxes of police ‘mugshot’ photos of Elvis Presley and David Bowie are accompanied by Karen’s explanatory text and are examples of her wider work on mugshots. These pieces explore ‘… the criminalisation of people for activism or self-expression …’.

Karen’s work was displayed alongside equally professionally presented works by the students. Their ‘Take One Picture’ whole-school projects were the most prominent pieces in this area. The wide-range of art forms and media – textiles, hanging sculptures, drawing, painting, collage, etc. – were annotated with explanations and interpretations.

In the large art room where we interviewed staff and students and on corridor walls were displays of students’ work inspired by a range of artists including abstract expressionist Alma Thomas, Georgia O’Keefe, and the colourful pop art of Keith Haring. 

We loved seeing how the large display board in the art room was evolving with each set of new artistic creations attached over the previous ones.

As well as the art room, the school had been built with a long dance studio with mirrors and a beam along one wall and professional lighting on the ceiling. SLTs had insisted on retaining this space during the build despite pressure from the architects. The library was moved to an upstairs corridor. We were lucky enough to watch a dance rehearsal in the main hall high-end lighting in the dance studio and main hall. The whole class were working on a contemporary performance delivered by a young specialist dance teacher. The staging and computer-controlled lighting rig to were testament to the school’s commitment to the performing arts.

The large music room was stocked with guitars, ukuleles and percussion instruments. We liked the framed retro jazz art pictures in the room.

There was also an outdoor stage in the Early Years playground. The children improvised a Frozen-inspired song, dance and percussion performance for us which they called ‘Rock Elsa’. A ‘Music and Storytelling Shed’ sat permanently next to the stage.

Like a work of art in progress, SLTs insisted that the curriculum at Ramsgate Arts was not yet finished. The immediate focus is to get the children and community back in school and re-engaged after Covid. More work was needed to properly embed the innovative and progressive initiatives, they told us. The drama teacher told us how he had developed the curriculum largely from scratch using his own research and initiatives. The sense of newness and of openness to partnerships and collaborations (the school already works with the Turner Contemporary and Dreamland in nearby Margate, the Ramsgate Arts Barge and others) was palpable on our visit. We wish them well on their journey.

Thanks to Head Nick Budge, Deputy Hanna Beech and Head of Arts Hannah Dannell for inviting us in and showing us around.

Artists and Art Auctions: Palm Bay Primary, Margate

Art leader t-shirt. Screen print. Green shirt, black letters

In the arts studio cabin at the front of this beach-top school, five artists-in-residence (A.I.R.s) work and teach. In exchange for the use of the space, the equipment and the materials, the artists work directly with the school’s Young Arts Leaders (YALs) and increasingly, with teachers and staff at drop-in sessions, such as the Clay Club. We were lucky enough to visit this multi-functional space and talk with two of the artists as well as watching the YALs working on their ‘Arts Leader’ screen print t-shirts.

Palm Bay arts studio cabin - painted white
Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson

Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson, a Fine Arts graduate, talked about being inspired by spaces. She had created art from sail cloth and worked in the nearby caves and other seaside spaces.

Artist-in-resident Mellissa Fisher

Fellow A.I.R. Mellissa Fisher, a graduate of the innovative art/science Broad Vison programme, told us of her interest in nature and the body and how art can make the invisible visible. She was working on a body-cast piece with lots of ears that explored tinnitus. She has previously created (grown?) ‘living sculptures’ from the bacteria on her own face.

Large wall size artwork

This focus on organisms was a good metaphor for the organic ways in which the YALs learned from these artists before passing their new understandings on to their classmates, and to the general public for whom they offer guided art tours at the nearby Turner Contemporary. ‘Art is about sharing’, Mellissa told us.

The influence of the YALs, the A.I.R.s and the school’s top-down commitment to the arts was evident in the abundance of art works framed and displayed on walls and in corridors.

YALs started as a four school project back in 2017. The programme works in partnership with the Turner, and is a product of the Art Inspiring Change project that has included 20 parents and fostered children’s leadership skills, alongside their substantial engagement with the arts. The A.I.R.s told us how through the arts, the YALs were learning how to solve problems, collaborate, and visualise. They talked about how the arts gave the children the opportunity to dig deeper and ask profound questions about the very nature of art.

Students print making display

The A.I.R.s were just one way Palm Bay were using to maintain and develop their arts-richness by providing high-quality materials and experiences. Arts lead Mel Tong has developed an Art Auction. This year, 70 pieces have been donated by a mix of high-profile local artists and designers, and parents/family members. The event has grown in size and profile over the last four years or so. Initially held in the school hall, this year’s auction will take place in the Turner.

Palm Bay students' sketch books

The auction is conducted by local celebrity potter, and long-term supporter of the arts at Palm Bay, Keith Brymer-Jones, and attended by the local community. Mel told us how the proceeds have funded a kiln, printing materials, theatre visits and support all of the arts provision at the school.

Mel encourages the students to keep reworking their art. ‘There’s always something more that can be done’ is her message. The artists-in-residence and the art auction were developed in response to frustrations with the limitations of arts materials and arts budgets. These initiatives are evidence of Palm Bay’s ongoing commitment to the arts, and to the creative, innovative ways of meeting the inevitable challenges.

By the way, when we arrived in the rain in the morning, the arts studio was white (see above). When we left at the end of the day, it was covered in colours and design selected and created by the students. And it was sunny. The transformative power of the arts!

Palm Bat arts studio cabin - painted in bright colours and bold geometric designs

The colourful sights and sounds of Mellor Community Primary

Coloured glass in school foyer

Mellor in Leicester is a vibrant primary school bursting with colourful attention-grabbing artworks. From the light streaming through the glass in the foyer through the art-filled corridors to the open-plan library space at the centre of the school, the bright colours and constant music characterise the school’s dedication to the arts and culture of the local community.

Two long collages stretch along one of the corridors, the results of the students’ art trip to the nearby Belgrave Road (AKA The Golden Mile). The students had captured not only the colourful shops in their collaborative artwork, but also the sensual impact of the flowers, traffic lights, cars and people that they must have seen while they were there. This was a great example of ‘bringing the outside in’ and how primary schools can use the arts to link with and reflect their local communities.

Belgrave Road art collage 1
Belgrave Road art collage 2

The idea of colour was central to many of the students’ art displays. In the Antarctica project, Year 3s explored primary, secondary and tertiary colours and blended them to create vivid skies and seas. Other sensual aspects were explored in their 3D box multi-media Antarctica landscapes produced during the period of home learning.

Among the artists and styles explored were displays of work inspired by Kandinsky and Pop Art. Both popped with the characteristic primary colours, swirls and shapes, and popular cultural references. Another set of artworks captured the sights and sounds, culture and contributions of the Windrush generation. Watercolours of Peak District landscapes showed the students working with more muted colours to create perspective and layers.

At the centre of the school is a brightly lit open-plan library that doubles up as a vibrant gallery space. There are large sculptures, such as the mannequin of local legendary giant Bel, or an elephant covered in maps. Glass display cabinets and frames, and shelves full of student arts work stand side-to-side with ‘professional’ works.

Bel Giant figure and map covered elephant

Overlooking the library/gallery is Mellor Radio, a dedicated radio room full of microphones, headphones, recording equipment, and even a ‘going live’ red light. The colourful sounds of the student-curated playlists are broadcast continually in the corridors throughout the school day. The teachers and students that we spoke to loved how their school was full of music.

The radio room is also used by students to make podcasts and record their voices for other projects. They had made jingles saying ‘This is Mellor Radio’ in the wide range of languages spoken by the students – 98% have English as a second or additional language. The jingles were interspersed with the music to create a fun student-voiced soundtrack to school life.

The project was integral to the school’s focus on oracy. The students practiced this art of verbal communication when they spoke to us in their focus groups. The clarity and projection of their voices really brought their insights and stories about the arts to life!

Thanks to Arts Lead and Deputy Head Anthony Hibble for organising our visit and showing us around.

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.