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.

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.

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.

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 the beach-top Palm Bay, 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

Our thanks go to Arts lead Melanie Tong, Head Lizzie Williams and all of the artists-in-residence and students from Palm Bay for hosting our 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 colourful sights and sounds of Mellor Community Primary

Coloured glass in school foyer

Mellor Community Primary 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.

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.

teacher education research underway

The first part of the RAPS project is a survey of how the arts are taught in initial teacher education.

This piece of research has become a lot more complex (a common story in research). Initially we thought that we would contact university and school providers and speak to Directors about their primary teacher education programme. It soon became apparent that we also needed to speak to arts specialists in universities. The research doubled overnight! We could also see that we would know more if we talked with partner schools and students! A much larger endeavor.

But big or small, getting started was all a lot easier said than done. We decided to focus on universities at the outset because we thought that schools would really not want us to bother them. But making initial contact with university providers took a lot longer than we thought. In part because of the times we are living in – difficult and uncertain – and in part because of the difficulty of finding contact names and emails on university websites.

“Access”, as it is called in research, is inevitably an issue, and researchers always need to spend time finding their volunteer participants. We are no exception. We had to use lots of different ways to find and connect with the right people.

Once we had made contact, we wanted make the process as painless as possible. We decided to offer people a choice of how they provided information so we offered either an online survey or a recorded online structured interview. Most people opted for the interview, but we do also have some survey responses. The interviews are of course richer in information than the online survey but both cover the same basic questions.

To date, we have information from half of the current university primary ITE courses. While we could see this as disappointing, not everyone, a 50% return is considered pretty good these days. And the responses do come from all parts of the country and a variety of institutions. We also have information from Teach First.

We are now doing getting ready for approaching school based ITE providers when they go back to work in September. Once again, we will offer a choice of recorded interview or online survey. We hope that we will have a response rate as high as the university sector.

It is too early to say much about our results. We can see however that focusing on the arts is going to show something about the ways in which foundation subjects are dealt with in different kinds of teacher education courses. And, given the current debates about teacher education in England, we hope that we are important time to provide useful evidence for future developments.

Image: Thomas Tallis on Flickr.

Finding the arts rich primary schools

We started the process of deciding where to research by listing schools that had platinum Arts Mark, schools that had been involved in previous arts and creativity research and schools that were “known” for their arts activities.

We then went to our critical friends in the bridge organisations and asked them for help. They all had loads of ideas about which schools in their region were arts rich and why we needed to research them. They nominated so many that we had to ask them for their top three! We were really heartened to see so many primary schools seriously engaged with the arts. A total of 167!

Our very big starter list of arts rich primary schools of 167 is spread across the country. We have to whittle this number down to about 40. We need to get a balance of types of schools, locations, student populations and art specialisms. It’ll be a tough decision. We have sent all 167 schools an initial email asking them to answer a few questions that will help us understand them better.

We know that it is a terrible time to be emailing schools and that it is tricky just emailing a generic school address. So we will need to follow up in lots of different ways to make sure that we do reach the heads or arts specialists in arts rich schools. Of course, they will then need to decide if they want to be involved or not.

Our initial questions won’t be enough to help us sort out our research “sample” so we have decided to ask schools if they would get some children to make a short film about their arts activities.

We have asked Bill Leslie from Leap Then Look to make a resource that will support children to make a filmed arts map of their school. Children are asked to respond to five questions:

  1. Which arts do you learn about in schools?
  2. Where do the arts happen?
  3. What equipment and materials do you use?
  4. Who teaches you about the arts?
  5. Tell us about any arts projects that you think are special or interesting. 

The final films will be sent to us, and we want to publish them on a new RAPS youtube channel. We hope that schools will want to use the films on their websites too.

We are very excited to see what children can tell us about their arts rich schools and we hope you will be too.

Image: Leap Then Look.

International Arts Education Week 2021

We made a set of postcards from TALE data which shows the benefits of studying the arts in an arts-rich school. We hope to do this exercise again with RAPS data at some time in the future.

We have now converted the postcards into a downloadable PDF. The PDF is Creative Commons licensed so the PDF can be printed out and used. Please link back to the TALE project if you find them useful. You can also credit Thomas Tallis for many of the pics.

our research finds a “critical friend”

We’ve been making some significant decisions about our arts rich schools research project. Our funded proposal states that we will select the case study schools on the basis of recommendations from people in the know, as well as from published materials such as the Arts Mark lists. 

So who are people in the know, you might ask? We had in mind the ten regional youth arts “bridge”organisations ( see the list of bridge organisations here). The bridge organisations are funded in part by Arts Council England. Their job is to support schools to work for an Arts Mark and to take up the Arts Award. But each of the ten also has a lot of other things going on – they run, for example, professional development programmes for teachers, support cultural sector initiatives for schools and students, develop and help to sustain cultural education partnerships, and offer development programmes for young artists. 

We were able to hold a virtual meeting with all ten organisations (thankyou to Rob from Arts Connect, West Midlands who convenes the bridges’ network) to explain the project. Each organisation then sent us a list of primary schools they thought we would be interested in. As you can imagine, we are now working through a VERY big list of their suggestions – and more on this in a later post. But we decided that the conversation between us shouldn’t stop at this beginning stage.

The ten organisations have agreed to be our critical friends as we go along. Having critical friends means that we can test out our processes with people who understand what it means to be “external” to schools, but deeply committed to what happens in them. Our critical friends can help to keep us grounded, help keep our eyes on the realpolitik of arts and education practice and policy, help keep us focused on the importance of being able to communicate our results and emerging ideas.  

Critical friends are not a new idea in educational research. They are well established as a helpful support for inquiry. As one US reform site explains

A critical friend is someone who is encouraging and supportive, but who also provides honest and often candid feedback that may be uncomfortable or difficult to hear. In short, a critical friend is someone who agrees to speak truthfully, but constructively, about weaknesses, problems, and emotionally charged issues.

We are sure that the bridge organisations will do exactly this for us.

Prof John Macbeath is a strong advocate of the benefits that arise from having critical friends in both reform and research. He agues that

The critical friend is a powerful idea, perhaps because it contains an inherent tension. Friends bring a high degree of unconditional positive regard. Critics are, at first sight at least, conditional, negative and intolerant of failure. Perhaps the critical friend comes closest to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

We are looking forward to becoming good friends with the ten youth bridge organisations in the next two to three years, as we all learn more about arts rich primary schools. 

Image credit: Thomas Tallis on Flickr