How the Arts have transformed Feversham Primary

Feversham is a large primary school located in Bradford Moor, an area of pronounced social deprivation less than a mile from Bradford city centre. It is an exemplar of how the Arts can transform a school. 

After being placed in special measures a decade ago, the decision was made for music and drama to form the core of the school’s connected curriculum. This has not only produced excellent results in maths, reading and writing, but has contributed to the students’ confidence, positivity and friendliness, all factors noted in the school’s recent Outstanding Ofsted report.

Our day-long visit began with a lively assembly in which Year 3 students used music and drama to depict the employment and education of Victorian children. The graphic depictions of working conditions and punishments elicited a flood of questions from the rest of the students.

Our guide for the day was Arts Lead Alisa Yates. We began our tour in the large, light and open Arts Studio. A wide range of media and techniques were displayed on walls, drying on racks and hanging on strings. 

Alisa has written an article all about this creative space in the latest edition (#33) of NSEAD’s AD Magazine. In it, she talks about promoting independent thinking and a proactive approach.

There was a corner ‘curiosity’ area with comfy seating where students could use the miscellaneous objects as stimuli for sketching and inspiration.

Alisa showed us the table of pestles, mortars, gums and stones used to make paints and dies. We were told how the children would learn about the process of grinding and combining ochre and other materials to make powders and pigments that would become the colours they use for their own art works.

The Art Studio also contained light boxes for a stop-time iPad-based animation project. Alisa told us of her professional background in photography from the age of 16 often working with her own team of stylists and technicians. She is a current arts practitioner specialising in watercolour painting, photography and textiles.

Her ongoing exploration of media and techniques, and passion for experimentation was evident not only in the vibrant Art Studio, but also in the conversations we had with Year 4, 5 and 6 students. Their many arts activities at Feversham are documented in this ‘Art Studio’ blog. Alisa also curates this ‘Art Academy@FPA’ blog which includes stimuli, activities and learning materials.

Led by Alisa, the school had been involved in a quilt making project. Feversham students, in partnership with the Bradford 2025 Year of Culture bid, made a video to explain the project and to ask other schools to contribute squares that communicated something about their ‘Untold stories, [and] Hidden Communities‘. The 200 individual squares were sewn together to create ‘a collection of memories and histories’ specific to the area and to the children.

We also met Jimmy Rotheram, Senior Leader for Music – probably the only one in the country, he told us. It was Jimmy who was leading the assembly earlier. Starting as a supply teacher eight years ago, Jimmy has developed an effective and influential music programme based largely on his training in Kodaly and Dalcroze, undertaken alongside his teaching. As a primary music expert, Jimmy and the music pedagogy of Feversham (up to six hours of music per week) have been featured in The Guardian, on the BBC, and in podcastsYouTube videos and teaching magazines.

Jimmy talked about his mission to get the music of his many Muslim students more widely recognised. Like Alisa, Jimmy has a professional arts background – in music performance, a record deal and working in the industry.

Jimmy told us: ‘I have had formal music training. I just always found reading music far more difficult than someone of my musical ability should have done. It wasn’t until I discovered alternative ways of developing musical reading that my own ability to read music managed to catch up, and I discovered that all children could learn to read music well if taught in more child-friendly ways‘.

He bases his teaching largely on singing, rhythm and body percussion. You can read more about his ethos and methods here. His book (to be published in the Spring) will explain his methods to other music and performing arts teachers. 

We were impressed by the time, effort and dedication that Alisa and Jimmy spent working with the Early Years and reception children and staff. It was clear that, through the arts, the school were building skills and confidence from a young age. On our visit to this area, we enjoyed the subdued lighting, stand-up easels and attention that had been paid to creating a warm and inspiring environment. As a demonstration of how Jimmy has embedded his approach to music across the school, a group of reception children were assembled to participate in a spontaneous singing and movement session.  

As well as music, singing, quilt making and the Arts Studio activities, students had been working in collaboration with the Joss Arnott Dance Company.

The school is currently undergoing extensive expansion. The main hall has already been extended to incorporate a stage and the new site will include an updated music room. The transformation continues.

Feversham is a story of how arts pedagogy, arts leaders with professional arts backgrounds, and the creative application of continuing professional development can transform a primary school, drive the curriculum and inspire many others beyond the school gates.

Our thanks go to Arts Lead Alisa Yates for showing us around, to Senior Leader (Music) Jimmy Rotheram for his time and insights, and to all the staff and students at Feversham for their warm welcome.

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.

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