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.

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.