Queen’s Park: How the Arts are inspiring Primary students in Brighton

With so many creative projects, events and institutions in Brighton, it was great to hear how Queen’s Park Primary were involved in the local arts scene. More later. Firstly, let’s hear from the students and staff about the arts they do in school.

The groups of Key Stage 2 students, Arts Councillors and Arts Ambassadors told us all about building models of Anderson Shelters, creating work in the style of British artist Sonia Boyce, working on their ‘big wave’ pictures, decorating their ceramic tiles, and working with pencils on their hand drawings.

Some of the students had contributed to this colourful sea-themed mural that spanned one side of the playground:

Head teacher Anne Cox explained the value of a creative arts-rich curriculum:

‘The children are confident, articulate and know their abilities, but want to try things and explore things. They think through the arts’. 

One of the Year 6 students gave us an example: 

‘I let my imagination go onto the paper, so now I can finally see it better than I did in my mind’.

Queen’s Park are a Creativity and Arts Champion school. You can read more about how this Artsmark scheme builds their creativity and helps link their arts to the wider communities.

Year 4s were enjoying their Project Based Learning (PBL), a recent change that will be expanded to other year groups. Anne explained that PBL, creativity and the arts can inspire and engage students which can impact on their maths, English and other subjects.

Arts lead Mhari Smith (BA in Fine Arts and Sculpture, worked as a puppet maker and puppeteer for six years in London) told us about the role of the Arts Ambassadors (one in each class across the school) in raising the profile and skill levels of the arts. The students get trained up by staff on specific techniques or artists. Then they cascade what they learn to their classmates and teachers, as well as staff and Heads from other schools.

Year 1 had been looking at the work of Brazilian-born Beatriz Milhazes:

Year 2 had created some vibrant work around the book ‘Ziraffa’ about a real-life giraffe who toured the world in the 1800s:

Year 3s had been inspired by the colourful playful work of another Brazilian, Romero Britto

KS1 students had been getting abstract in the style of Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid:

Fahrelnissa Zeid art

… and also in their studies of Guyana-born British artist Frank Bowling who has created a famous painting ‘about’ Brighton.

Frank Bowling art

Headteacher Anne Cox, Mhari, Music lead Gabi Buxton and the students gave us a fantastic insight into the events and organisation that help focus and inspire the arts in the school.

The children were especially excited about Let’s Dance – a week-long event where 78 schools, colleges, universities and dance groups get to ‘Dance at The Dome’.

Students were also involved with the Children’s Parade where 5000 local children make banners and figures, and march them through the streets as part of the Brighton Festival.

We learned about Let’s Play, a link-up with the National Theatre in London through The Primary Programme. Mhari told us how Years 1 and 5 had a tour of the theatre and got to learn about the lighting and staging. They made props and scenery and then performed on the stage in front of their families. She explained how she could ‘really see some of them grow and mature’ by ‘being leaders, working together, being innovative and making decisions’. The school are also working with the Theatre Royal in Brighton. Year 5 were rehearsing hard to perform The Snow Queen there.

Gabi talked us through the school’s 15-year partnership with the Brighton Early Music Festival through which the students take part in concerts and participate in workshops in the school. Students enthused about the sessions they had been doing with djembes, ukuleles and a range of instruments through the Soundmakersprovision as part of the Brighton and Hove Music Service. As the singing lead, Gabi told us about the challenges of working with school choirs and classes over the past two years.

On a cold day full of sunshine and snow showers, it warmed our hearts to see the students getting excited about a ‘secret song’ they were learning for a special person at the school (!), and to hear bursts of the songs for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. 

The future of the world is in this school

Many thanks to Headteacher Anne Cox, Art lead Mhari Smith, Music lead Gabi Buxton and to all of the students we spoke with at Queen’s Park.

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.

Somerleyton: Small school. Big on the Arts

Somerleyton Primary is in the village of the same name about four miles inland from Lowestoft in Suffolk on the edge of the Norfolk Broads. Despite being the smallest school in our project (60 students), they punch well above their weight when it comes to the Arts and DT.

In the context of our project, Somerleyton are unique in other ways. Like many other houses in this ‘model village’, the school has a thatched roof. And they use the village green as their playing field for PE and other activities.

Before we got to talk with headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the students, we watched a pre-school street dance lesson. While the session was led by a dancer who rotated around the other schools in the MAT, we found out later that arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews had a degree from the Royal Academy of Dance on the art and teaching of classical ballet and had worked as a dance teacher for about six years before returning to university to qualify as a primary school teacher. Needless to say, the lively street dance set us up for a day of hearing, watching and learning about the performing arts, Somerleyton’s specialist area. 

We heard about how students had recently performed in front of five hundred or so people at Snape Maltings, an internationally renowned concert hall with which Somerleyton has an ongoing relationship. In previous projects, the students were singing alongside the National Youth Choir for Scotland and the Choir for Cornwall. They had built their performance skills (‘They’re unfazed by that scale of audience or that scale of venue’: Victoria) through the extensive music provision at the school. 

Listen to the orchestra below:

Orchestra rehearsal – The Pink Panther

It was a treat to sit in the middle of the school orchestra as they rehearsed. Half of the students in the school were participating (nearly 30 students) – on flutes, saxophones, clarinets, and glockenspiels. The instruments and teaching are provided by the Suffolk Music Service. Year 6 had built their flute skills through daily ten-minute practice sessions during term one of Year 3 and were now able to read from the scores of the Star Wars theme and a swung jazz piece that we heard.

Victoria told us about the many benefits the students derived from the music sessions: ‘There is a lot of collaboration and teamwork that gets developed through just the orchestra alone … they develop their ability to listen to others. You can’t work on your own. You’ve got to be empathetic’. 

The school are keen to make high quality music tuition accessible to every student. We learned how the children don’t pay for their music lessons or instrument hire. The service is part-funded by PTFA funds through a big annual fete on the village green. The teachers told us how they had fond memories of attending the event when they were children. Somerleyton students are preparing for their appearance at the fete this year – we were thrilled to hear that they were going to sing ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, a Kinks’ song that wistfully captures the idyllic picture postcard setting of duck ponds, thatched cottages and old oak trees in which the school is set. 

The cottages on the green and many in the village are in fact former workers’ cottages for Somerleyton Hall and the Estate. It was fascinating to hear how two of the students had family members who were ex-blacksmiths who still had their forges, bellows and anvils at home. One girl talked to us about making a sword (‘quench it in strong coffee to give it a dark and old fashioned texture’), another about making jewellery with her blacksmith dad. 

With only around ten new students each year, Somerleyton combine year groups; Years 3 and 4 form a single class of around 15 students, Years 5 and 6 combine in a class of 19. Demand is high for the school’s arts-rich offer.

Victoria explained how: ‘because of the region that we’re in, predominantly white, middle class and rural, it’s important for students to have a broad diet and to expose them to other cultures and other people’s opinions. The art and the music are ways in which we can deliver that those experiences for them’.

Years 3 and 4 had just starting a unit on Surrealism (‘it’s really cool because there’s endless possibilities’: Year 4 student). Their studies of Jazz music had expanded to look at Black artists who challenged racial stereotypes. Art teacher Naomi and the team were consciously focussing on diversifying the artists and art movements that the students studied.

As well as the visual arts and DT work that we saw (including the electric powered light-up cars below), the school had links with the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft where they had been involved in a dance festival, and a playwriting competition where the children had their plays brought to life by a team of professional actors. 

The school also work with the Benjamin Britten Pears charity. They have recently produced a fabulous video of their virtual choir performance of ‘Movement’ from EVERYTHING by Russell Hepplewhite and Michael Rosen for the Britten Pears premiere.

Somerleyton are currently involved in the First Light Festival, an event in Lowestoft set up by filmmaker Danny Boyle (his Yesterday was partly filmed in Lowestoft) and fashion designer Wayne Hemingway (local boy!) hooked around a 24-hour solstice party! 

Head teacher Oli told us how creativity was very much at the heart of the school (it is one of their four core values) and how it impacts every part of the curriculum.

In this Jubilee year, Somerleyton are gearing up for extra performances on the Green, at street parties and beyond. As a tiny school that makes a big tuneful and rhythmic noise, we wish them all the best now that singing and performing to an audience are very much back on the agenda.

Listen to the choir below:

Somerleyton choir

Many thanks to Headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the selection of Year 4, 5 and 6 students whom we spoke with on out visit to Somerleyton Primary.

Note: If you are ever lucky enough to visit this bucolic village, bear in mind that the train only visits every two hours. We made sure we got to the station in plenty of time!

Somerleyton station
Somerleyton station

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.

West Rise Juniors: An incomparable Room 13, Bronze Age, water buffalo-herding school in Eastbourne

You may have seen one or two of the many news reports (Channel 4), TV features (Blue PeterCountryfile) or documentary films (School by the Marsh) about West Rise, an award winning primary school set in a large housing estate, two miles from the sea in Eastbourne.

Click picture to watch West Rise on Blue Peter

You may well have read the headlines about how the students are taught to use guns and knives, or how they forage for food and get to pluck, gut, cook and eat pigeons.

You may be aware that the school leases 120 acres of Bronze Age marshland from the council, on which they have installed a herd of water buffalo, a flock of sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and geese.

Water buffalo on The Marsh, West Rise Juniors

Or perhaps you’ve caught a whiff of the rumours about how students make art out of the bones of the dead sheep, the skins of the snakes, and bits of other deceased and rotting animals that they find on The Marsh.

Maybe you’ve picked up on the reputation of Headteacher (and current arts lead) Mike Fairclough, through one of his conference talks or books, seen photos of him riding a quad bike pulling a trailer full of kids, or maybe heard him defending the educational use of ‘dangerous’ weapons on mainstream breakfast television?

So why would we, the RAPS team, be at all interested in West Rise when our focus is on the arts?

Well, as we shall see, the school’s values – risk-taking, creative freedom, trust and the autonomy of the students – inform not only their extensive Forest School provision, (led by Helen Stringfellow – they also do ‘Beach School’ on their own beach!), but also the many arts activities that we were lucky enough to see and hear about during our visit.

If you were unaware of West Rise’s love of the rugged outdoors, then you might know them for their Room 13, a student-led arts space in which we conducted our interviews. This creative space is located in a separate building from the school. Forest School equipment is downstairs, Room 13 upstairs. 

Mike came to his Headship interview with the idea of starting a Room 13. With funding from the Arts Council, ten students, their parents, staff and governors flew to Fort William, Scotland to see the original Room 13 and find out how it works before putting their ideas into practice.

The arts provision at West Rise is supported by Karen Stephens, a Higher Level Teaching Assistant and Room 13 lead. She is also the current artist-in-residence at the school, following in the footsteps of a digital artist/animator, ceramicist and book illustrator who have worked alongside the children in Room 13.

The students who comprised the Room 13 committee told us of the benefits that the space and the creative ethos gave to them: 

‘It boosts our imagination, and a kid with a good imagination can turn into something amazing when they’re older’ one of them told us. 

‘It’s making us unique … we can make our own things. We can express ourselves freely and not just do what everyone else is doing’ another explained. 

All of the students in the school get to use Room 13 and from the copious materials, and stacks of art works either drying or in progress, we got a sense that the space was well used.

The school also has a radio station – ‘Sunshine Radio’. Students DJ and broadcast music from there during lunchtimes. Oh, they also have a dark room for photography.

Clearly the ubiquitous creative ethos and Karen’s input into the school’s project-based arts curriculum were informing the art works we saw. We enjoyed these Picasso-inspired one-line drawings, Year 4’s pencil work, and students’ explorations of Mondrian, Haring and other artists.

Some of the painting and drawings that we saw were linked to local geographical features such as the Long Man of Wilmington, a stone/chalk figure cut into a hill, the Snake River, The Wish Tower, the white cliffs of Beachy Head, and other locations strongly associated with the Battle of Hastings, the Napoleonic Wars and World War 2.

As well as smelting to create pendants out on The Marsh (see the Blue Peter video), the students had created pots, beads, tiles and other ceramic pieces in the style of the Bronze and Iron age communities that once lived so close to their school.

Relatedly, the older students had been involved in creating the Causeway and Bronze Age Roundhouse over the lake in The Marsh. Thatching, woodwork and installing large upright posts in water point to the school’s embrace of craft, and design and technology.

The causeway on The Marsh

Mike, Karen and the students also told us about the exciting outdoor arts they had done with Bill Leslie from Leap then Look. Students had participated in sound design and manipulation projects, made floating sculptures, created films and curated an outdoor exhibition. They had also made banners about creativity and the freedom of the arts which they marched around the lake while shouting slogans advocating the arts.

Mike explained that underpinning Room 13, the Forest School work and all of the other arts and crafts activities are the values of gratitude, kindness, resilience, wellbeing and positive psychology.

In the context of this powerful holistic vision, we can see that water buffalo were, indeed, essential!

The last word goes to Mike (from his book): 

I am an artist at heart … My school is my creativity’ (Playing with Fire, 2016: 28).

Our sincere thanks go to Headteacher Mike Fairclough and Room 13 Lead Karen Stephens for welcoming us into their school, and to all of the Year 4, 5 and 6 students for telling us so much about the exciting arts and crafts projects that they do.

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.

‘Our children bounce in every morning’: LIPA Primary and High School

Situated next to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral (the largest religious building in Britain!), LIPA Primary and High School is the arts-rich junior sibling of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (‘big’ LIPA) and LIPA Sixth Form. 

Needless to say, creativity is woven through the school’s arts-enriched project-based curriculum, as well as all of the extra-curricular clubs, performances, displays and partnership projects we saw and heard about on our recent visit.

Starting with two reception classes in 2014, this free school now runs to Year 7. From September 2021, they became an ‘all through school’ that will eventually provide education for children from ages 4 to16. The school will have a Year 7 and a Year 8 from September 2023.

From the classrooms, we could see across the whole city, including Catholic Cathedral, the famous Liver Building and the Albert Docks – an inspiring sight! 

This all-encompassing view of an extremely cultural city serves as an apt metaphor for the extent to which LIPA Primary and High School partner with local arts institutions, draw on Liverpool’s vibrant culture and work with their community.

We loved seeing art works representing a Lambanana, a mermaid at nearby Crosby Beach and a rainbow containing some of the 45 languages spoken by children at the school. All were on display in this circular Art Room with large windows, situated in the ‘pepper pot’ on the corner of the school.

In the corridor, there was a long ‘In My Liverpool Home’ display. Ken Dodd, Cilla Black, Ricky Tomlinson, Lilly Savage and other local celebrities could be found among the houses and landmarks. Eighteenth century wash-house pioneer, public health reformer and working-class entrepreneur Kitty Wilkinson could be seen peering over the Cathedral where she is immortalised in stained glass. Students had recently visited her grave there. 

In my Liverpool Home

There were also drawings of fireworks exploding over the Liver Building and examples of Chinese writing – LIPA Primary and High School is located around 100 metres from Chinatown. We also learned about the students’ visits to and performances in the Cavern Club.

Artist in residence of six years, Jayne Seddon, told us about some of LIPA’s other learning projects. With her professional practice in ecological arts, Jayne leads the school’s Eco Arts Club who create drawings and art works, often in the green spaces around the Cathedral’s Oratory, right next to the school. Reception and Year 1 have created a wildflower garden and lots of nature art in this space.

Year 2 had recently visited Tracey Emin’s pink neon text art in the Cathedral before making their own similar art works. Arts Lead Rebecca Oakes and Jayne told us how Emin’s art had stimulated the children’s critical engagement; it prompted them to question the nature of art and discuss the place of living female artists in relation to the ‘great Masters’.

LIPA children have been involved with Light Night (‘the biggest cultural celebration in Liverpool’) for the last four years. They have created public-facing music performances, exhibitions and arts workshops.

Students were also involved in an innovative ‘art and astronomy’ project that emerged from a contact with staff working on a new robotic telescope at Liverpool John Moores University.

Students told us how working on arts projects had helped them process the effects of the taxi explosion at the Women’s Hospital, less than a mile from the school. The school understands the cathartic role of art in their lives of their students and their communities.

It almost goes without saying that LIPA Primary and High School have a strong commitment to music and the performing arts. With expert music, dance and drama teachers, a number of performing arts teaching and performance spaces and the capacity to draw on specialist staff from big LIPA and the Sixth Form, this school are training the next generation of LIPA graduates while flying the flag for primary performing arts. 

One final project exemplifies not only the school’s strong links with local institutions, but also their expansive world view.

LIPA Primary and High School have partnered with the Open Eye photography gallery, located on the Albert Dock. The school are working on a project called ‘the Story of Liverpool through its trees’ that connects children with their parks and the history of the city.

The school also has links with the Katali Museum in Kenya which has a rainforest as part of the museum. Jayne and Rebecca told us about a planned visit to the Open Eye in which LIPA students would link by Zoom with the Kenyan students in order to share their tree-based art works and see each other’s environments. On the afternoon visit, LIPA students would not only see the other children walking in a rainforest and be able to ask them questions, but would also work with a musician to write a song in the gallery. 

Jayne commented that she loved the two-way dynamic of working with children as artists, and stressed ‘the expanse of knowledge that can be implemented through one project’. We were unsurprised when Rebecca told us that: ‘Our children love being in our school. They bounce in every morning. They love learning’.

Our thanks go to Arts Lead Rebecca Oakes for organising our visit. Thanks also to Head teacher Greg Parker, artist in residence Jayne Seddon and to the students of LIPA Primary and High School for their valuable insights into their arts-rich school.

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.

Fourfields Community: Richness in the Arts and Design Technology creates the happiest primary school in the U.K.

Fourfields Community Primary is a two-form entry school in Yaxley village, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. While some parents commute from here to London or Cambridge, this traditionally rural area has pockets of deprivation. The school has doubled in size and increased its racial and ethnic diversity over the last few years due to the rapid development of the nearby housing estates. 

Like other arts staff we have interviewed, Fourfields’ Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith has a professional background in a related field. She was a design studio manager working for big clothing brands (Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Harrods) out of studios in London and Oxford. She also worked on album covers and music merchandise for pop stars in the 1980s.

We also spoke with Helen Avory, the Design and Technology Lead. From the display boards and projects that we heard about, it was clear that Helen had created a strong presence for the subject. On the displays, the students were referred to as ‘Designers’ (and ‘Artists’). DT students had won the ‘Best Presentation’ in the yearly Lego design competitions.

The art and DT work at Fourfields had been influenced not only by Irene’s previous career, but also her more recent MA in International Education. For her dissertation, she had researched the use of alternative school spaces with a particular focus on the school Hall. She told us how lots of big arts and DT projects were done in the Hall, the playground and other spaces that might not often get used for such purposes.

The school had other specialist teachers – for dance, drama and music. We heard from the Year 4, 5 and 6s how much they enjoyed the performing arts and how this area was beginning to flourish again after two difficult years of Covid.

The school was big on competitions! We learned how Fourfields was the only school to enter their Reception and Year 1 students into annual dance competitions, and how these young dancers melted the hearts of the judges and other schools’ staff. 

Assistant Head Jake Heather had also won a competition. He was voted the ‘Happiest Teacher’ in the National Happiness Awards.

In 2017, the school won the accolade of the ‘Happiest Primary School’ in the same awards. They were also highly commended in 2019.

Some of Jake’s happiness might stem from the fact that he leads the ‘philosophy for children’ lessons. As well as coaching other staff in this area, he facilitates discussions with his Year 6 students around arts appreciation and topics that are on the news. Jake told us how the discussions are informed by the school’s strong commitment to oracy, and how they foster the students’ respect for others, their listening skills and the depth of their critical thinking. Fourfields was the first school we visited where the war in Ukraine had informed classroom activity.

Fourfields is a great example of how the arts-richness of a school can flow through every child, teacher, and senior leader, and out through the school gates. Head teacher Sue Blyth is an opera singer with a professional background and a penchant for unleashing her vocal cords in corridors and classrooms.

As the Arts Lead, Irene places an emphasis on the use of sketchbooks for developmental work. These are not only used in art lessons but are ready to pull out in other subjects. The students all have a separate portfolio folder for completed work. 

Irene also told us how, when the budget allows, she provides high quality sketchbooks, paper, brushes, paints and other arts materials, especially for the Key Stage 2 students. Good resources, she explained, produce better outcomes, and the students place more value on the subject. 

There was an extensive art gallery of framed student work, complete with information about the artist, the media and the name of the piece.

EYFS students had been experimenting with texture, colour and collage inspired by the book ‘The Animal in the …’

Year 1 had been doing some block printing inspired by Andy Warhol.

Year 2 had been colour mixing, then marbling and creating silhouettes to make these pictures inspired by the Great Fire of London

Year 3 had made some collages and artworks about the rainforest.

These animal pencil portrait drawings are by Year 4.

Year 4 had also been working on their mono printing.

These Year 6 works show how they have been drawing and completing the other half of different images, as well as applying their colour mixing skills.

Irene’s design skills had been put to good use on these murals. More were planned. 

Fourfields has a lighthouse design on the front of the school, an apt metaphor for how they illuminate the local community through carol singing in the playground and visits to perform in old people’s homes.

The staff were also sharing the light by working with and learning from other schools. Irene’s progression documents are now being used in more than a dozen schools. Fourfields continue to evolve their arts curriculum through networks of practice, training days, as well as sharing ways of working and documentation.

To seal the deal, the school has a whole green-screen wall, perfect for the various film making projects that we had seen story-boarded in the students’ sketchbooks.

Lastly, Fourfields has a bright red double decker bus parked in the playground. This is the school’s library and is also used for storytelling. The interior has been converted for the purpose. Irene added some additional painting, stickers, stencils and accessories to enhance the space. The eye-catching designs were created by students through an in-house competition.

Red double decker library bus at Fourfields

Our visit to Fourfields Community Primary was organised by Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith. Thanks to Irene, Assistant Head Jake Heather, Design and Technology lead Helen Avory and the students for telling us all about the many arts things in their school. 

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.

Lansbury Lawrence: The thriving arts-rich legacy of The Festival of Britain

Lansbury Lawrence Primary was built in 1951 as a model school for the Festival of Britain. It was originally two schools. One was named after Elizabeth Lansbury, wife of George Lansbury, socialist leader of the Labour party, pacifist and conscientious objector, and Oliver Postgate’s (The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine) grandmother. The other was named after Susan Lawrence, then the MP for East Ham.

The Lansbury Estate is situated in Tower Hamlets, an area with history of social unrest and one of the most deprived areas of London, yet less than a mile from the central business district of Canary Wharf. 98% of the students at Lansbury Lawrence have English as a second language; the majority are of Bangladeshi origin.

This student-presented video on the school website, made by the school’s Arts Council, gives a good overview of the school and its history.

The school still retains many of the original 1950s features. These include the modernist now-grade II listed (irreplaceable!) Peggy Angus tiles – a design highlight of the Festival – in the foyer, the dinner hall and infants classroom – along with large windows which provide lots of natural lighting throughout the school.

Lansbury Lawrence foyer/reception area

Despite its urban setting, the school grounds contain ample green spaces, a secret woodland and trees that the Queen Mother planted, all protected by the terms of the Festival. The school now does Forest School learning, has an Edible Classroom and keeps chickens.

The links to the immediate local community were explicit. 

The children were collaborating with architects to re-design nearby Chrisp Street Market (also built for the Festival) as a Celebration City. They had visited the area, been granted special permission to climb up in the high clock tower and started creating initial ideas. Their models contained dream venues such as a zoo, funfair and a donut shop.

How has Chrisp Street Market changed over time?

Another project in progress was designing a new sculptural structure for the front reception area. This would display the school’s archive collection, and the models of structures contained photos of the school from the 1950s.

There was a wide range of media, styles and techniques on show in the art room, a large light (modernist!) space with lots of space to dry and store works in progress. 

There was also student art works on the walls and in the corridors including a mouth-powered drawing tool, movable cam machines and impressive Year 2 portraits of Emmeline Pankhurst (see top right)!

In the main foyer, next to the Peggy Angus tiles, sits the Michael Rosen Story House – a doll’s house in which each room, and the tiny objects inside them, represents a key incident in Michael’s incredible life.

Arts Lead Kerri Sellens gave us more information:

‘The box is a Barbican Box project. They used to do them annually. It was devised with Michael, around storytelling and his family history, then they invited schools to use the resource within the curriculum. The box has been gifted – one of four and ours to keep, and the children love it! We’ve been creative where we use it within our English and History curriculum, but it has been used within RE and P4C too’. 

The box contained a ‘volcano bag’ – full of essentials – always ready to grab if you had to leave your home in a hurry. Students are asked about what they would take with them and the things that are really important to them. Some of the rooms represent Michael’s family escaping persecution and the Holocaust. Kerri told me how one of the Year 6 topics is refugees, immigration and migration routes. To the students and staff at the school who came to the UK as refugees, the Box helps to make the learning purposeful and relevant.

There was also a shoe with diamonds hidden in the heel as a way for the family to pay and bribe their way across Europe. We are great admirers of Michael’s work, and having some knowledge of his links to Oliver Postgate and hence to George Lansbury, the Box seemed like a very precious and pertinent thing to be found in this school foyer.

The children had created their own 1950s-style box rooms complete with in-progress clay furniture. 

In a design project to create a set for a theatre, one of the students had won a competition run by the Royal Opera House. He won tickets for his whole class to watch the Romeo and Juliet ballet at the Royal Opera House.

Dance has been a focus of arts development at Lansbury Lawrence over the past few years.

While the students’ many and diverse art works show how the immediate area has changed physically and cultural since the Festival of Britain and the early 1950s, the school continues to radiate the sense of growth and optimism that characterise its modernist roots.

The Creativity Cart

Thanks to Arts Lead and Assistant Head Kerri Sellens for organising our day and showing us around, Head Teacher Owen O’Regan for the warm welcome, and to all of the students whom we met and interviewed about the arts they do at Lansbury Lawrence.

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 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.

School 21: Community, Openness and Humanity in Primary Arts

Arts-rich primary schools come in many shapes and sizes. The forty schools on our list were chosen to reflect this diversity. As well as ensuring a spread across the country that takes in urban, suburban, seaside, and rural schools, we deliberately selected different types of primary school.

School 21 is an all-through 4-to-18 years, three-form entry Free school in Stratford, East London. For them, Primary is Reception to Year 4. With Primary, Middle and Sixth form all in the same building, spaces and resources for their Primary arts are often shared with the older students. For example, Primary children had access to some of these amazing music spaces and resources.

Our guided tour was led by Primary Arts Lead Simon Santhanam. Simon is a trained Primary teacher with a specialism in art. We observed Simon teaching a class in the school’s large, light and open art room.

We got a good sense of School 21’s progressive approach to the arts from the art works displayed on the walls and shelves of the art room. Most noticeable were the giant papier-mâché heads of world leaders and political figures. There were also some posters and banners, all part of a project around politics and activism, a ‘The Queen is Dead’ multi-media work, and students’ models for playground ideas.

The school’s commitments to linking the arts to political and social issues was evident in the extensive work we saw around Black Lives Matter, refugees, LGBTQ+ and other issues. 

For example, in the corridors, there were two large Keith Haring-inspired murals in which each figure was based on a posed student. As part of the project, Year 3 students learned about Keith’s life, his work, and his death from Aids.

There were also a range of large, framed artworks of the school’s ‘Diversity Champions’. These two of Harvey Milk and Temple Grandin caught our eye.

Simon and Primary Head Meg Drummond told us about how diversity was central to the way that School 21 valued the arts. Students are encouraged to find their own individual style without worrying about ideas of perfection or getting it wrong. Simon explained: ‘I really want children to feel confident in their art making and to be able to express themselves’. 

The idea of self-expression is hard wired into the school’s ‘head, hand and heart’ ethos via their project-based curriculum. Meg and Simon told us how this approach fostered a thoughtful critical approach and knowledge of arts theories (head), stimulated emotions, expression and wellbeing (heart) and built technical skills in the use of various media (hand). 

The school has specialist arts teachers as well as visits by practicing professionals and ‘passionate parents’. The Primary students also make good use of their local area. The Olympic Park is very close, as are the canals that run through this area. Students had recently visited both sites to look at ecosystems, wildlife and nature.

School 21 has strong links with the nearby Discover Children’s Story Centre, an immersive space for narrative work and storytelling.

Simon, Meg and the students told us about their visits to the Science Museum (11 miles away), the Sea Life Centre (8 miles), Mud Shoot Farm (5 miles), and Tate Modern (6 miles away). With such cultural riches nearby (all are between five and eleven miles away), we learned how these trips are sometimes the first time some students have ever been on an underground train.

One of the school’s visits to the Tate was part of a project by high-profile artist Steve McQueen to photograph every Year 3 class in London. Not only were the photographs displayed at the school, but students and staff got to visit the resulting exhibition at the Tate.

We also learned about arts projects and regular exhibitions that brought parents, carers and families into the school to view their children’s work. The annual Big Draw festival and other arts workshops involve parents working alongside their children on collaborative art works.

This long exhibition of self-portrait plates on the outside fence was the product of a parent-child after-school session. Some students told us that this was one of the highlights of their school experience. As a fun and colourful display, the plates are artistic representation of the high levels of diversity at School 21.

Meg and Simon repeatedly mentioned how much they valued the role of the arts in the wellbeing of their students. Simon is training as an arts therapist. He spoke of wanting to develop this role within the school, carving out a space to work with students one-to-one and in groups. He was already helping other staff to integrate therapeutic methods into their arts teaching. Simon mentioned how such an approach helps students deal with ‘difficult lives’ and trauma.

The older Primary students told us how they had participated in arts projects around issues that were important to them and their communities. These included deforestation of the rain forests and gun crime. Simon told us how a therapeutic approach is about ‘being able to understand yourself and being able to move forward in life … about being able to be truly free and imaginative, and really focusing on the process rather than the end product’.

As an Ofsted rated Outstanding school, School 21 is now part of a growing network of pioneering, progressive schools rooted in the arts and in community. We also paid a quick visit to the nearby School 360 and learned about how oracy, play and outdoor learning are at the heart of their pedagogy.

We wish them all the very best in their important work.

We would like to thank Arts Lead Simon Santhanam for being our host and guide. Our thanks also go to Primary Head Meg Drummond and to all the students who took the time to share their thoughts about the arts with us.

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.

Cherry Grove: Art is your Human Right

Being a researcher of the arts in primary schools is a privilege. You’ve probably worked that out from our previous blog posts. Our visits to the schools on our list are a combination of a bespoke guided tour around an art gallery, where we can learn why and how the works took shape, and a backstage tour of a theatre where we get to see the nuts and bolts. The experience is overlain with the excited creative buzz of children in classrooms and corridors, some of whom share with us their insights into their arts lessons and clubs in focus groups.

This sense of privilege was at the forefront of our minds as we looked around Cherry Grove Primary near Chester, a Rights Respecting School who, like Torriano and Billesley, embed the workings of their school in UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Firstly, we were overwhelmed by the vibrancy and colourfulness of many of the student’s art works. The first room we entered was strung with paintings based on the work of Bob and Roberta Smith. With slogans such as ‘Art is Life’ and ‘Your mind belongs to you’, we knew we were in the right place.

Our visual senses were further stimulated by displays of art based on the work of Paul Klee, Jan Gardner and Marc Chagall, and a wall of eye-popping Pop Art/Shakespeare pieces.

Secondly, the students’ work on local buildings and landmarks gave us a strong sense of where we were. 

Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson is the driving force behind Cherry Grove’s arts-rich curriculum. She told us how she places an emphasis on the students’ skills in observation, of looking closely, and of ‘opening their eyes’ to see what is in front of them, not what they imagine. She also prioritises children’s skills in drawing.

As a long-standing leader of the school’s creative arts, Zoe is embedded in networks of arts practice. As well as keeping the arts lessons fresh and creative, the visiting artists and CPD sessions seem to be creating something of a regional visual arts style. We have seen this in other regions.

Thirdly, the students had produced art works in a range of media to explore topics such as the Mayans, Romans, Vikings, Galileo, Shakespeare and endangered animals.

Fourthly, while colour was the overriding theme of the first displays we saw, Zoe had worked with the students on a series of striking landscape projects that explored Henry Moore’s ideas of shelter, and the historical transport of paintings from the galleries of the big cities to the caves and mountains of nearby Wales during the Second World War.

Fifthly, the school were partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. Deputy Head Roz Artist told us that the students had been to Stratford upon Avon and performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She talked about how it was important to provide such ‘life changing opportunities’ that allowed the children to see the bigger world, and that would be remembered years down the line.

Zoe enthused about how these links had enriched what the school offered and had ‘taken things to another level’. Students had also visited the Tate in nearby Liverpool, all of which, Zoe explained, helped to put the school’s art into wider context, especially around widening the students’ perceptions about the scope and scale of the arts industry, and the possibilities of working in the arts.

Lastly, we were shown some of the students’ sketchbooks and their highly creative topic books. The fold-out flaps and cut-into designs created a sense of interaction while the students’ comments told us how much they loved exploring topics using art and creativity.

Thanks to Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson, Deputy Head Roz Artist, and to the focus groups of students from Years 4, 5 and 6, the Arts Ambassadors and those who attend extracurricular clubs.

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.

Everything with a purpose: Decluttering and decolonising at Billesley Primary

There is a sense of purpose at Billesley. Everything is done for a reason and often, that reason is research. 

The school’s 11-year journey from special measures to outstanding has involved centering the arts and embedding them in everything from the curriculum to the redesign of the physical infrastructure. Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal explained to us how, working with Billesley’s then Executive Principal and now Head of Curriculum and Virtual School for The Elliot Foundation Multi Academy Trust Johanne Clifton, they made the decision to address issues of student engagement, behaviour and communication, and build morals and respect through a well-informed arts-rich approach.

Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, currently studying for an MA in (Arts) Educational Leadership, told us how, as one of the Education Endowment Foundation’s 28 Research Schools, Billesley serves as a hub for educational research, sharing and discussing findings with other schools (including the other 28 schools in the Trust) through courses, webinars and coaching programmes. Research is also shared and utilised in the school through an extensive CPD and mentoring programme. 

Research on the impact of classroom design on students’ learning by the University of Salford led to changes that have included decluttering the learning spaces and corridors, making classrooms and reading spaces more comfortable and ‘homely’, adding lots of plants, softening the lighting and completely re-vamping the toilets. This is known as Biophilic design. 

Responding to the idea that the physical environment can improve not only academic success but behaviour and wellbeing (of staff as well as students), the school was ‘cleaned up’, redecorated and rebranded using just three colours – white, purple and green – the colours of the Suffragettes. Karl, Asima and others took an analytical child’s-eye view of the classrooms before removing anything that might distract the students from their learning by overloading their working memory. This included taking down many of the arts displays on the walls. We learned that the students had visited the nearby Digbeth Custard Factory and Selfridges store to get a perspective on what their new school environment might look like.

The critical analytical approach extends to the students. As part of the Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme, students regularly practice their skills in questioning, discussion and reflection, digging deeper into what they feel about the arts and what particular art works and artists might mean to them.

Billesley is also a Rights Respecting School (see also our blog post about Torriano). They have used their focus on the Articles of UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to frame projects on child refugees, child slavery and other issues. Asima told us how this works in practice at Billesley. Students not only know how their arts and other work links to one or more of the Articles, but also discuss how they can be proactive about their Rights. More importantly, Asima asserts, the students think about how to be proactive about the Rights of children in countries where they don’t have Rights, countries that have not ratified the treaty (such as the USA and Somalia). 

Billesley is a Rights Respecting school

Asima told us about a scheme in which the students boxed up presents and items for children in need. She told us how ‘that second level, about being proactive as a global citizen for children across the world, is probably more relevant for these children now because, even though we’re in an area which is quite deprived, they do have a standard of living and quality of life that wouldn’t be on the same level as children who haven’t in terms of Rights’.

Relatedly, Billesley has the Red Tree Fund, a charity set up following the death of a much-loved TA. The Red Tree Fund which focuses on developing the physical and mental well being of all children and has contributed towards developing ‘safe spaces’ across the school , and a Community House that distributes food boxes and serves as a comfortable space for families, carers and support workers.

Of course, we got to see some of the students’ art work, in their sketch books, in the corridors and on the new plinths. We also got to hear about their dance, drama and music lessons; Ray’s whole-class drumming sessions were proving very popular!

We aso learned about the school’s decade-long association with Stans’ Café who have worked on theatre projects, a giant marble run, the long roll of local neighbourhood-focussed art work that we saw on our visit, and the whole-school student-led research-based ‘What is a School?’ performance and book.

Billesley, which represents over 40 languages and 50 cultural backgrounds, also partners with Birmingham Rep, The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games (through the British Council), the RSA’s Performing Pedagogies, the Open Theatre (with a focus on autism) and is involved in other university research projects such as the Durham Commission and their research into creativity in education.

During the lockdown in 2020, Billesley conducted a thorough review of their curriculum, embedding the arts more deeply, and making sure that it reflected the needs of the ever-changing community. Decolonising the curriculum meant that Columbus and Darwin were replaced by radical women.

While there is comparatively little mention in this post of the specific arts activities in which the students are involved (rest assured, the students told us about plenty), we want to thank all at Billesley for helping us build a detailed and nuanced picture of what arts-rich schools do, how they reflect the community, who they link with, what they look, sound and smell like, and what they stand for.

Thanks to Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal and the students of Billesley for sharing their thoughts and experiences and for welcoming us into their school.

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.

‘There isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’: Hillstone Primary

Music and drama run through Hillstone Primary like the River Rea and the Digbeth Branch Canal run through nearby Birmingham, a city named after Boerma, its Anglo-Saxon founder.

How do we, from the East Midlands, know so much about our West Midlands neighbours? Well, Hillstone’s music and drama teacher Keith Farr wrote a musical for the students called The Birmingham Cantata, full of facts about history, heritage and culture.

The songs evoke the sights and smells of the region’s Industrial Revolution, detail the contributions of steam engine pioneers Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and celebrate Birmingham’s multi-cultural past and present.

In fact, turning topics into mini-operas is something of a speciality for Keith and his students. For example, after the school had been to watch the full 3-hour version of Madame Butterfly performed by school partners Welsh National Opera, students spent a week rewriting the story and songs in English. Forty-eight of them performed it onstage for their parents back at school.

After watching performances of Stravinsky’s Peter and the Wolf and The Firebird they wrote and composed music for their own Russian folk tales and performed them with a group of schools. They have also created a piece called Three Planets based on the three primary colours.

Students have also worked with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Rep, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many other cultural partners. 

We have written before about how little we get to see music and drama performances during our research visits. At Hillstone, we were lucky enough to watch (and sing along with) Keith’s pre-school rehearsal of a recently composed musical nativity, and attend (and participate in!) the after-school choir session.

The students’ enthusiasm for music performance was palpable. Immediately after one of our focus group interviews, Year 5 students insisted on playing for us on their guitars, trumpets, violins and clarinets, and singing some of the songs that they were rehearsing. 

With all of this musical confidence flowing through the school, it is no surprise that Keith places his emphasis on the process – the various problem solving, technical and other skills that the students learn while they are creating, shaping and rehearsing a work. 

Head teacher Gill Sparrow told us of her passion and support for the cross-curriculum integration of the arts, and for Keith’s methods. ‘There’s nothing that you couldn’t write a song about or create a dance to’ she explained, before adding ‘there isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’.

School bandstand

In addition to the benefits of the process, Gill stressed that everything that the students did had to have a purpose. That might be in the form of an exhibition, or a performance at the school or at local old people’s homes, or in the toy designing-and-making project they did with a professional toy maker.

As well as enhancing the curriculum and making it more enjoyable, Gill told us how the arts were particularly important for her students, their families and the local community. 51% of the students are on Free School Meals; the children’s families score high on markers of abuse and deprivation; many parents are third generation unemployed.

Gill told us that while many middle-class children may have easy access to ballet, the theatre and the wider arts, her mission is to provide ‘brilliant opportunities’ – high quality arts experiences that children have the right to access. As an arts-rich school for all of Gill’s 20 years as Head, the arts were enriching the school and transforming individual lives.

For example, one student had been taught some photography techniques by a teacher. He then went on to win a photography competition.

Every year, parents and carers attend the ‘Music for a Summer’s Evening’ concert in which at least a quarter of the children are involved (after auditions!). Teachers dress in posh clothes and local dignitaries attend. The audience has learned to take the event seriously – parents now stay until the end, watch all of the students perform, and clap after each act.

While Gill talked of the precarity of having arts specialisms driven by just one person, she has been keen to share her passion and knowledge by setting up ArtsLink, a network for Birmingham primary arts teachers.

The immersive environments in the school, produced through weekly workshops with arts professionals, themed around A Midsummer Night’s Dream (corridor installation, costume design, banners, performance, etc) and a Chinese Temple are lasting testaments to Gill’s commitments to an arts-rich education. 

The students’ enthusiasm for music, drama, and the wider performing arts were matched by the liveliness of their sketchbooks and by the art works on display around the school. 

So, in the words of one of the songs from The Birmingham Cantata:

Ignite the torch and lead the way. The light spreads far and wide.

Opens eyes and strengthens ties. Forward to the future.

Thanks to Head Gill Sparrow and Music and Drama lead Keith Farr for their warm hospitality and insights into their arts-rich school. Thanks also to all of  the students we met and interviewed.

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.