About arts rich schools

Pat was recently invited to give the Radford Lecture at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference. Afterwards she wrote a post about her main points. Here it is.

One way or another, my research always concerns a “wicked” problem. I simply want to know how schooling can be made better and fairer for many more children and young people than is the case at present. I’ve taken this question into research projects on public policy and education systems, schools and school leaders work, and curriculum and pedagogy. The Covid postponed Radford lecture offered an opportunity to take one more step towards bringing some of these research strands together. So I chose social justice and arts education – or cultural education as it is called in England where I am currently based – as my topic.

Educators and researchers concerned with social justice and the arts often focus on questions of access. The broad and balanced curriculum that policymakers promise ought to include the arts. But it often doesn’t. The arts can get very short shrift compared to other curriculum areas. Or educators and researchers concentrate on how young people find their way into careers in the arts, a real social justice issue given that the creative industries are dominated by people from relatively advantaged backgrounds . And of course educators and researchers investigate how the arts can be taught well.

I wanted to add to the social justice and cultural education conversation. In the lecture I suggested that educational researchers concerned with social justice should be concerned about arts education for three additional reasons: 

1. When taught by arts teachers who understand all children to be capable, rather than starting from the position that some children have talent and some don’t, then all children can and do produce work that could be described as ‘high quality” or “excellent” . Or what I prefer to call beautiful work. Good arts teaching is a fine example of educational inclusion.

2. Good arts teaching within an “arts rich school” (see later) changes the probabilities and horizons of possibility for the students who typically don’t benefit from their schooling as they should. There is credible evidence for this proposition. Randomised control trials of arts interventions show that taking arts subjects does not undermine literacy and numeracy, or learning in other subject areas. You don’t have to sacrifice the basics to do arts. You can do it all. And several studies from the US and Canada show that young people who have studied the arts are not disadvantaged in their choices of, or selection by, universities. One very important corpus of longitudinal studies focuses on the “arts rich school” and shows that “low SES” students in arts rich schools have better attendance, are more motivated to do well and that their parents are more engaged with schooling than low SES students in arts poor schools. Most importantly, Catterall’s NELS study showed that low SES students in arts rich schools are more likely to go to college than their peers in arts poor schools. Catterall put this down to something about the culture and climate of the arts rich school, and the types of pedagogies in use. He says educational researchers have to look hard to find a more promising avenue for redressing inequity.

My own research on arts rich secondary and primary ecologies explains how the odds are changed. Arts rich school ecologies include committed senior and middle leaders who support the arts symbolically and in resource allocations. Expert teachers with capacious signature pedagogies offer children and young people a variety of ways of knowing, being, doing and relating in, to and with the world. Schools are engaged with a range of cultural organisations. Arts richness is integral to the school identity and improvement plans.

3. Students from arts rich schools are more engaged in the arts outside of school and are more civically engaged. In Catterall’s longitudinal study former arts rich school students also voted in far greater numbers than the national average. And the research that my colleague Chris Hall and I have done strongly suggests that children and young people from arts rich schools are appreciative, critical audiences and active cultural producers with the knowhow and experiences to use a range of media, platforms, genres and practices to have a say in the public conversations that matter to them. We call this cultural citizenship. Being able to “have a say” is a social justice issue and crucially important for those children and young people whose life experiences, interpretations and individual and collective views are often ignored. The arts support children to have a say.

This Radford lecture will eventually become a journal article for the Australian Educational Researcher. However, I am interested in whether there is any appetite from policy makers who say that social justice matters for a new arts based disadvantaged school programme. I reckon, as a once used political slogan said, “Its time”.

Marine Academy: Cheerleading for primary arts

Marine Academy is a double Outstanding primary that sits next to Marine Academy Secondary high up on a hill about three miles outside of the centre of Plymouth. The school’s partnerships with local cultural and arts institutions and networks of arts-rich education are extensive. 

Marine Academy Primary Ofsted quotation

The school is part of the Ted Wragg network of thirteen Devon schools that promotes a ‘passion for education and the difference it can make to further social justice, progression self-esteem and ultimately success for our children’.

They are also a National Support School. Headteacher Siobhan Meredith is a National Leader of Education (NLE). Senior Leader Nicola Keeler is the inclusion lead. Kingsley Clennel-White is the music and arts lead and the Dartmoor Leader of Education for Music. All three have roles in which they share their good work across regional teaching networks such as the Exeter Consortium

Early years outdoor learning area

In a deliberate move, the school has grown year on year from a single class of 26 reception students to today’s 480 allowing staff to learn how to embed the arts in meaningful and sustainable ways. 

Marine Academy has links with the University of Plymouth. Kingsley told us how his students had been there recently to work with clay, do some screen printing and to watch music performances. He used to be a guitarist in a Heavy Metal band; he proudly showed us his amps and Ibanez guitar, always ready to pull out and shred in the large well-stocked music-and-art room. 

Music and arts room

As an experienced multi-instrumentalist, Kingsley’s remit is to grow the number of students that take instrumental lessons. While most of the peripatetic sessions were funded by families (the school funds the lessons for less well-off students), the fees for many of the school’s 31 extra-curricular clubs were funded by the school.

We also spoke with Holly Holden-Turnbull, a Schools Direct trainee teacher (through Exeter University) who was currently bringing her passion for music to her Year 6 class. Holly has an extensive background in music and composition which includes a languages Degree with a focus on ethnomusicology, six months in Cuba during which she recorded a collaborative album, and experience touring as a musician and singer. Holly’s expressed her enthusiasm for primary music: ‘I feel really strongly about making sure that children experience art and music. From my own experiences, these have really helped me to most effectively express myself’.

We spoke to member of two of the 31 clubs – the cheerleaders and the street dancers. The street dancers had performed alongside other schools on The Hoe. The cheerleaders are taught by Emily from the Plymouth City Patriots Basketball team. They told me how cheerleading combines dancing, singing/chanting, athletics and gymnastics. They were excited that they might get to cheerlead at a Patriots game. Two of the group had had diving (artistry + athleticism) coaching sessions with local Olympians Tom Daley and Tonia Couch and had been earmarked as showing promise.

To Plymouth and beyond

We learned how the arts are central to the school’s strong commitment to the students’ mental health, wellbeing and inclusion. Kingsley provides bespoke arts and DT interventions for the students. These have included working on graffiti artworks, technical drawing, creating a playlist of songs that could then regulate the student both at school and home, and a raft of music-based interventions. Kingsley told us how the school’s pianos and keyboards had proved a particular success for many SEND students.

Other ‘symptoms’ of the school’s commitment to the arts and creativity are the rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs and other animals; the storytelling area; and decoupage, cake-making and other courses for parents run at the school by On Course South West.

As well as arts work linked to the local community, China, the world’s population and biomes, Marine Academy were celebrating their near-sea location with links with the National Marine Aquarium (the UK’s largest!) and the city’s naval past and present with a field gun after-school club. 

National Marine Aquarium (the UK’s largest!) and the city’s naval past and present with a field gun after-school club.

Kingsley told us about an ambitious project as part of the Mayflower Four Hundred commemorations which would have involved a thousand-strong children’s choir performing on the Hoe, telling the story of the Mayflower voyage through a ‘very complicated piece of musical work’. Unfortunately, COVID prevented the realisation of the project. We very much hope that as the pandemic loosens its grip, Marine Academy, and other arts-rich primaries with a passion for the performing arts can once again work towards such big collaborative events in front of audiences.

We also learned about Clan-Kind, a Plymouth based project designed to ‘develop a deeper connection between place and community by bringing together diverse groups to learn about the natural or built heritage in their neighbourhood in a participatory and unexpected way.’ The school has formed a ‘clan’ called the Five Well Wishers. 

Kingsley explained: ‘Just across the road and down a little bit, there’s an old hedge which we explored. We went down to an area where we found three water wells, which are still viable. Students were amazed that that community has been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, and that hedge was over two thousand years old’. 

A local person taught them about foraging and what plants could have been sourced for food in the past. The children went on to create a triptych in layered tissues paper, pulses and foam board using iconographic symbols to create a folk history of the area, something they also investigate in Year Five when creating Totem tiles as part of their clay work.

Many thanks to Arts and Music lead Kingsley Clennel-White, SL Nicola Keeler, Schools Direct trainee Holly Holden-Turnbull and the students with whom we spoke on the day.

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.

Nottingham’s favourite outlaw has an arts-rich school named after him. Welcome to Robin Hood Primary

Robin Hood Primary is a lively arts-rich school in Nottingham. To be precise, the school is situated four miles north of Nottingham in the large Bestwood housing estate, not far from the local town of Arnold. 

Robin Hood Primary in Nottingham

Despite our previous visits to Robin Hood primary on other arts-related business, there were so many new things that we learned about the school during our visit there on a frosty day in January.

For example, we never realised that the school buildings are completely surrounded by green space. It’s perhaps no surprise that the school keeps chickens and that all of the children do Forest School activities in specially created areas. 

Arts Lead Kerry Whiting told us how the students had been making art out of mud and sticks. There was lots of outdoor space for on-stage performances and the reading/learning Tepees, as well as an impressive Gaudi-esque structure that doubles as learning space. 

On our tour, Kerry pointed out lots of individual outdoor and indoor areas that had been developed for break-out, chill-out and small group learning purposes. 

We spoke with Clare Farrelly who has recently started leading Key Stage 1 Music. She also leads the Forest School sessions. We knew that this school takes their music seriously, and it was interesting for us to find out more about how they had been working with Nottingham Music Hub for the past nine years. As we discovered, Nottingham is one of just seven cities running the In Harmony programme, part-funded by the Arts Council. Robin Hood’s KS2 students all get to play either violin, viola or cello.

Clare told us how her KS1 students were enthusiastically working through some of the BBC’s Ten Pieces units. She told us how the singing in class and in assembly, coupled with rhythm and pitch work, was providing a valuable foundation for the extensive instrumental and vocal work that the students do in KS2.

Classroom made of hay!

Unsurprisingly, Robin Hood has a large hall for group rehearsals and public performances. Both ends of the hall can be used as a stage. Like the other musical schools we have visited, Covid has had a profound impact on rehearsals and performances. In 2021-22, Robin Hood are redoubling their commitments to music, dance and drama. 

The school also has a decade-long links with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the associate artists in drama, dance and visual arts. The partnership has led to Robin Hood students performing a Shakespeare play in Stratford.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream display

The school also has long established relationships with Nottingham Contemporary. Working with Assemble – architects from London – students’ clay work will form part of a big exhibition there in the Spring. Robin Hood also partners with Lakeside ArtsNew Art Exchange and Nottingham Castle. We know that there has recently been a big Paul Smith (Nottingham-based clothes designer) exhibition at the Castle. So we were excited to see that the students of Robin Hood had been recreating Smith’s trademark stripes and designs in their sketchbooks. 

Lastly, Robin Hood has an artist in residence who is bringing out the play in everyone. Laura Eldret specialises in multimedia work, installations and play – paper play, water play –  and getting older children and adults to play as part of their art making. Kerry was excited at how Laura was introducing new activities and methods to get staff and students to think about art in playful productive ways.

The school is looking forward to further embedding their dance offer by working with nearby Park Valley Academy, and to working on arts projects for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer.

We would like to thank Head teacher Nicky Bridges, Arts Lead Kerry Whiting, music teacher Clare Farrelly and all of the staff and students at Robin Hood.

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.