At RAPS, we have become experts at assessing arts-rich schools from the outside. Even before we step into the reception area, we pick up clues about how the school values the arts, creativity and wellbeing, how it welcomes students, parents and staff onto the site, and how it uses art to interact with families and the local community.
With that in mind …
Every street that surrounds Hotspur Primary has been ‘traffic calmed’ during school hours. No driving is allowed. Parents and students walk, cycle or park their cars further away. We were told that Hotspur are the first school in the country where this has happened. Located in the middle of the Shieldfield estate in Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, this is quite an achievement. Our visit (we cycled in!) coincided with visits from the BBC and the local press. SusTrans were fixing bikes and promoting cycling to school.
Facing the traffic-free streets, the outside fence was a long colourful art gallery created by students during lockdown:
The main school building nestles in trees and greenery – perfect for keeping cool on hot days. This dedication to nature and the outdoors extends to the school grounds and to the huge playing field and woods, the Forest School area, the sensory and flower gardens, the recycled greenhouse and the pond.
There is also an outdoor classroom and beautifully designed areas in which to relaxed, be inspired and learn in creative and artistic ways. The students told us about an annual outdoor project where they don’t use their regular classroom for a week.
Hotspur is well situated for cultural trips. The city centre is just 20 minutes’ walk away. The students and arts lead Jack Gardner talked about visits to the Laing Gallery and the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University. The Sage is also walkable.
Heaton itself has a reputation as a creative and artistic district while nearby Ouseburn has a host of arts studios and venues with which the school collaborates.
As we discovered, Hotspur have many cultural partners, something we are finding is characteristic of our art-rich primary schools. For six years, the school has participated in the Shakespeare Schools Festival creating performances with and at Northern Stage (‘the largest producing theatre company in the North East of England’).
While we were there, Jack (his background is in Drama) was working with students on The Tempest, both in school hours and in an after-school club. All of the children in Year 5 and half of Year 6 were involved in some way as performers. This year, the Shakespeare Schools Festival takes place in the People’s Theatre which has a 111-year history as a non-professional community theatre. George Bernard Shaw once performed there! Five schools in the charitable Ouseburn Learning Trust will perform alongside a a local contemporary dance group.
In fact, all three of the staff we interviewed had strong professional backgrounds in the performing arts (another pointer to the school’s arts-richness). Head teacher Kevin McVittie toured the world in Riverdance and has performed at Madison Square Gardens. Kevin talked about nurturing the students with a rounded opportunity-rich curriculum ‘to help them discover their spark’ something Kevin says he found in dancing. He explained how:
They get to experience a holistic curriculum and they get to be firmly steeped in values and beliefs that are ethically strong. I would say that our children leave Hotspur being able to look at the world with the eyes of an individual and able to interact with the world with compassion and empathy. And be someone that’s looking to have a voice in the world and be able to share that.
The students told us how Kevin had surprised them with a performance in the Hall. Hotspur has installed this long mirror and a sprung floor for dance lessons.
Music lead Joe Johnston was a full-time musician. He moved into working with music in theatres and venues including the Sage, leading choirs and teaching music in schools and other settings to children and older adults. Joe talked about his use of Kodaly, talked us through his rainbow stave and showed us the range of instruments played by Hotspur students:
We were told that the previous Head was a musician and was especially keen on singing. We discovered that Hotspur take their singing very seriously. They have achieved a Platinum Sing Up award ‘for their singing activity and ability to inspire their communities through singing’.The choir has sung at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Sage and at Newcastle City Hall where they sang with the other schools in the Ouseburn Trust.
Apart from the fence gallery, we saw other visual art – 3D paper sculptures, a long textile map of the river Ouseburn and its buildings, and this quilted rainbow ‘No Outsiders’ handprint wall hanging.
The school had also taken part in the ‘Take One Object’ project with the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle University and two other local primary schools including RAPS school West Jesmond. Students had worked with two objects from the collection for two weeks to produce creative writing and art. The project involved families and visits to the other schools. You can see the results here.
Finally, the students talked excitedly about the BALTIC ‘art-in-a-bus’ travelling gallery that drives around local schools.
Its current project is ‘What’s for Tea?’ – food themed art! The students told us that when the bus came to Hotspur, they had made art out of sour dough. They talked about pieces made of shells that were made to look like meat and explained that the work was about fake meat and the ‘cardboard’ that makes its way into the burgers made by fast-food restaurants.
Subsequently, the bus had visited the local housing estates where the students could talk expertly to their parents and families about the art displays on the bus, what they had created and make new intergenerational art.
On a hot day, it was wonderful to be in this creative, calming, car-free environment and learn all about how the arts can inspire children, their families and their communities.
Many thanks to Arts lead Jack Gardner for arranging our visit, showing us around and giving us insight into Hotspur’s art-rich offer. Our thanks also go to Head teacher Kevin McVittie, Music lead Joe Johnston and to the Year 5 and 6 students and Arts Ambassadors for their perspective on all things creative and artistic.
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.