Beneath the streets and above our heads: London’s Soho Parish Primary

In this phase of our RAPS project, we are visiting 40 arts-rich primary schools all over England. Apart from their distinctive arts-richness, our schools were chosen (from a much longer list of recommendations from arts bridge organisations) for their diversity. We have deliberately selected a variety of locations (urban, suburban, seaside, rural), counties, types (academies, faith schools, free schools, etc.), sizes (from less than 100 students to over 700), demographics (affluent, deprived, a combination – economically and culturally) and interesting arts curricula, pedagogies and ways of timetabling. Our job is to capture the uniqueness of each school with all its opportunities and challenges. RAPs project leader Pat Thomson refers to the ‘thisness’ of educational institutions.

With all of that in mind, let us introduce you to Soho Parish Church of England Primary, situated in the heart of London’s West End.

The school  is linked to the 450-year-old St Anne’s Church, a 4-minute walk down Wardour Street and Old Compton Street. The church gardens are often used for outdoor learning, so much so that an ‘Art Loo’ has been installed that only students from the school can access with a special key.

Now a tall Victorian building built in the 1870s, Soho Parish is situated on the corner of a busy block of offices, bars and shops. There is evidence that there has been a local school since the 1600s. One side of the school has ornate architecture, the other, a plain doorway. We suspect that most people may walk past daily and not know that the school was there. Staff told us that, for as long as anyone can remember, Soho Parish has been an arts-rich school. 

The school rubs shoulders with the many nightclubs, theatres, performance venues, cabaret bars and visitor attractions that characterise Soho and the immediate area. 

Inside, the school is a maze of brightly-coloured corridors and staircases (so you can tell which area you are in) and has retained many original features – high ceilings and school bells.

Soho Parish school hall

There are three floors above ground and one below. It amazed us to think that the main Hall, the music room and other spaces were beneath the busy streets and pavements.

View from the playground

Standing in the small playground, we were surrounded on every side by offices and tower blocks which are a mix of private and social housing.

Innovatively, the playground had been extended upwards with a multi-level structure made of netting, ropes, decking and a roof terrace.

However, an unusual location and a quirky building alone are not enough to make it onto our list! Arts lead Hannah Peaty showed us some of the students’ art work – based on the work of James Rizzi (‘Mapping the City’), the alien book character Beegu (about the idea of home) and the British/Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare (a library of individual book spines), and others.

Students from all year groups had also helped to make this impressive wall-sized mosaic that reflected their diverse backgrounds and the local environment.

Large mosaic

Three years ago, Hannah set up a network for arts teachers in Westminster schools which now links the school to the Craft Council, the Primary Shakespeare Company and other partners. She spoke of the benefits that an art-rich curriculum can offer the students – self-confidence, self-esteem, self-expression, and the creativity that helps them think outside the box and make connections.

While the school faces specific challenges (like other Westminster primaries, applications are down by 25%), the countless museums and galleries within walking distance, or a short hop on the bus, provide Soho Parish with perhaps unparalleled cultural learning opportunities for primary school children.

For example, Hannah told us how the Year 6s do a yearly scriptwriting project with the Soho Theatre in which professional actors perform the students’ scripts. We learned how the West End theatres sometimes offered the school unsold tickets for matinee performances. Staff spoke about links with the National Gallery and, more unusually perhaps, art and design projects with the London Transport Museum. In addition, the school choir had sung at the Christmas tree lights switch-on at Downing Street. Like one or two other staff on our visits, Hannah told us that she politely has to decline some of the many offers of projects and partnerships.

As part of a project with local architect Antonio Capelao, the students had designed Christmas lights, 21 of which were chosen to be made into actual illuminations that surrounded the school’s block. The big switch-onwas conducted by the Mayor of Westminster and the school’s two student Mayors, dressed in their robes with the keys to Soho for the day.

Mindfulness room - green with cushions on the floor and soft lighting

Finally, to balance and compliment all of this busy creative activity, Hannah teaches mindfulness. For 30 minutes each week, each student gets to chill out, focus and be alert in a dedicated basement room. This quiet space seemed far away from the hustle and bustle of the central London streets above our heads.

A small beige dog lying on a green blue tartan rug

Relatedly, we got to meet Crawford, the in-training school therapy dog, a calming presence for us during our interviews and for all who inhabit this truly unique primary school. 

Many thanks to Art Lead Hannah Peaty for her time and efforts in organising our visit and explaining everything. Thanks also to Head Louise Ritchie and all of the other staff and students for their insights. 

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.