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.