You may have seen one or two of the many news reports (Channel 4), TV features (Blue Peter; Countryfile) 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.
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.
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.
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.