Newlyn: The opportunities and challenges of a seafront Cornish arts-rich primary school

Newlyn is a small fishing village on the south coast of Cornwall, just over a mile west of Penzance. The school of 120 students sits just up the hill from the seafront. Even on a misty morning, you can see St Michael’s Mount from the library’s big bay window.

And while Newlyn Primary school is on the same street as a long-established and prestigious contemporary art gallery, in the same village as three private commercial art galleries, and a short mini-bus drive from places of arts and culture, Newlyn is an area of high poverty. Head teacher Isabel Stephens told us that ‘50% of our children come from an estate which is in the bottom 10% economically in Europe. 43% of the children are on free school meals.’

Four years into her role, Isabel talked about the substantial changes she had made to the curriculum in order to rebrand the school around the arts and encourage parents (and staff) to apply. In fact, the arts which now drive ‘everything’. Students study a diverse range of artists, while focussing on skills progression and conceptual understanding.

For example, the students spoke of their recent visit to a workshop by ex-Brixton resident Denzil Forrester, as part of Black Voices of Cornwall’s Captured Beauty exhibition at the Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange. Denzil’s large canvas in the gallery was of a reggae sound-system event, full of dancers and DJs. 

Dezil Forrester

Denzil told the children how he used to sketch in the semi-darkness of the dancehalls, capturing the dynamic free-flowing movements of the dancers. The students were excited about the workshop and their own ‘gestural drawings’, sometimes created with charcoals and pencils in each hand. 

The students also talked about their visits to the dramatic cliff-top open-air Minack Theatre to watch plays and musicals and to perform themselves. We learned how Year 5 were putting the finishing touches on their performance of a scene from The Tempest in collaboration with other local schools.

Minack Theatre

We were excited to discover that Newlyn Primary has its own art gallery. A diverse range of paintings, collages and sculptures are currently on loan from Newlyn Art Gallery and Cornwall Council as part of the Think, Talk, Make Art project funded by Arts Council England, the first time such art works have been allowed into a school. These include a large canvas by local (St Ives) artist/sculptor Barbara Hepworth

The school established links with Newlyn Art Gallery to facilitate the selection of the pieces and make plans for the children to act as curators and guides once the art works had been re-installed in their original home (still delayed by Covid). The scheme has been extended by a successful application for Paul Hamlyn Foundation Teacher Development funding to get artists from Newlyn Art Gallery to work with teachers.

Isabel talked about being ‘properly terrified’ at the monetary value of the art works; one child said ‘I can’t believe that Newlyn school children are allowed something like this’. Once again, we had to remind ourselves that we were in a primary school, not a contemporary art gallery. 

Isabel described the impact of the gallery as ‘absolutely huge’:

All of the work I was doing on behaviour and respecting others could be reinforced by the fact that they had the gallery’ she explained. ‘The children were trusted with something and their behaviour towards it has always been totally respectful’.

She also talked about a rise in the students’ self-esteem and their vocabulary and language from guiding visitors (like us) around the art works and offering their commentary.

Like many other schools, Newlyn are rebuilding their strong music and performing arts provision after Covid. Cornwall schools were hit later than other regions, but just as hard, due to their geographical isolation.

The students’ art works on the walls and in their sketchbooks matched the vibrancy, diversity and impact of those in the loaned gallery:

The students talked to us about doing arts projects around the local culture and locations – tin mining, fishing, Saint Michael’s Mount, dragons and legends. They also described printing onto paper with actual fish! They were also excited at being involved in the upcoming Golowan festival parade.

‘I think you’ve got to be quite brave to focus on art’ Isabel explained.

Rest assured that the ‘brave new world’ promised in Shakespeare’s The Tempest is taking shape in the form of this fascinating arts-rich primary school.

Many thanks to Head Teacher Isabel Stephens, Art Coordinator and Year 4 teacher Rebecca Rollason, teacher Julie Wood, TA Rowena Baldwin and the Year 4 and 5 students we spoke with 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.

Horfield: Self-portraits, choral speaking and a 100-strong choir at this ambitious Bristol primary

Horfield is a Church of England primary of 407 students located three miles outside of Bristol town centre.

During our visit, we got to see and hear how the visual and performing arts were being used for inspiration (staff talked about ‘the magic of learning’) and personal transformation.

All of the Senior leaders that we spoke with have arts backgrounds. Assistant Head Kirsten Cunningham has a Degree in Music and an MA in musicology and continues to perform as a singer and orchestral percussionist. She also works for Bristol Beacon as a music consultant. Arts coordinator Laura Hilton has a Degree in Art and Design and has worked as a freelance fashion textile designer and a visual manager for Debenhams and Marks and Spencer.

The sense of purpose and ambition for the arts was palpable in this ArtsMark Platinum school. We were told how staff were recruited for their arts specialisms. In addition, cultural partners and expert practitioners were utilised to lift the quality of learning and teaching, and to provide new exciting new experiences. 

All students in the school have the opportunity to play an instrument, and from Year 3, to sing in the 100 strong school choir. The long list of peripatetic lessons includes double bass, euphonium, cello and cornet. The staff were excited to tell us about Earthsong a large, funded project that provides free music lessons for five years in thirteen Bristol schools. 

Earthsong has been featured on BBC Radio 3.

Laura told us that the arts ‘give every child an equal voice’ and explained how the school draws students from a very wide range of socio-economic backgrounds.

Students had worked with composer Richard Barnard from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, one of the school’s partners. 

Year 4’s music composition work was arranged for us to see. Richard Barnard has made short videos of him performing the children’s scores on piano. See if you can follow the dots!

Midsummer Night’s Dream score and writing

We were invited to an in-class performance of Labi Siffre’s anthemic ‘Something Inside So Strong’. The Year 4’s strong harmonies and confident call-and-response parts reminded us of music’s power to communicate hope and resistance in the face of oppression. 

‘Something inside so strong’ sung by Horfield’s Year 4s

We also got to see a Year 1 class practising their choral speaking. The actions and performance were clearly helping the students to remember and communicate a lengthy piece of text. 

Music and visual art were combined in these blazing firebirds inspired by the music of Stravinsky:

Horfield’s art curriculum focusses on skills progression and techniques – colour, drawing, understanding space and shape, textiles, printing, etc. 

Kirsten talked about how they balance skills with creativity: ‘We are really deeply ambitious for our children. You can see that the quality of the work is really high. Teaching these technical skills can take their learning further. But at the same time, that meaningful memorable ‘wow’ factor is really important too.’

Horfield use self-portraits to document and assess students’ progress. They have taken part in Art Bytes, a national art and EdTech programme for primary, secondary and SEN schools that combines an inter-school art competition with a bespoke virtual gallery. 

Horfield’s top three selections will go forward to wider regional and national competitions The winner is on one of the display boards below. Choose your winner before clicking here to see which ones the school selected. 

As well as the realism and detail that had caught the judges’ eyes, we were impressed by these striking colourful semi-abstract Year 5 self-portraits:

… and these Andy Warhol-inspired Year 1 pieces:

The visual arts were also being combined with writing in creative and artistic ways.  ‘Imagination Station’ is their way of encouraging children to explore and be brave visually, and to fuse images with words to inspire high quality creative writing.

High quality texts are used as the inspiration for creative visual responses:

Each year, the school adopts a ‘metaphor’ which is visualised through art works, creative writing, song composition and the sharing of books. This year the metaphor ‘journeys’ allowed children to consider not only the journeys of explorers and migration but also metaphorical and imaginative journeys.  

From students and staff, we heard about how the arts are being used to explore issues such as homelessness and the natural world. The students worked with resident composer Claire Alsop to compose Song of the Sea.

Kirsten told us how getting real-life artists and composers into the classroom enabled students to see themselves as artists and to understand that they could pursue this as a career. 

‘Our role and privilege as teachers’, she explained, ‘is to open doors to them, and for them to experience art and be inspired by art in its widest forms.’ 

We can testify that such arts-richness is as equally inspiring for grown-up arts education researchers!

Thanks to Assistant Head Kirsten Cunningham and Arts Coordinator Laura Hilton for hosting us, and to Creative Writing lead and Year 6 teacher Kirsty Jones and all the Horfield students who spoke with us and sang to us.

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 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.

Somerleyton: Small school. Big on the Arts

Somerleyton Primary is in the village of the same name about four miles inland from Lowestoft in Suffolk on the edge of the Norfolk Broads. Despite being the smallest school in our project (60 students), they punch well above their weight when it comes to the Arts and DT.

In the context of our project, Somerleyton are unique in other ways. Like many other houses in this ‘model village’, the school has a thatched roof. And they use the village green as their playing field for PE and other activities.

Before we got to talk with headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the students, we watched a pre-school street dance lesson. While the session was led by a dancer who rotated around the other schools in the MAT, we found out later that arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews had a degree from the Royal Academy of Dance on the art and teaching of classical ballet and had worked as a dance teacher for about six years before returning to university to qualify as a primary school teacher. Needless to say, the lively street dance set us up for a day of hearing, watching and learning about the performing arts, Somerleyton’s specialist area. 

We heard about how students had recently performed in front of five hundred or so people at Snape Maltings, an internationally renowned concert hall with which Somerleyton has an ongoing relationship. In previous projects, the students were singing alongside the National Youth Choir for Scotland and the Choir for Cornwall. They had built their performance skills (‘They’re unfazed by that scale of audience or that scale of venue’: Victoria) through the extensive music provision at the school. 

Listen to the orchestra below:

Orchestra rehearsal – The Pink Panther

It was a treat to sit in the middle of the school orchestra as they rehearsed. Half of the students in the school were participating (nearly 30 students) – on flutes, saxophones, clarinets, and glockenspiels. The instruments and teaching are provided by the Suffolk Music Service. Year 6 had built their flute skills through daily ten-minute practice sessions during term one of Year 3 and were now able to read from the scores of the Star Wars theme and a swung jazz piece that we heard.

Victoria told us about the many benefits the students derived from the music sessions: ‘There is a lot of collaboration and teamwork that gets developed through just the orchestra alone … they develop their ability to listen to others. You can’t work on your own. You’ve got to be empathetic’. 

The school are keen to make high quality music tuition accessible to every student. We learned how the children don’t pay for their music lessons or instrument hire. The service is part-funded by PTFA funds through a big annual fete on the village green. The teachers told us how they had fond memories of attending the event when they were children. Somerleyton students are preparing for their appearance at the fete this year – we were thrilled to hear that they were going to sing ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, a Kinks’ song that wistfully captures the idyllic picture postcard setting of duck ponds, thatched cottages and old oak trees in which the school is set. 

The cottages on the green and many in the village are in fact former workers’ cottages for Somerleyton Hall and the Estate. It was fascinating to hear how two of the students had family members who were ex-blacksmiths who still had their forges, bellows and anvils at home. One girl talked to us about making a sword (‘quench it in strong coffee to give it a dark and old fashioned texture’), another about making jewellery with her blacksmith dad. 

With only around ten new students each year, Somerleyton combine year groups; Years 3 and 4 form a single class of around 15 students, Years 5 and 6 combine in a class of 19. Demand is high for the school’s arts-rich offer.

Victoria explained how: ‘because of the region that we’re in, predominantly white, middle class and rural, it’s important for students to have a broad diet and to expose them to other cultures and other people’s opinions. The art and the music are ways in which we can deliver that those experiences for them’.

Years 3 and 4 had just starting a unit on Surrealism (‘it’s really cool because there’s endless possibilities’: Year 4 student). Their studies of Jazz music had expanded to look at Black artists who challenged racial stereotypes. Art teacher Naomi and the team were consciously focussing on diversifying the artists and art movements that the students studied.

As well as the visual arts and DT work that we saw (including the electric powered light-up cars below), the school had links with the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft where they had been involved in a dance festival, and a playwriting competition where the children had their plays brought to life by a team of professional actors. 

The school also work with the Benjamin Britten Pears charity. They have recently produced a fabulous video of their virtual choir performance of ‘Movement’ from EVERYTHING by Russell Hepplewhite and Michael Rosen for the Britten Pears premiere.

Somerleyton are currently involved in the First Light Festival, an event in Lowestoft set up by filmmaker Danny Boyle (his Yesterday was partly filmed in Lowestoft) and fashion designer Wayne Hemingway (local boy!) hooked around a 24-hour solstice party! 

Head teacher Oli told us how creativity was very much at the heart of the school (it is one of their four core values) and how it impacts every part of the curriculum.

In this Jubilee year, Somerleyton are gearing up for extra performances on the Green, at street parties and beyond. As a tiny school that makes a big tuneful and rhythmic noise, we wish them all the best now that singing and performing to an audience are very much back on the agenda.

Listen to the choir below:

Somerleyton choir

Many thanks to Headteacher Oli Clifford, arts lead Victoria Speed-Andrews, teacher Lily Foster and the selection of Year 4, 5 and 6 students whom we spoke with on out visit to Somerleyton Primary.

Note: If you are ever lucky enough to visit this bucolic village, bear in mind that the train only visits every two hours. We made sure we got to the station in plenty of time!

Somerleyton station
Somerleyton station

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.

‘When there’s a high note, I just sing my heart out’: Rights, Diversity and the Performing Arts at Allens Croft Primary

Allens Croft is a Platinum Arts Mark school in King’s Heath, five miles south of the centre of Birmingham. During our visit, we spoke to students and staff to get the inside story of the many benefits the arts bring to their school.

‘Always your teachers’: The rainbow-fronted Allens Croft Primary

We learned how Allens Croft are specialists in the performing arts, particularly drama. Arts Lead Dan Jones spoke highly of the school’s partnership with The Hippodrome, an iconic late 19th Century theatre in the city centre. As well as having a Hippodrome learning officer in the school for one day a week, Dan and the students told us about the plays and musicals they had performed at the theatre. As part of their partnership, the school also gets to see many professional productions. 

Students told us about how much they love playing steel pans, ukuleles and other instruments in their music lessons. They were enthusiastic about the regular ‘X Factor’-style Talent Shows. The professional lighting and sound equipment in the Hall was evidence to how serious the school took these competitions.

We spoke with the boy who had won the previous year’s talent show as a rapper. This led to a discussion about whether rapping, DJing and making music on a computer should be taught in primary schools. We spoke with students who did all of these things at home, sometimes with a parent or family member. One student suggested that stand-up comedy should also be on the timetable. We wondered whether this has happened in other schools. There’s a first time for everything!

The school are also partnered with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Birmingham-based Linden Dance CompanyNew Wave Arts/Birmingham Music Service, and The Play House (Theatre in Education) company.

Allens Croft also have links with BCMG (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) with whom they are involved in a research project. We also learned about the students’ visits to the Brandwood Centre, a local community centre where they help out with the art club, and sing. They also visit Pineapple Place, a residential home for older adults where they sing at Christmas time. 

Dan talked about his five-year journey to achieve the Platinum Arts Mark and described the process as extremely valuable in raising the standards of the arts in the school. With a Master’s in Work Based Learning (Drama), Dan was clear about the ways that the arts benefitted his students; an alternative place to be successful, especially for those that struggle to engage with the more academic subjects; an opportunity to build language skills from Reception onwards, and; and as a focus to foster social skills (Dan’s MA dissertation was on this very subject) by mixing abilities and getting students to work with different people each time.

Dan also stressed the value of the Arts Connect network of Birmingham schools set up by Gill Sparrow, Head of Hillstone Primary (one of our RAPS schools) in east Birmingham, and the staff he had met from Billesley Primary (another school in our project), just two miles away from Allens Croft. There must be some creativity flowing through the canals of Birmingham!

From the front of the school, it’s clear that Allens Croft take diversity and inclusion seriously. The giant rainbow is a symbol of the extensive work they do on issues around race, LGBTQ+ (through Educate and Celebrate – a charity that supports schools to talk about homophobia and LGBTQ+ issues), and domestic abuse (through Operation Encompass). Like other schools we have visited, Allens Croft is a UNICEF Rights Respecting School

Headteacher Paula Weaver (first Degree in Furniture Design, former secondary DT teacher) told us how diversity, inclusion, the respect of rights and a focus on oracy were hard-wired into the school’s mission to produce students who can ‘regulate their emotions … know how to interact with people … [and] celebrate difference’. Paula explained how the school are ‘really good at managing anxieties and trauma’ and how that has attracted a high proportion of special needs children.

We enjoyed talking to three such students – the animated Arts Ambassadors in The Turtles. The quote in the title of this blog post comes from one of them. As well as telling us about some of their art works and projects, and showing us some work in progress, they sang us a sea shanty. However, despite talking excitedly about Disney’s Encanto, they did not want to talk about Bruno!

While Paula mentioned that the arts at Allens Croft were ‘seriously embedded’, Dan (‘every school should have a Dan’: Paula) has plans to develop the visual arts in the ‘constantly evolving’ curriculum and continue to support students’ wellbeing and social skills through the arts after the disruptions of Covid.

We wish all the best to Headteacher Paula Weaver, Arts Lead Dan Jones, and all of the Year 4, 5 and 6 students who we spoke with on our visit, not forgetting The Turtles! Thanks for inviting us into your arts-rich school to learn about your great work.

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.

‘Our children bounce in every morning’: LIPA Primary and High School

Situated next to Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral (the largest religious building in Britain!), LIPA Primary and High School is the arts-rich junior sibling of Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (‘big’ LIPA) and LIPA Sixth Form. 

Needless to say, creativity is woven through the school’s arts-enriched project-based curriculum, as well as all of the extra-curricular clubs, performances, displays and partnership projects we saw and heard about on our recent visit.

Starting with two reception classes in 2014, this free school now runs to Year 7. From September 2021, they became an ‘all through school’ that will eventually provide education for children from ages 4 to16. The school will have a Year 7 and a Year 8 from September 2023.

From the classrooms, we could see across the whole city, including Catholic Cathedral, the famous Liver Building and the Albert Docks – an inspiring sight! 

This all-encompassing view of an extremely cultural city serves as an apt metaphor for the extent to which LIPA Primary and High School partner with local arts institutions, draw on Liverpool’s vibrant culture and work with their community.

We loved seeing art works representing a Lambanana, a mermaid at nearby Crosby Beach and a rainbow containing some of the 45 languages spoken by children at the school. All were on display in this circular Art Room with large windows, situated in the ‘pepper pot’ on the corner of the school.

In the corridor, there was a long ‘In My Liverpool Home’ display. Ken Dodd, Cilla Black, Ricky Tomlinson, Lilly Savage and other local celebrities could be found among the houses and landmarks. Eighteenth century wash-house pioneer, public health reformer and working-class entrepreneur Kitty Wilkinson could be seen peering over the Cathedral where she is immortalised in stained glass. Students had recently visited her grave there. 

In my Liverpool Home

There were also drawings of fireworks exploding over the Liver Building and examples of Chinese writing – LIPA Primary and High School is located around 100 metres from Chinatown. We also learned about the students’ visits to and performances in the Cavern Club.

Artist in residence of six years, Jayne Seddon, told us about some of LIPA’s other learning projects. With her professional practice in ecological arts, Jayne leads the school’s Eco Arts Club who create drawings and art works, often in the green spaces around the Cathedral’s Oratory, right next to the school. Reception and Year 1 have created a wildflower garden and lots of nature art in this space.

Year 2 had recently visited Tracey Emin’s pink neon text art in the Cathedral before making their own similar art works. Arts Lead Rebecca Oakes and Jayne told us how Emin’s art had stimulated the children’s critical engagement; it prompted them to question the nature of art and discuss the place of living female artists in relation to the ‘great Masters’.

LIPA children have been involved with Light Night (‘the biggest cultural celebration in Liverpool’) for the last four years. They have created public-facing music performances, exhibitions and arts workshops.

Students were also involved in an innovative ‘art and astronomy’ project that emerged from a contact with staff working on a new robotic telescope at Liverpool John Moores University.

Students told us how working on arts projects had helped them process the effects of the taxi explosion at the Women’s Hospital, less than a mile from the school. The school understands the cathartic role of art in their lives of their students and their communities.

It almost goes without saying that LIPA Primary and High School have a strong commitment to music and the performing arts. With expert music, dance and drama teachers, a number of performing arts teaching and performance spaces and the capacity to draw on specialist staff from big LIPA and the Sixth Form, this school are training the next generation of LIPA graduates while flying the flag for primary performing arts. 

One final project exemplifies not only the school’s strong links with local institutions, but also their expansive world view.

LIPA Primary and High School have partnered with the Open Eye photography gallery, located on the Albert Dock. The school are working on a project called ‘the Story of Liverpool through its trees’ that connects children with their parks and the history of the city.

The school also has links with the Katali Museum in Kenya which has a rainforest as part of the museum. Jayne and Rebecca told us about a planned visit to the Open Eye in which LIPA students would link by Zoom with the Kenyan students in order to share their tree-based art works and see each other’s environments. On the afternoon visit, LIPA students would not only see the other children walking in a rainforest and be able to ask them questions, but would also work with a musician to write a song in the gallery. 

Jayne commented that she loved the two-way dynamic of working with children as artists, and stressed ‘the expanse of knowledge that can be implemented through one project’. We were unsurprised when Rebecca told us that: ‘Our children love being in our school. They bounce in every morning. They love learning’.

Our thanks go to Arts Lead Rebecca Oakes for organising our visit. Thanks also to Head teacher Greg Parker, artist in residence Jayne Seddon and to the students of LIPA Primary and High School for their valuable insights into their arts-rich school.

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.

School 21: Community, Openness and Humanity in Primary Arts

Arts-rich primary schools come in many shapes and sizes. The forty schools on our list were chosen to reflect this diversity. As well as ensuring a spread across the country that takes in urban, suburban, seaside, and rural schools, we deliberately selected different types of primary school.

School 21 is an all-through 4-to-18 years, three-form entry Free school in Stratford, East London. For them, Primary is Reception to Year 4. With Primary, Middle and Sixth form all in the same building, spaces and resources for their Primary arts are often shared with the older students. For example, Primary children had access to some of these amazing music spaces and resources.

Our guided tour was led by Primary Arts Lead Simon Santhanam. Simon is a trained Primary teacher with a specialism in art. We observed Simon teaching a class in the school’s large, light and open art room.

We got a good sense of School 21’s progressive approach to the arts from the art works displayed on the walls and shelves of the art room. Most noticeable were the giant papier-mâché heads of world leaders and political figures. There were also some posters and banners, all part of a project around politics and activism, a ‘The Queen is Dead’ multi-media work, and students’ models for playground ideas.

The school’s commitments to linking the arts to political and social issues was evident in the extensive work we saw around Black Lives Matter, refugees, LGBTQ+ and other issues. 

For example, in the corridors, there were two large Keith Haring-inspired murals in which each figure was based on a posed student. As part of the project, Year 3 students learned about Keith’s life, his work, and his death from Aids.

There were also a range of large, framed artworks of the school’s ‘Diversity Champions’. These two of Harvey Milk and Temple Grandin caught our eye.

Simon and Primary Head Meg Drummond told us about how diversity was central to the way that School 21 valued the arts. Students are encouraged to find their own individual style without worrying about ideas of perfection or getting it wrong. Simon explained: ‘I really want children to feel confident in their art making and to be able to express themselves’. 

The idea of self-expression is hard wired into the school’s ‘head, hand and heart’ ethos via their project-based curriculum. Meg and Simon told us how this approach fostered a thoughtful critical approach and knowledge of arts theories (head), stimulated emotions, expression and wellbeing (heart) and built technical skills in the use of various media (hand). 

The school has specialist arts teachers as well as visits by practicing professionals and ‘passionate parents’. The Primary students also make good use of their local area. The Olympic Park is very close, as are the canals that run through this area. Students had recently visited both sites to look at ecosystems, wildlife and nature.

School 21 has strong links with the nearby Discover Children’s Story Centre, an immersive space for narrative work and storytelling.

Simon, Meg and the students told us about their visits to the Science Museum (11 miles away), the Sea Life Centre (8 miles), Mud Shoot Farm (5 miles), and Tate Modern (6 miles away). With such cultural riches nearby (all are between five and eleven miles away), we learned how these trips are sometimes the first time some students have ever been on an underground train.

One of the school’s visits to the Tate was part of a project by high-profile artist Steve McQueen to photograph every Year 3 class in London. Not only were the photographs displayed at the school, but students and staff got to visit the resulting exhibition at the Tate.

We also learned about arts projects and regular exhibitions that brought parents, carers and families into the school to view their children’s work. The annual Big Draw festival and other arts workshops involve parents working alongside their children on collaborative art works.

This long exhibition of self-portrait plates on the outside fence was the product of a parent-child after-school session. Some students told us that this was one of the highlights of their school experience. As a fun and colourful display, the plates are artistic representation of the high levels of diversity at School 21.

Meg and Simon repeatedly mentioned how much they valued the role of the arts in the wellbeing of their students. Simon is training as an arts therapist. He spoke of wanting to develop this role within the school, carving out a space to work with students one-to-one and in groups. He was already helping other staff to integrate therapeutic methods into their arts teaching. Simon mentioned how such an approach helps students deal with ‘difficult lives’ and trauma.

The older Primary students told us how they had participated in arts projects around issues that were important to them and their communities. These included deforestation of the rain forests and gun crime. Simon told us how a therapeutic approach is about ‘being able to understand yourself and being able to move forward in life … about being able to be truly free and imaginative, and really focusing on the process rather than the end product’.

As an Ofsted rated Outstanding school, School 21 is now part of a growing network of pioneering, progressive schools rooted in the arts and in community. We also paid a quick visit to the nearby School 360 and learned about how oracy, play and outdoor learning are at the heart of their pedagogy.

We wish them all the very best in their important work.

We would like to thank Arts Lead Simon Santhanam for being our host and guide. Our thanks also go to Primary Head Meg Drummond and to all the students who took the time to share their thoughts about the arts with us.

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.

‘There isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’: Hillstone Primary

Music and drama run through Hillstone Primary like the River Rea and the Digbeth Branch Canal run through nearby Birmingham, a city named after Boerma, its Anglo-Saxon founder.

How do we, from the East Midlands, know so much about our West Midlands neighbours? Well, Hillstone’s music and drama teacher Keith Farr wrote a musical for the students called The Birmingham Cantata, full of facts about history, heritage and culture.

The songs evoke the sights and smells of the region’s Industrial Revolution, detail the contributions of steam engine pioneers Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch, and celebrate Birmingham’s multi-cultural past and present.

In fact, turning topics into mini-operas is something of a speciality for Keith and his students. For example, after the school had been to watch the full 3-hour version of Madame Butterfly performed by school partners Welsh National Opera, students spent a week rewriting the story and songs in English. Forty-eight of them performed it onstage for their parents back at school.

After watching performances of Stravinsky’s Peter and the Wolf and The Firebird they wrote and composed music for their own Russian folk tales and performed them with a group of schools. They have also created a piece called Three Planets based on the three primary colours.

Students have also worked with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Rep, the Royal Shakespeare Company and many other cultural partners. 

We have written before about how little we get to see music and drama performances during our research visits. At Hillstone, we were lucky enough to watch (and sing along with) Keith’s pre-school rehearsal of a recently composed musical nativity, and attend (and participate in!) the after-school choir session.

The students’ enthusiasm for music performance was palpable. Immediately after one of our focus group interviews, Year 5 students insisted on playing for us on their guitars, trumpets, violins and clarinets, and singing some of the songs that they were rehearsing. 

With all of this musical confidence flowing through the school, it is no surprise that Keith places his emphasis on the process – the various problem solving, technical and other skills that the students learn while they are creating, shaping and rehearsing a work. 

Head teacher Gill Sparrow told us of her passion and support for the cross-curriculum integration of the arts, and for Keith’s methods. ‘There’s nothing that you couldn’t write a song about or create a dance to’ she explained, before adding ‘there isn’t a single project that we couldn’t enhance by the use of the arts’.

School bandstand

In addition to the benefits of the process, Gill stressed that everything that the students did had to have a purpose. That might be in the form of an exhibition, or a performance at the school or at local old people’s homes, or in the toy designing-and-making project they did with a professional toy maker.

As well as enhancing the curriculum and making it more enjoyable, Gill told us how the arts were particularly important for her students, their families and the local community. 51% of the students are on Free School Meals; the children’s families score high on markers of abuse and deprivation; many parents are third generation unemployed.

Gill told us that while many middle-class children may have easy access to ballet, the theatre and the wider arts, her mission is to provide ‘brilliant opportunities’ – high quality arts experiences that children have the right to access. As an arts-rich school for all of Gill’s 20 years as Head, the arts were enriching the school and transforming individual lives.

For example, one student had been taught some photography techniques by a teacher. He then went on to win a photography competition.

Every year, parents and carers attend the ‘Music for a Summer’s Evening’ concert in which at least a quarter of the children are involved (after auditions!). Teachers dress in posh clothes and local dignitaries attend. The audience has learned to take the event seriously – parents now stay until the end, watch all of the students perform, and clap after each act.

While Gill talked of the precarity of having arts specialisms driven by just one person, she has been keen to share her passion and knowledge by setting up ArtsLink, a network for Birmingham primary arts teachers.

The immersive environments in the school, produced through weekly workshops with arts professionals, themed around A Midsummer Night’s Dream (corridor installation, costume design, banners, performance, etc) and a Chinese Temple are lasting testaments to Gill’s commitments to an arts-rich education. 

The students’ enthusiasm for music, drama, and the wider performing arts were matched by the liveliness of their sketchbooks and by the art works on display around the school. 

So, in the words of one of the songs from The Birmingham Cantata:

Ignite the torch and lead the way. The light spreads far and wide.

Opens eyes and strengthens ties. Forward to the future.

Thanks to Head Gill Sparrow and Music and Drama lead Keith Farr for their warm hospitality and insights into their arts-rich school. Thanks also to all of  the students we met and interviewed.

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.

Suffragettes, STEAM and Sustainable Development at Torriano Primary

Torriano is a Rights Respecting arts-rich primary school in the Camden/Kentish Town area of London. With a socially and economically diverse community, this school values the rights of all children. 

Since 2009, the school has been part of this UNICEF initiative to embed the rights of children and young people’s in their practice and ethos. This means that much of the curriculum, learning and school dialogue are framed by the 42 Articles. For example, Article 29 states that ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full.’  

The work displayed around the school reflects both an understanding of these rights of the child and the school’s strong focus on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In practice, this means that many of the works of art and creative products that we saw on our visit had SDGs and articles referenced. This ensures that everyone can clearly see which issues and Articles are being addressed.  

Our lead for the day was Kat Branco, Head of Curriculum, Culture and Innovation and Year 6 teacher, with a degree in philosophy, a professional background in charities and non-governmental organisations, currently studying for a Masters in education policy. 

On our guided tour, we saw a number of these large Suffragette banners on the walls. Gender equality signs (SDG 5) appeared on a number of the displays we saw, hilighting the legacy of work on gender equality. 

There were large displays of Black History Month art work in the main hall. One project focused on a soldier from World War 2, others on local artists Michael Kiwanuka and Daniel Kaluuya. Daniel is an alumni of the school and spoke to the children from Hollywood in 2020.  

The students had also recently done work based on the French Tunisian artist JR who creates community based participatory art works, often with a socially political theme. The students, supported by the school’s Artist-In-Residence Jim, adopted JR’s black and white cut and paste aesthetic to create (sometimes huge) self-portraits. These represent who the children are ‘Proud To Be’ and link to the 2021 Black History Season national focus.

Torriano was full of plants! The school had worked on projects based on sustainability, green energy, recycling, urban regeneration, bees, cleaning up the air, and making art out of rubbish. Recycling, re-using and rewilding are evident across the school, both inside and out. 

Students had created a ‘Harnessing the Sun’ machine as a way to use solar energy for ‘Repowering Torriano’. This was their Year 4 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths ) project focus in 2021, linked to their Electricity science unit.  

The school also has a vegetarian ‘Earth Kitchen’ – a separate building which the children use for Food Technology lessons every half term. Fortnightly, the Waste Food Café opens; left over food from the school canteen is used to make nutritious smoothies.

As you have probably guessed, there was strong focus on STEAM. We have read all about how the Arts could be seamlessly integrated into a curriculum that also covers Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In fact, we have recently finished a 3-month Rapid Evidence Review which included us looking at STEAM education from all over the world. Torriano showed us exactly how well this could work in a primary school.

These displays in the large main hall use art, craft and creativity to explore issues that combine maths, coding and computing, as well as historical and social context.  

This large head is Ada Lovelace, created to celebrate her crucial role as the first computer programmer, algorithm writer and skilled mathematician. The students had made Ada from long hole-punched strips of paper, imitating the first coding from the Analytical Machine. In class, they had also created hole-punched card computers and other work on the topic. Fans of Ada will know that her mum was also a mathematician and her Nottinghamshire-based (like us) father was a poet. Ada was breathing STEAM before it became popular! This was a good example of how learning about historically significant polymaths could help to give context to coding lessons for all children. 

While giant heads and sun-capturing machines are eye-catching products that showcase the behind-the-scenes learning processes, we were excited to see a number of (again, sometimes large) displays which used art, design and creativity to make exploratory processes visual, and to show how parts of systems connect. The students had created these biological artistic info-graphic pieces based on the work of Fritz Kahn. 

Referring to Torriano’s arts-integrated curriculum, Kat said: ‘It helps us understand new ways of thinking, ways that we didn’t necessarily think of before’. She stressed the need for the various dance, animation and other projects to be linked to a meaningful context.

Executive Head Helen Bruckdorfer explained how the arts were perfect for making complex issues such as social justice, inequality and citizenship understandable and tangible. She talked of the arts’ role in developing the advocacy and agency of the students, and of promoting their right for self-expression and their right to be heard.

Ongoing plans are looking to further develop and create more meaningful partnerships with local schools, parents, communities, and the many cultural organisations that are within a short bus ride of the school. We wish them well. 

Thanks to Head of Curriculum, Culture and Innovation Kat Branco for organising and hosting our visit, and to Executive Head Helen Bruckdorfer (on Zoom) and Head of School Holly Churchill for their sharing 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.

Music and the performing arts thrive at Anston Greenlands – Here’s how

If, like Anston Greenlands, your primary school has a strength in music, you will know that your ability to sing together and play instruments has been severely limited over the last 18 months or so.

As a band member (since the age of 12) and a songwriter, Head teacher Alex Wirth is not only passionate about the music (and the arts in general) in his school, but has come up with innovative ways of providing exciting musical learning experiences. The methods may have been influenced by lockdown but are now proving valuable in themselves.

From our point of view, researching music and performing arts in schools can be challenging when compared with visual arts. Only occasionally do we get to see dance, drama, instrument or singing rehearsals, and so far on our RAPS visits, we have not seen a final performance.

Unlike drawings, paintings and other visual arts, music is not displayed on walls or tables. We rely on students and staff to give us their verbal insights into music and performing arts activities. So, when we can, we love to see it and hear it!

So it was exciting to discover how Alex and the team at Anston Greenlands had been using songwriting, singing and recording during lockdown to produce songs and videos for the school’s YouTube channel (200+ videos).

For example, ‘These Four Walls’ is a whole-school lockdown-themed rock anthem, features ideas, words and singing from the students and playing from the Head and musician parents and friends. Most importantly, the song was put together while many of the students were learning from home. They sent in their remote vocals and air-guitar videos to sit alongside those of their in-school classmates.

Screen shot from Anston Greenlands' 'These Four Walls' video on Youtube

The school’s dedication to creating original songs (and videos and artwork) for YouTube dates back to ‘My Fight’, a song they did in aid of WarChild.

As well as music videos, YouTube was integral to projects about the environment, history and other topics. For example, Alex had posted a series of video messages ‘from the future’ which were tied to the arrival of a big mysterious package in the playground and a sustainability theme.

Not only are the videos a great way to showcase students’ work (to families and arts-in-schools researchers!) and engage them in time-travel adventures, these short films have kept students and families tuned in and involved during lockdown and beyond.

Finally, Alex and the team had made another Covid-inspired change to the school, this time to the physical structure. Last Spring, frustrated by the lack of opportunity for his students to sing, dance and make music together indoors, they had a light bulb moment. 

In a blur of activity, Alex got on the phone, hired a digger, went out onto the school field with the caretaker and a TA, and dug the school an amphitheatre. The curved and raked seating was completed with a substantial wooden stage, perfect not only for the music, dancing and drama work they were doing in school, but also for hosting parents, families and the local community to open-air performances.

While the sun struggled to get over the horizon during our wintery visit, the photos of the children singing in the summer sun lifted our hearts. We could almost hear the music – a sure sign that whatever the challenges, schools like Anston Greenlands will keep primary music and performing arts alive and thriving.

Many thanks to Head Alex Wirth, Deputy Kate Roberts and all of the Year 4, 5 and 6 student who gave us an insight into the arts in their school.

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.