Fourfields Community: Richness in the Arts and Design Technology creates the happiest primary school in the U.K.

Fourfields Community Primary is a two-form entry school in Yaxley village, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. While some parents commute from here to London or Cambridge, this traditionally rural area has pockets of deprivation. The school has doubled in size and increased its racial and ethnic diversity over the last few years due to the rapid development of the nearby housing estates. 

Like other arts staff we have interviewed, Fourfields’ Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith has a professional background in a related field. She was a design studio manager working for big clothing brands (Top Shop, Miss Selfridge, Harrods) out of studios in London and Oxford. She also worked on album covers and music merchandise for pop stars in the 1980s.

We also spoke with Helen Avory, the Design and Technology Lead. From the display boards and projects that we heard about, it was clear that Helen had created a strong presence for the subject. On the displays, the students were referred to as ‘Designers’ (and ‘Artists’). DT students had won the ‘Best Presentation’ in the yearly Lego design competitions.

The art and DT work at Fourfields had been influenced not only by Irene’s previous career, but also her more recent MA in International Education. For her dissertation, she had researched the use of alternative school spaces with a particular focus on the school Hall. She told us how lots of big arts and DT projects were done in the Hall, the playground and other spaces that might not often get used for such purposes.

The school had other specialist teachers – for dance, drama and music. We heard from the Year 4, 5 and 6s how much they enjoyed the performing arts and how this area was beginning to flourish again after two difficult years of Covid.

The school was big on competitions! We learned how Fourfields was the only school to enter their Reception and Year 1 students into annual dance competitions, and how these young dancers melted the hearts of the judges and other schools’ staff. 

Assistant Head Jake Heather had also won a competition. He was voted the ‘Happiest Teacher’ in the National Happiness Awards.

In 2017, the school won the accolade of the ‘Happiest Primary School’ in the same awards. They were also highly commended in 2019.

Some of Jake’s happiness might stem from the fact that he leads the ‘philosophy for children’ lessons. As well as coaching other staff in this area, he facilitates discussions with his Year 6 students around arts appreciation and topics that are on the news. Jake told us how the discussions are informed by the school’s strong commitment to oracy, and how they foster the students’ respect for others, their listening skills and the depth of their critical thinking. Fourfields was the first school we visited where the war in Ukraine had informed classroom activity.

Fourfields is a great example of how the arts-richness of a school can flow through every child, teacher, and senior leader, and out through the school gates. Head teacher Sue Blyth is an opera singer with a professional background and a penchant for unleashing her vocal cords in corridors and classrooms.

As the Arts Lead, Irene places an emphasis on the use of sketchbooks for developmental work. These are not only used in art lessons but are ready to pull out in other subjects. The students all have a separate portfolio folder for completed work. 

Irene also told us how, when the budget allows, she provides high quality sketchbooks, paper, brushes, paints and other arts materials, especially for the Key Stage 2 students. Good resources, she explained, produce better outcomes, and the students place more value on the subject. 

There was an extensive art gallery of framed student work, complete with information about the artist, the media and the name of the piece.

EYFS students had been experimenting with texture, colour and collage inspired by the book ‘The Animal in the …’

Year 1 had been doing some block printing inspired by Andy Warhol.

Year 2 had been colour mixing, then marbling and creating silhouettes to make these pictures inspired by the Great Fire of London

Year 3 had made some collages and artworks about the rainforest.

These animal pencil portrait drawings are by Year 4.

Year 4 had also been working on their mono printing.

These Year 6 works show how they have been drawing and completing the other half of different images, as well as applying their colour mixing skills.

Irene’s design skills had been put to good use on these murals. More were planned. 

Fourfields has a lighthouse design on the front of the school, an apt metaphor for how they illuminate the local community through carol singing in the playground and visits to perform in old people’s homes.

The staff were also sharing the light by working with and learning from other schools. Irene’s progression documents are now being used in more than a dozen schools. Fourfields continue to evolve their arts curriculum through networks of practice, training days, as well as sharing ways of working and documentation.

To seal the deal, the school has a whole green-screen wall, perfect for the various film making projects that we had seen story-boarded in the students’ sketchbooks.

Lastly, Fourfields has a bright red double decker bus parked in the playground. This is the school’s library and is also used for storytelling. The interior has been converted for the purpose. Irene added some additional painting, stickers, stencils and accessories to enhance the space. The eye-catching designs were created by students through an in-house competition.

Red double decker library bus at Fourfields

Our visit to Fourfields Community Primary was organised by Arts Lead Irene Goldsmith. Thanks to Irene, Assistant Head Jake Heather, Design and Technology lead Helen Avory and the students for telling us all about the many arts things 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.

How the Arts have transformed Feversham Primary

Feversham is a large primary school located in Bradford Moor, an area of pronounced social deprivation less than a mile from Bradford city centre. It is an exemplar of how the Arts can transform a school. 

After being placed in special measures a decade ago, the decision was made for music and drama to form the core of the school’s connected curriculum. This has not only produced excellent results in maths, reading and writing, but has contributed to the students’ confidence, positivity and friendliness, all factors noted in the school’s recent Outstanding Ofsted report.

Our day-long visit began with a lively assembly in which Year 3 students used music and drama to depict the employment and education of Victorian children. The graphic depictions of working conditions and punishments elicited a flood of questions from the rest of the students.

Our guide for the day was Arts Lead Alisa Yates. We began our tour in the large, light and open Arts Studio. A wide range of media and techniques were displayed on walls, drying on racks and hanging on strings. 

Alisa has written an article all about this creative space in the latest edition (#33) of NSEAD’s AD Magazine. In it, she talks about promoting independent thinking and a proactive approach.

There was a corner ‘curiosity’ area with comfy seating where students could use the miscellaneous objects as stimuli for sketching and inspiration.

Alisa showed us the table of pestles, mortars, gums and stones used to make paints and dies. We were told how the children would learn about the process of grinding and combining ochre and other materials to make powders and pigments that would become the colours they use for their own art works.

The Art Studio also contained light boxes for a stop-time iPad-based animation project. Alisa told us of her professional background in photography from the age of 16 often working with her own team of stylists and technicians. She is a current arts practitioner specialising in watercolour painting, photography and textiles.

Her ongoing exploration of media and techniques, and passion for experimentation was evident not only in the vibrant Art Studio, but also in the conversations we had with Year 4, 5 and 6 students. Their many arts activities at Feversham are documented in this ‘Art Studio’ blog. Alisa also curates this ‘Art Academy@FPA’ blog which includes stimuli, activities and learning materials.

Led by Alisa, the school had been involved in a quilt making project. Feversham students, in partnership with the Bradford 2025 Year of Culture bid, made a video to explain the project and to ask other schools to contribute squares that communicated something about their ‘Untold stories, [and] Hidden Communities‘. The 200 individual squares were sewn together to create ‘a collection of memories and histories’ specific to the area and to the children.

We also met Jimmy Rotheram, Senior Leader for Music – probably the only one in the country, he told us. It was Jimmy who was leading the assembly earlier. Starting as a supply teacher eight years ago, Jimmy has developed an effective and influential music programme based largely on his training in Kodaly and Dalcroze, undertaken alongside his teaching. As a primary music expert, Jimmy and the music pedagogy of Feversham (up to six hours of music per week) have been featured in The Guardian, on the BBC, and in podcastsYouTube videos and teaching magazines.

Jimmy talked about his mission to get the music of his many Muslim students more widely recognised. Like Alisa, Jimmy has a professional arts background – in music performance, a record deal and working in the industry.

Jimmy told us: ‘I have had formal music training. I just always found reading music far more difficult than someone of my musical ability should have done. It wasn’t until I discovered alternative ways of developing musical reading that my own ability to read music managed to catch up, and I discovered that all children could learn to read music well if taught in more child-friendly ways‘.

He bases his teaching largely on singing, rhythm and body percussion. You can read more about his ethos and methods here. His book (to be published in the Spring) will explain his methods to other music and performing arts teachers. 

We were impressed by the time, effort and dedication that Alisa and Jimmy spent working with the Early Years and reception children and staff. It was clear that, through the arts, the school were building skills and confidence from a young age. On our visit to this area, we enjoyed the subdued lighting, stand-up easels and attention that had been paid to creating a warm and inspiring environment. As a demonstration of how Jimmy has embedded his approach to music across the school, a group of reception children were assembled to participate in a spontaneous singing and movement session.  

As well as music, singing, quilt making and the Arts Studio activities, students had been working in collaboration with the Joss Arnott Dance Company.

The school is currently undergoing extensive expansion. The main hall has already been extended to incorporate a stage and the new site will include an updated music room. The transformation continues.

Feversham is a story of how arts pedagogy, arts leaders with professional arts backgrounds, and the creative application of continuing professional development can transform a primary school, drive the curriculum and inspire many others beyond the school gates.

Our thanks go to Arts Lead Alisa Yates for showing us around, to Senior Leader (Music) Jimmy Rotheram for his time and insights, and to all the staff and students at Feversham for their warm welcome.

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.

What is an arts rich primary school?

Story-tent

We have now begun the crucial process of selecting arts rich primary schools. We’ve made an initial list form various awards and networks that we know about. We are speaking with the youth arts bridge organisations next week and we know that they will add to our beginning list, and also help us to refine it. These organisations have very good knowledge of schools that are active in arts education.

As part of the selection and recruitment process, we have thought more about what arts richness might mean in the primary sector. We expect our research to test out these initial selection criteria and also to allow us to go much deeper.

Here is the information we sent to the youth arts bridge organisations ahead of our meeting.

We are looking for nominations for a long list from which we will select 20 arts rich schools. Schools will be selected to ensure a balance of location, size, sector, population. We are primarily interested in state schools that serve both ordinary and disadvantaged communities. We are considering the possibility of focusing on some locations, but also do not want to miss any interesting outliers. We want to avoid “over-researched” schools.

These are the criteria we are working with at the moment. Individual schools may not meet all of these criteria, and we are looking for different combinations. We would like to construct a sample that allows us to focus on a mix of art forms. 

  1. The arts are part of the school identity and school culture. They are integral to who they are and what they do each day. The schools have a long history of arts and cultural education. The arts are not used simply for promotion.
  2. Resources are allocated to the arts and material space is made for them. There is visible “kit”.
  3. There is a broad and balanced curriculum in which the arts are taken seriously – the arts are integral to the curriculum on offer to all children. There is regular and separate teaching of “arts subjects” – there is a curriculum plan which shows the sequential development of theory and practice (knowledge and skills). Children understand the arts to be important. The school may specialise in one arts subject, but does not ignore the others.
  4. There is a coherent and explicit philosophy for teaching the arts which underpins the selection and nature of key concepts and skills.
  5. The school has productive partnerships with arts organisations, including galleries and museums, local artists, and arts in the parent community and neighbourhood. The school is permeable, acts as a hub.
  6. The school is connected to local, national and/or international networks which bring arts resources, conversations and practices – post pandemic these may be strongly geared to the digital.
  7. The school has specialist staff or consistent access to arts expertise (bought in, artists in residence).
  8. There is a strong arts lead with time and resources. Staff, including the lead, have continuing PD in the arts.
  9. There are extra-curricular arts activities.
  10. The arts are included in work and careers focused education and activities.