Our first RAPS visit: Sidegate Primary, Ipswich

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.

summer time and the researching is…

Although universities are now on holidays, most researchers use some of their holidays for getting on with work they can’t do during the term. Just like school teachers. We have been spending some of our summer working on various RAPS survey results.

Our ITE study is now more than half way through. We have completed the first part of the work where we look at the arts in teacher education programmes provided by universities and Teach First.  We’ve started on surveying and interviewing school ITE providers too. The holidays are a very good time for us to write the first draft of the report of the first part of the study. However, we won’t be reporting that separately here, as we will release all of the ITE results together early next year. 

The arts rich school study is also now well underway. Nearly eighty primary schools have agreed to participate! We are very excited about this number, and who they are. The RAPS project will be the first to get a systematic overview of such a big group of outstanding primary school arts programmes. All of the schools have completed a basic questionnaire about what they do and how it is organised. We have also invited the schools to send us a short film or powerpoint made by children which tells us about their arts programmes. We have established a youtube channel for these films and we will let you all know when the first tranche of children’s films are published.

The group of 80 schools will eventually become about 40 in the second stage of the research. We hope to visit all of the 40, pandemic willing. But of course we are thinking now about how we get from 80 to 40. It is important that we get a wide spread of schools – for instance we want to see schools located in different parts of the country, serving rural, city, suburban, regional and coastal communities, of different sizes, with different kinds of school populations. We also want to make sure that we have local authority as well as single and  multi-academy trusts. As well, we need to make sure that across the schools we cover all of the art forms. 

It is a tough job to make the selection and we are taking the job of selecting the “sample’ slowly and seriously. Analysing the questionnaire is part of that process of selection, but it is also an interesting set of information in its own right. Summer is a good time for us to make difficult decisions.

We will be telling you more about the 80 schools later this year. 

Image: Sketchbook from Gomersal Primary Art blog – thankyou. Yes, Gomersal is one of the 80 RAPS schools. We are very interested in the way that teachers and children use sketchbooks across the curriculum and across year levels.