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.

‘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.

Cherry Grove: Art is your Human Right

Being a researcher of the arts in primary schools is a privilege. You’ve probably worked that out from our previous blog posts. Our visits to the schools on our list are a combination of a bespoke guided tour around an art gallery, where we can learn why and how the works took shape, and a backstage tour of a theatre where we get to see the nuts and bolts. The experience is overlain with the excited creative buzz of children in classrooms and corridors, some of whom share with us their insights into their arts lessons and clubs in focus groups.

This sense of privilege was at the forefront of our minds as we looked around Cherry Grove Primary near Chester, a Rights Respecting School who, like Torriano and Billesley, embed the workings of their school in UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Firstly, we were overwhelmed by the vibrancy and colourfulness of many of the student’s art works. The first room we entered was strung with paintings based on the work of Bob and Roberta Smith. With slogans such as ‘Art is Life’ and ‘Your mind belongs to you’, we knew we were in the right place.

Our visual senses were further stimulated by displays of art based on the work of Paul Klee, Jan Gardner and Marc Chagall, and a wall of eye-popping Pop Art/Shakespeare pieces.

Secondly, the students’ work on local buildings and landmarks gave us a strong sense of where we were. 

Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson is the driving force behind Cherry Grove’s arts-rich curriculum. She told us how she places an emphasis on the students’ skills in observation, of looking closely, and of ‘opening their eyes’ to see what is in front of them, not what they imagine. She also prioritises children’s skills in drawing.

As a long-standing leader of the school’s creative arts, Zoe is embedded in networks of arts practice. As well as keeping the arts lessons fresh and creative, the visiting artists and CPD sessions seem to be creating something of a regional visual arts style. We have seen this in other regions.

Thirdly, the students had produced art works in a range of media to explore topics such as the Mayans, Romans, Vikings, Galileo, Shakespeare and endangered animals.

Fourthly, while colour was the overriding theme of the first displays we saw, Zoe had worked with the students on a series of striking landscape projects that explored Henry Moore’s ideas of shelter, and the historical transport of paintings from the galleries of the big cities to the caves and mountains of nearby Wales during the Second World War.

Fifthly, the school were partnered with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House. Deputy Head Roz Artist told us that the students had been to Stratford upon Avon and performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She talked about how it was important to provide such ‘life changing opportunities’ that allowed the children to see the bigger world, and that would be remembered years down the line.

Zoe enthused about how these links had enriched what the school offered and had ‘taken things to another level’. Students had also visited the Tate in nearby Liverpool, all of which, Zoe explained, helped to put the school’s art into wider context, especially around widening the students’ perceptions about the scope and scale of the arts industry, and the possibilities of working in the arts.

Lastly, we were shown some of the students’ sketchbooks and their highly creative topic books. The fold-out flaps and cut-into designs created a sense of interaction while the students’ comments told us how much they loved exploring topics using art and creativity.

Thanks to Creative Arts Lead Zoe Anderson, Deputy Head Roz Artist, and to the focus groups of students from Years 4, 5 and 6, the Arts Ambassadors and those who attend extracurricular clubs.

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.

Everything with a purpose: Decluttering and decolonising at Billesley Primary

There is a sense of purpose at Billesley. Everything is done for a reason and often, that reason is research. 

The school’s 11-year journey from special measures to outstanding has involved centering the arts and embedding them in everything from the curriculum to the redesign of the physical infrastructure. Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal explained to us how, working with Billesley’s then Executive Principal and now Head of Curriculum and Virtual School for The Elliot Foundation Multi Academy Trust Johanne Clifton, they made the decision to address issues of student engagement, behaviour and communication, and build morals and respect through a well-informed arts-rich approach.

Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, currently studying for an MA in (Arts) Educational Leadership, told us how, as one of the Education Endowment Foundation’s 28 Research Schools, Billesley serves as a hub for educational research, sharing and discussing findings with other schools (including the other 28 schools in the Trust) through courses, webinars and coaching programmes. Research is also shared and utilised in the school through an extensive CPD and mentoring programme. 

Research on the impact of classroom design on students’ learning by the University of Salford led to changes that have included decluttering the learning spaces and corridors, making classrooms and reading spaces more comfortable and ‘homely’, adding lots of plants, softening the lighting and completely re-vamping the toilets. This is known as Biophilic design. 

Responding to the idea that the physical environment can improve not only academic success but behaviour and wellbeing (of staff as well as students), the school was ‘cleaned up’, redecorated and rebranded using just three colours – white, purple and green – the colours of the Suffragettes. Karl, Asima and others took an analytical child’s-eye view of the classrooms before removing anything that might distract the students from their learning by overloading their working memory. This included taking down many of the arts displays on the walls. We learned that the students had visited the nearby Digbeth Custard Factory and Selfridges store to get a perspective on what their new school environment might look like.

The critical analytical approach extends to the students. As part of the Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme, students regularly practice their skills in questioning, discussion and reflection, digging deeper into what they feel about the arts and what particular art works and artists might mean to them.

Billesley is also a Rights Respecting School (see also our blog post about Torriano). They have used their focus on the Articles of UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) to frame projects on child refugees, child slavery and other issues. Asima told us how this works in practice at Billesley. Students not only know how their arts and other work links to one or more of the Articles, but also discuss how they can be proactive about their Rights. More importantly, Asima asserts, the students think about how to be proactive about the Rights of children in countries where they don’t have Rights, countries that have not ratified the treaty (such as the USA and Somalia). 

Billesley is a Rights Respecting school

Asima told us about a scheme in which the students boxed up presents and items for children in need. She told us how ‘that second level, about being proactive as a global citizen for children across the world, is probably more relevant for these children now because, even though we’re in an area which is quite deprived, they do have a standard of living and quality of life that wouldn’t be on the same level as children who haven’t in terms of Rights’.

Relatedly, Billesley has the Red Tree Fund, a charity set up following the death of a much-loved TA. The Red Tree Fund which focuses on developing the physical and mental well being of all children and has contributed towards developing ‘safe spaces’ across the school , and a Community House that distributes food boxes and serves as a comfortable space for families, carers and support workers.

Of course, we got to see some of the students’ art work, in their sketch books, in the corridors and on the new plinths. We also got to hear about their dance, drama and music lessons; Ray’s whole-class drumming sessions were proving very popular!

We aso learned about the school’s decade-long association with Stans’ Café who have worked on theatre projects, a giant marble run, the long roll of local neighbourhood-focussed art work that we saw on our visit, and the whole-school student-led research-based ‘What is a School?’ performance and book.

Billesley, which represents over 40 languages and 50 cultural backgrounds, also partners with Birmingham Rep, The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games (through the British Council), the RSA’s Performing Pedagogies, the Open Theatre (with a focus on autism) and is involved in other university research projects such as the Durham Commission and their research into creativity in education.

During the lockdown in 2020, Billesley conducted a thorough review of their curriculum, embedding the arts more deeply, and making sure that it reflected the needs of the ever-changing community. Decolonising the curriculum meant that Columbus and Darwin were replaced by radical women.

While there is comparatively little mention in this post of the specific arts activities in which the students are involved (rest assured, the students told us about plenty), we want to thank all at Billesley for helping us build a detailed and nuanced picture of what arts-rich schools do, how they reflect the community, who they link with, what they look, sound and smell like, and what they stand for.

Thanks to Lead Practitioner and Arts Lead Angie Watson, Principal and Research Director Karl Rogerson, Vice Principal and Curriculum Lead Asima Iqbal and the students of Billesley for sharing their thoughts and experiences and for welcoming us into 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.

‘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.

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.

Collaborative Creativity at Kelsall

On our recent travels around England visiting arts-rich primaries, we have noticed that many schools have developed, and continue to grow their arts-richness through a close working relationship between the Head Teacher and the Arts Lead. This is one of our ‘emerging themes’ – something we will explore in more detail later.

One such creative double-act are doing wonders for the arts at Kelsall Primary school, a rural village school about 4 miles away from Tarporley in Cheshire.

While we have met other dynamic arts duos on our travels, what was perhaps most interesting here is that Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton have developed their visual arts skills, ethos and pedagogy alongside, and in combination with their roles at the school. 

While their active status as musicians pre-dates their days at Kelsall (David has been here for 10 years, Jon for 20), neither had a background in the visual arts when they arrived. Jon told us how his passion for visual art and his ‘loose’ experimental style took shape through primary teaching.

As examples of idiosyncratic primary arts practice and pedagogy, we were drawn to these Year 2 pieces from recent visits to the nearby woods:

Under Jon’s tutelage, the students at Kelsall have developed a distinctive semi-abstract style based on the extensive use of sketching, reworking, and a ‘no mistakes/no rules’ approach to art making. Jon explained to us how after building basic skills through structured lessons, the students could enjoy the freedom, independence and confidence of art making. He encourages the students by telling them to ‘go with it’ and asking for their thoughts. Jon repeatedly referred to the children’s sense of joy and play when creating art in this way.

Displays included students pictures of animals (gorillas, tigers, orangutans, deer, turtles, crows, etc.), self-portraits, buildings, Guernica, and astronauts. They were using art to explore issues of plastic pollution, endangered species, refugees, war and other subjects.

While Jon told us that the students’ art was always based on something tangible, he described how working in semi-abstraction avoids many of the frustrations that students encounter then they strive for realism and a closely copied photographic approach. ‘They’ll always be rubbing out’, he explained.

Jon and David were also creating their own artwork in the Art Room, after school and in the holidays. Their work was stored alongside the students’ work in the Art Room and other spaces in the school, there to inspire students and to use as explanation of techniques and approaches. Both men self-published a series of books of their art works. These could be found in corridors and classrooms.  

The students’ work had been entered in many local primary arts competitions. David told us that the school had voluntarily withdrawn from many of them in order to let other schools win occasionally (!). 

Kelsall’s whole school curriculum is based entirely around ‘high-quality’ books, used as ‘pathways’ to link specific artists, topics and issues. For example, there is a display of ‘No Outsiders’ portraits in the reception area.

As with all of the arts-rich school we have visited (browse this blog for more examples), there are many more arts activities taking place at Kelsall that could not be covered in any detail in a short blog piece. The short list for Kelsall includes:

  • A full-size statue of Nelson Mandela and extensive Black Lives Matter art works in the reception area
  • Twenty glockenspiels (!) plus equipment and performance spaces for the school Rock Band and other performance work
  • An in-development Room 13-style student-lead outdoor arts space
  • Gilbert and George

Thanks to Head Teacher David Wearing and Arts Lead Jon Clayton for inviting us into your school and to the students of Kelsall for sharing their experiences of their arts-rich education.

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.

Local and global diversity at Gomersal Primary

Gomersal is an arts-rich primary school less than 10 miles from Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield, situated in extensive green space. Deer and sheep are regular visitors to the woodlands that adjoin the school.

During our tour of the school, we saw many student art works created during class walks to the nearby woods and fields: flowers, insects, leaves and trees were all used as inspiration for work in textiles, ceramics, painting and installations.

Year 4, 5 and 6 students told us about their many visits to local arts places. The school has links with the nearby Longside Gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The children talked excitedly about the work of Henry Moore, Andy Goldsworthy and Barbara Hepworth. They had recently created figures in the style of Antony Gormley who was born just 3 miles from the school. 

Students also spoke about their visit to the nearby David Hockey-associated ex-mill now art gallery and studios Salts Mill. Some mentioned going to the art gallery in Cartwright Hall, just 7 miles away, with their families to see pieces by Hockney, Anish Kapoor and LS Lowry.

In the legacy of Titus Salt and the dominant local industry of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the school had just secured funding to set up a textiles base that will help raise the profile and standard of textile work in this and other local schools. 

As well as the richness of the arts and culture in the immediate area, we were struck by the diversity of the art forms and artists with which the students were working. 

Much of this was either on display or being created in the large, light and vibrant Art Room. Our tour of the school coincided with a class doing a printing project. 

The Art Room was full of the students’ art work; Celtic crosses, shop fronts, skeletons, skulls, dresses and masks packed this busy space. 

As academics and researchers, at home in libraries and archives, we were thrilled to see these roller storage units being used for the copious arts materials. 

The Art Room also contained its own library: the books here covered a dazzling diversity of artists and their art.

Our photos don’t capture the music that was playing while we were in the Art Room, or the buzz of excitement from the children as they created their prints.

Speaking of music, one of the parents and school Governor is Andi Durrant, a high-profile DJ, producer and broadcaster. He now takes time to teach the students how to use the equipment in the music production/radio room – a well-resourced facility stocked with sample pads, midi keyboards, sampling and sequencing software, a mixing desk and microphones. Students had been creating own dance music recordings.

The sense of diversity extended to the themed art works that were on display from recent cultural and religious celebrations – Dewali, Hannukah, Black History Month, Bonfire Night, and Remembrance Day.

The striking minimalistic art works in the library took us back to our childhoods and returned us to the school’s immediate environs. The creator of The Mr Men and Little Misses, Roger Hargreaves, was born and raised in the adjoining village of Cleckheaton.

Finally, we saw some bespoke paintings which included lines from a poem, co-created by staff and students. Located in and around the Head’s office, they seemed to sum up the whole-school arts-focussed ethos that underpins this, and the other arts-rich primaries that we are privileged to visit during our RAPS research project. 

Thanks to Head Teacher Melanie Cox and Arts Lead Mandy Barrett for their warm welcome, insights, guided tour and coffee.

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.

Artists and Art Auctions: Palm Bay Primary, Margate

Art leader t-shirt. Screen print. Green shirt, black letters

In the arts studio cabin at the front of the beach-top Palm Bay, five artists-in-residence (A.I.R.s) work and teach. In exchange for the use of the space, the equipment and the materials, the artists work directly with the school’s Young Arts Leaders (YALs) and increasingly, with teachers and staff at drop-in sessions, such as the Clay Club. We were lucky enough to visit this multi-functional space and talk with two of the artists as well as watching the YALs working on their ‘Arts Leader’ screen print t-shirts.

Palm Bay arts studio cabin - painted white
Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson

Artist-in-resident Sara Jackson, a Fine Arts graduate, talked about being inspired by spaces. She had created art from sail cloth and worked in the nearby caves and other seaside spaces.

Artist-in-resident Mellissa Fisher

Fellow A.I.R. Mellissa Fisher, a graduate of the innovative art/science Broad Vison programme, told us of her interest in nature and the body and how art can make the invisible visible. She was working on a body-cast piece with lots of ears that explored tinnitus. She has previously created (grown?) ‘living sculptures’ from the bacteria on her own face.

Large wall size artwork

This focus on organisms was a good metaphor for the organic ways in which the YALs learned from these artists before passing their new understandings on to their classmates, and to the general public for whom they offer guided art tours at the nearby Turner Contemporary. ‘Art is about sharing’, Mellissa told us.

The influence of the YALs, the A.I.R.s and the school’s top-down commitment to the arts was evident in the abundance of art works framed and displayed on walls and in corridors.

YALs started as a four school project back in 2017. The programme works in partnership with the Turner, and is a product of the Art Inspiring Change project that has included 20 parents and fostered children’s leadership skills, alongside their substantial engagement with the arts. The A.I.R.s told us how through the arts, the YALs were learning how to solve problems, collaborate, and visualise. They talked about how the arts gave the children the opportunity to dig deeper and ask profound questions about the very nature of art.

Students print making display

The A.I.R.s were just one way Palm Bay were using to maintain and develop their arts-richness by providing high-quality materials and experiences. Arts lead Mel Tong has developed an Art Auction. This year, 70 pieces have been donated by a mix of high-profile local artists and designers, and parents/family members. The event has grown in size and profile over the last four years or so. Initially held in the school hall, this year’s auction will take place in the Turner.

Palm Bay students' sketch books

The auction is conducted by local celebrity potter, and long-term supporter of the arts at Palm Bay, Keith Brymer-Jones, and attended by the local community. Mel told us how the proceeds have funded a kiln, printing materials, theatre visits and support all of the arts provision at the school.

Mel encourages the students to keep reworking their art. ‘There’s always something more that can be done’ is her message. The artists-in-residence and the art auction were developed in response to frustrations with the limitations of arts materials and arts budgets. These initiatives are evidence of Palm Bay’s ongoing commitment to the arts, and to the creative, innovative ways of meeting the inevitable challenges.

By the way, when we arrived in the rain in the morning, the arts studio was white (see above). When we left at the end of the day, it was covered in colours and design selected and created by the students. And it was sunny. The transformative power of the arts!

Palm Bat arts studio cabin - painted in bright colours and bold geometric designs

Our thanks go to Arts lead Melanie Tong, Head Lizzie Williams and all of the artists-in-residence and students from Palm Bay for hosting our visit.

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.