DaVinci, Dewali and Dragons at Blackrod Primary

When we arrived at Blackrod Primary in Blackrod village (4 miles from Wigan, 7 miles from Bolton), we didn’t realise we were visiting the location of a popular television show.

Three years ago, parents participated in Channel 4’s ‘The Class of Mum and Dad‘ in which they spent a half term experiencing the everyday experiences of their children – uniforms, including uniforms, SATs tests and sports day. Luckily, we were spared such treatment! Our mission was to immerse ourselves in the arts spaces, arts works and arts-focussed conversations with staff and students.

Blackrod Primary School drawing/painting

Our first interviewee was Head Teacher Ian Dryburgh. Despite his 35 years as a Head here, Ian told us that was always open to new ideas. The school’s prioritisation of the arts over the last few years is evidence of Ian’s embrace of change and of his ethos of developing and celebrating the children’s humanity and individuality. He talked of a revelatory moment when he was looking through the children’s sketch books, comparing the same child’s work across a number of years, and seeing little in the way of development. Arts lead Rachael Littlefair told us that the need to reapply for their ArtsMark (they now have a Platinum status which has been mentioned in Parliament) also helped them focus on developing an integrated arts-rich curriculum. 

Ian stressed to us that all children were entitlement to the arts and that the school’s job was ‘to widen children’s horizons, not to narrow them down’. 

We were struck by the diversity of artists and artworks on display. With each class named and themed around a specific artist, we had a great opportunity to learn more about Milhazes, Ringgold, Mahlangu, Weiwei, Gauguin, Kahlo, Mackintosh, Lowry and others. 

Each classroom had a quote from the artist on the wall and a big wall-sized ‘Where our learning takes us’ display.

The arts were clearly being combined with geography, history, cultural issues, and other subjects. The curriculum is cyclical allowing topics to be revisited to add depth of understanding. Students were learning both about and through the arts.

Ian had talked passionately about one particular piece of student art. The Dragon pictures were drawn from memory; each was highly individualistic. In terms of its unique expression of the Year 4 artist’s depiction of a character from ‘The Iron Man’ by Ted Hughes, and their displays of shading, perspective and other technical skills, the Dragon seemed to exemplify the school’s evolving vision for the arts. 

The students told us how they had greatly enjoyed creating work in the style of local artist L.S. Lowry. Rachael told that many of the locations in the paintings of Lowry and another local Roger Hampson that were displayed in the school were within walking distance and would be familiar to the children.

Students were making art works for Diwali that week.

They told us how they really enjoyed the textiles work they do. Creating batiks, tie-dies and cross-stitch was clearly very memorable for them.

Ian’s vision of honouring the individuality of his students and staff has secured the school an outstanding Ofsted rating. Yet, in their links with Bolton Octagon Theatre, in their role as Bolton cultural ambassadors and in their emerging commitment to outdoor learning, the school continues to change and develop. Rachael has recently gained her Forest School Leader qualification. The children can now use tools, ropes, tarps and other equipment to explore the wooded areas on site. She also talked about starting a Rock Band club. Onwards and upwards!

Thanks to Head Ian Dryburgh and Arts lead Rachael Littlefair for letting us into their school and to the students of Blackrod for their important 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.