An Essex primary wanted to re-ignite its creative spark, so they went for an Artsmark award. David Newnham finds out what they did
Step into the main entrance of Trinity St Mary's Primary School in South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, and you will be struck by the intensely colourful mosaic just inside the door. With its central red heart and purple cross, its depictions of music and nature, sport and good health, it is a visual reminder of everything the school stands for. But the mosaic also tells another story - of how a year-long drive to raise the profile of the arts gave the school a new sense of excitement.
Like so many of their colleagues, staff at Trinity St Mary had spent the closing years of the last millennium getting to grips with the literacy and numeracy strategies. The result was a pat on the back from Ofsted in 2001 for its achievements in English and maths, but faint praise for its arts provision. As deputy head Pat Dowsing recalls: "They used horrible words like 'adequate' and 'satisfactory', which just wasn't good enough." She herself felt that, in the effort to tackle core subjects, the school had lost its sense of fun and creativity. So last year, she began looking for a project that would "put some life back into the curriculum". And that's when she discovered the Artsmark award.
The result of a partnership between Arts Council England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and Skills, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Ofsted and Sport England, the Artsmark award recognises schools that have made a strong commitment to the arts and whose arts provision meets a nationally recognised standard. "It seemed the perfect initiative," says Pat Dowsing. "I looked on the Artsmark website and downloaded all the information and really started thinking about it during July and August, so that, come September, I had a clear idea of what we needed to do."
At first, Pat found the 60-page application document daunting. "It is extremely detailed. They want to know everything about your arts provision, from extra-curricular clubs to what arts links you have made with the community. It's just vast."
But by working through it in half a dozen lengthy sessions, she was able to get a clear idea of what the school was already doing well and what needed to be done to qualify for an award. "You had to have an overall arts policy, which we didn't have. We had separate policies for art and design, music, drama and dance, but those strands had to be brought together. So that was the starting point."
Next came the question of extra-curricular clubs - something which Trinity St Mary's clearly needed to improve on. So Pat's first move was to work with music co-ordinator Judith Twani on setting up a school orchestra. Pat realised from the outset that turning round the school's arts provision was a job for more than one person, so she made sure that every one of the school's eight teachers and eight teaching assistants was involved. "Judith was just fantastic. As well as organising the orchestra, she set up an early morning choir called TSM Club Juniors, which I can only describe as a mix of pop, gospel and rap." Another colleague, Jenny Hull, got together with one of the parents to run an art club that would spend a year exploring art forms from around the world before mounting an exhibition in the school corridors and library. At the same time, an advanced skills teacher at a neighbouring comprehensive and Essex County Council's arts adviser were brought in to provide staff with training on subjects ranging from printing to using digital cameras.
"Dance and drama were much trickier," says Pat. "One teacher took on a drama club and another took on a library club. Then we managed to get an Awards For All grant from the National Lottery, and this enabled us to bring in a group run by Essex Dance Theatre to give a couple of workshops and to pay their choreographer, Heidi Speakman, to run an after-school dance theatre club." By the beginning of December, the deadline for sending off the completed award application, Pat was able to describe a very different school from the one Ofsted had visited - a school whose corridors were decked with the art of many lands, whose classrooms rang with every kind of music and where children even practised maypole dancing.
Not surprisingly, Trinity St Mary's was one of 1,114 schools to be awarded an Artsmark in the latest round of awards, bringing the total number of Artsmark schools in the country to 2,836. They celebrated with a summer soiree in which parents were entertained by the orchestra, the TSM Club juniors gave a recital and the dance and drama club put on a performance of The Lion King. And just inside the door, where everyone could see it, was the new mosaic.
"We ended this year thinking about how much has been going on," says Pat, "and so to remind us of what our values are and to make sure that we don't lose touch with them again, we commissioned the muralist Anne Schwegman-Fielding to be an artist in residence for three days to create a work of art for the entrance hall. "Looking back, there were times when I thought the application was too much work. But I'm really glad we stuck with it. You can't measure it, but there's an excitement among the children now.
"It used to really worry me round about May time when you would see kids chewing their ties and cringing at the back of assembly because they had Sats coming up. But this has put the fun back in. Which is what primary schools should be about, isn't it?"