When it comes to teaching the arts in the primary years, one school has achieved outstanding results, writes Amanda Kelly
They could belong to an A-level programme, or even an arts degree course, but visits to the Royal Academy and workshops from professional artists are nothing unusual at Nicholas Hawksmoor primary school in Towcester.
Even with such young children, it is regarded as one of the best in the country for arts and drama teaching and was recently given an Artsmark Gold award from the Arts Council of England, an accolade normally reserved for secondary schools. So while other youngsters play shepherds and angels over the next few weeks, these pupils will be staging Swan Lake.
Every wall in the school is covered with pupils' work, most of such exceptional quality that you have to remind yourself of the age of the children who produced it. The entrance hall greets visitors with its an autumnal display of greens, reds and yellows. In the reception, pupils'
paintings of light falling through windows. In the head's office, blue and lilac flowers. Windowsills bear clay sculptures produced by some of the youngest children.
Some of the best work is exhibited in a corridor further into the school, under spotlights and glass frames. Each display is themed, colour co-ordinated and beautifully mounted. Much of the work is inspired by the output of artists whom the pupils have seen at first hand. Paid for from a mixture of fundraising activities, parental contributions and the school budget, each class makes at least one visit to a gallery every year, as well as occasional trips to the opera, ballet and Shakespeare productions. The school has particularly close links with the Northern Ballet, which invites children backstage when it is performing in town, and with the Royal Academy in London, where 10 and 11-year-old pupils will be visiting the Aztecs exhibition in January. Seven-year-olds at the school discuss Monet, Matisse and Picasso as though they were pop idols.
"People say primary school kids are too young to appreciate art galleries and the theatre," says headteacher Richard Edwards. "By secondary school, it's often too late. If they haven't been to an exhibition, the ballet or the opera by the time they hit their teens, then there's a good chance they never will. By introducing them to the high arts at the most impressionable age, we are teaching them that art is accessible to everyone, and that will hopefully stay with them for ever."
Last autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy prompted a series of watercolour classes, after the style of the 18th-century French painter, Chardin. Every other year, Year 6 pupils spend five days exploring the museums and galleries of St Ives in Cornwall, focusing on the work of sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The children then attempt their own work. This month, a visit by Year 3 pupils to the Barber Institute will form the basis of a portraiture project. Recent studies of other modern artists have led to projects in weaving, bubble painting and cartoons.
"It's our strong belief that art translates across the curriculum," says deputy head Marilyn Barnes. "We took a group of children to see a famous painting of the beheading of Lady Jane Grey at the National Gallery because it fitted in with what they were studying in history. And we won a prize in a competition run by the National Gallery in 2000 for the way we incorporated Constable's The Hay Wain into ICT, history, literacy, geography, RE, art and even dance lessons."
There are regular visits to the school by professional artists and many children get involved in after-school clubs. A potter, a specialist in African batik and a Japanese woodblock artist are among those who have recently held workshops.
"This country is so rich in culture, yet we tend to play it down in an effort to be politically correct," says Mr Edwards. "We should teach children to be proud of it. But they can also learn to appreciate other cultures through the arts. We have recently created our own exhibitions of Africa, Japan and South America."
Music, dance and drama are given equal emphasis. As well as a large hall with lighting and tiered seating, the school has its own dance and music studio. Most of the 554 pupils spend at least four and a half hours a week in arts classes, and theatre visits are slotted regularly into the timetable. Recently, a group of mixed-age children were taken to the Schools' Matinee at Covent Garden, where for many pupils the highlight was a meeting with the ballerina Darcey Bussell.
Other subjects have not been compromised by the focus on the arts. Last year, the school produced some of the best test results in the county, with 89 per cent of pupils achieving Level 4 or above in KS2 English; 92 per cent in maths, and 98 per cent in science.
"When I took over the school 12 years ago, it had a pretty bad reputation and standards and behaviour were poor," says Mr Edwards. "I knew radical changes had to be made, and I thought the arts were the best vehicle for this change. Schools have to realise that in trying to meet so many targets, the curriculum has become too narrow. Our experience shows that when the kids have come from an arts class, they are more focused and involved in other academic work.