Plymouth School of Creative Arts is a free school set up and sponsored by an art college – Plymouth College of Art. To the college’s principal, Andrew Brewerton, setting up a school seemed an obvious response to the progressive marginalisation of creativity and the arts in schools. “We’re an art college, we make things: let’s make a school,” he says.
Brewerton and the senior management team made their application to the Department for Education in 2012 and the school opened in 2013. Now in its third academic year, it has a pre-school, reception, Years 1-4 and Years 7 and 8. The school has many things in common with the art college, not least an emphasis on making and student-led learning.
The school aims to sustain the natural enthusiasm that students bring to school aged 3, but that we believe is often lost as they journey through a traditional curriculum.
At the end of last year, Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, came to Plymouth and said that he believed “that the secretaries of state and ministers who regard the only path to success as being through the Stem subjects will, when they visit this school, eat their words”.
At a time when arts are being squeezed out of the core curriculum, it is certainly a radical step to start a school in an art school mould. So what does a school based on the art school model look like? And how does it work?
The school invites students from Plymouth College of Art in, sometimes to work with the pupils but other times simply to carry out their own work and offer pupils an example of independent practice.
A concept that you hear talked about a lot is “the continuum”. This is the idea that the school and the college, from pre-school to master’s level, are connected along a single line. In a city with historically low levels of successful 16-18 participation to completion and progression to higher education, the school and college want to inspire secondary pupils to continue studying or training beyond GCSE.
Staff are actively building relationships between the school and the college: last year the school hosted the BA fashion show; next year the college’s undergraduate film students will work in the school for a project about children’s television.
The design of the school building is, we like to think, radical. One of the initial decisions made by the senior management team was to appoint architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (the firm employed to redevelop the college campus) to design the new school building.
The school is now known as The Red House because of its brightly coloured cladding, with at least a nod to William Morris (and Jimi Hendrix).Inside, the space is not divided up into classrooms; it’s connected by open-plan studios. The floor is polished concrete, as it is in the college, making the space ready for a wide range of practical activities.
There is a sense of transparency generated by an atrium in the centre of the building and students are encouraged to present their work and communicate what they are doing to other pupils, parents and members of the public.
At the moment, students and teachers are not the only users of The Red House: independent dance groups and the Plymouth and Devon Racial Equality Council use space in the building, and the Plymouth Raiders basketball team train before school and in some lunch times on the indoor court. These partnerships are not about generating income for the school; they’re about forging connections between the school and the outside world.
As you would expect, we put arts subjects at the front and centre of the curriculum rather than at the sidelines. On average, children here spend 25 per cent of their time on arts subjects (music, art, dance and drama), but that figure can actually be as high as 33 per cent.
In addition, “making” is a much broader concept that forms a fundamental part of the school syllabus.
Every half-term ends with a “Making Week” when groups of pupils, from Year 3 to Year 8, will collaborate on a practical project in which learning enters the students’ muscles.
The project will relate to a theme that’s been discussed over the course of the term. Last term, Year 7 was given the theme of “adaptability” and Year 8 was give the theme of “exploration”. The main purpose is for pupils to be independent and reflective learners who – like art students – have to think for themselves, ask questions and engage with the world around them.
Students with an interest in radio have used the Making Week to conduct interviews with Plymouth Raiders basketball team for Red House Radio, the community radio station based in the school’s Red House building.
Other students have worked in the pre-school, learning about teaching and childcare; and recently some Year 7 and 8 students have been involved in restoring two 1940s Firefly sailing boats that have been winched into the design and technology workshop.
Success in assessment and exams is not the first priority of Plymouth School of Creative Arts; it is seen as a consequence of effective learning. The school believes that by building students’ engagement and intrinsic motivation, good exam results will follow.
For Year 8 students, GCSEs are on the horizon and they will be choosing their options next term. The school is keen to encourage students to make a selection based on their interests, enthusiasms and future aspirations, rather than what politicians advise.
The English Baccalaureate may be suitable for some students but it won’t work for everybody, and this school exists for all its students’ needs. If some students want to take three arts subjects at GCSE, then this should be encouraged: ultimately, the individual pupil should determine his or her own path.
When young children first start school, they are given the opportunity to play and experiment, and they approach learning with instinctive excitement and interest. Why should it end there? Why do school pupils so often become disillusioned and disengaged?
Plymouth School of Creative Arts believes that the answer lies in our education system – the way it forces children to second-guess what the teacher expects, to work within a restrictive syllabus, to learn information for the sake of regurgitating it in an exam. Plymouth School aims to sustain the intrinsic interest and curiosity of its pupils right the way through, giving them the opportunity to set the direction of their learning. There will no doubt be challenges ahead as the school attempts to preserve these principles while navigating the national exam system. But the attempt seems very worthwhile indeed.
Dave Strudwick is headteacher of Plymouth School of Creative Arts. He was talking to Isabel Sutton