The introduction of the new curriculum in 2014 brought challenges for many small village schools including the need to develop rolling curriculum programmes aimed at specific year groups, without repetition.
As content in the core subjects increased and expectations rose, some schools responded by narrowing their focus; ensuring that coverage and attainment were given top priority by devoting more time to maths and English, and reducing time spent on the arts. Reductions in school budgets have also affected the choices schools have been able to make.
However, at Combe St Nicholas C of E Primary School in Somerset, we tried a different approach. We took the opportunity to look afresh at the whole curriculum and at how we could best meet pupils’ needs and engage them in their learning so that they could reach their full potential. We worked with other local schools, we evaluated the things we knew we did well and we consulted the children.
While an imminent Ofsted inspection made us consider the narrowing approach, this was not the message that we were getting from our pupils and parents who, when asked to reflect on the learning that had been most memorable and significant, cited arts-related work. This aligned perfectly with our church school vision – "That they may have life, life in all its fullness." This vision includes providing a broad and balanced curriculum and developing an understanding of the world. We, therefore, developed a four-year rolling programme of whole-school projects, in which the arts play a major role, and appointed an arts coordinator and a school governor with an interest in the arts.
Artsmark ‘gave us impetus’
To ensure this focus was of a high standard, we made development of our arts provision a target for our school development plan (SDP) and enrolled in Artsmark. We were already delivering some arts activities well, but others needed improvement. Artsmark gave us the added drive to address these.
Giving children the authentic experiences to which we believe they are entitled can present a challenge due to our location, but our topics-based approach and commitment to the arts has helped. For example, the English curriculum requires each year group to study traditional stories, so with both objectives in mind, authenticity and curriculum coverage, we could easily justify an annual visit to a theatre to see a pantomime. For many of our pupils this is the first time they will have had the opportunity to see live, professional theatre.
Somerset County Council’s Music Education Hub, Sound Foundation, has been very supportive of whole-class music ensemble tuition, providing subsidised tuition for all primary schools. But as its budget has reduced, so too has the subsidy available. Making a commitment to music in our SDP has meant that we can fund the additional costs required to make the most of this service. This year, two year groups have received weekly lessons and our key stage 1 and Reception children have taken part in a drumming workshop and performed for parents. We also work closely with our local secondary school, Holyrood Academy, and have participated in an opera and music festival. Through Sound Foundation, our school choir prepared two songs from our Christmas production, Papa Panov, and performed these to an audience at Wells Cathedral. In addition to their individual performance, pupils learned carols that they sang with the Somerset Youth Choir and Orchestra, an unforgettable experience for all the children present.
Bringing the arts to the pupils
The cost of visits to major galleries and theatres can be hard to justify in the current climate. For schools like ours, there’s often a solution to be found more locally. We’ve been able to engage with a local arts hub and through this have gained access to a variety of local arts initiatives and artists.
Through the local hub, we were able to organise a visit from Stephan Jennings, a willow sculptor, who led workshops for all of the children as part of a topic called "Footprints in Time". The result of this is a woven willow dinosaur on chain link fencing, to which all of the children have contributed.
When we can’t take our pupils to the arts, we try to bring the arts to them. The opera we participated in with Holyrood Academy was led by a group called Jackdaws Music Educational Trust, who perform adapted works with participation from primary and secondary pupils. Engagement in this way introduced the children to an art form to which they may otherwise never have been exposed.
We’ve also worked with a peripatetic teacher from The Globe to lead Shakespeare workshops. Last year we coordinated this with other primary schools, enabling students from four small schools to perform The Tempest. Each of the primary schools involved performed a scene from the play using simple props and costumes to create continuity. Although the script was abridged, it wasn’t simplified and the addition of popular music and chorus-style acting meant that children, some as young as 7, were able to learn and understand the language and plot.
This summer, our whole-school topic is based on the National Gallery’s "Take One Picture" project. The painting "An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump" has been launched, with drama activities focusing on enabling the children to create a back-story for the picture to help to develop empathy and understanding. The main focus of the work will be on fine art and science but there will be opportunities for research, writing and design and technology, too. The outcome for the children will be an exhibition of their work for parents and the local community.
The great outdoors
We also try to utilise the wealth of natural resources on our doorstep, such as the Jurassic Coast, the Quantocks, the Blackdown Hills and the Somerset Levels. There is a rich heritage of country estates, ancient buildings and churches to provide authentic experiences and inspire arts engagement. On a recent whole-school trip to Charmouth beach, children visited a museum and took part in a fossil hunt and drawing activities.
We don’t view our engagement in the arts as being at the expense of academic subjects but as enhancing and facilitating these. It has had a positive impact on teaching and learning at our school; pupils report that arts-related activities have been memorable and our KS2 Sats results have continued to improve, with the greatest progress being made by disadvantaged pupils.
We were delighted to receive an Artsmark Silver Award in February and it’s encouraged us to continue our Artsmark journey. This year we’ll be working with pupils to achieve accredited qualifications through Arts Award. Although it can be more challenging, a firm commitment of time and resources and a willingness to work with others can ensure that children in rural schools gain all the benefits from engagement with the arts.
Last year we had our Ofsted inspection and were rated "good". The children, and their parents, were as delighted as we were that their engagement with the arts was recognised in the report which stated: “Your passionate commitment to pupils’ creative and artistic activities demonstrates your ambition to develop their all-round abilities at the same time as raising their academic achievement.”
Christine Maxwell is the headteacher of Combe St Nicholas CE VA Primary in Somerset