“We were very much a meat and potatoes school,” says Gwen Perfitt, from Corringham Primary in Essex, in her assessment of her school’s former level of arts provision.
So when the primary said it would be organising a trip to London to see Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Opera House, there was some surprise from pupils and parents. “We were a school that went to the pantomime once a year, [so] it was a bit of a shock for them.”
This leap from pantomime to opera came as a result of the school engaging with the Royal Opera House Bridge, one of 10 bridge organisations funded by Arts Council England to help schools to boost their arts and culture provision.
Perfitt says the school decided to start this journey because it wanted to give pupils the opportunity to experience arts and culture-related events and activities. “We realised what we were offering wasn’t beneficial and we needed to give our [arts] curriculum more breadth and depth,” she adds.
Research and frameworks
Staff explored what opportunities the arts could offer to pupils and how these could connect to learning outcomes.
“The outcome of this research led to a new curriculum and this was launched with two Inset days where we explored the new coverage and developed links [with the community] to aid engagement and cultural enrichment,” Perfitt says.
“There are lots of museums, theatres and local community projects out there. We learned to pick our projects so they dovetailed into the curriculum we wanted and didn’t end up as a nice Friday-afternoon activity but [rather] became an integral part of our children’s learning.”
To inform its approach, the school joined the Artsmark Award programme, which supports bringing arts and culture into whole-school activities in numerous ways. Perfitt says this was very helpful and led to the school securing a Silver Artsmark Award.
“The great thing about Artsmark is it helps you to identify where you are, how quickly you can progress and how we could integrate the arts and culture into our curriculum, so we were constantly looking upon it as something inspirational,” she says.
Another school that used Artsmark as a way to reinvigorate its arts and culture provision is Bloemfontein Primary in County Durham, as headteacher Laura Liddell explains.
“As a school, we found it beneficial when re-evaluating our arts curriculum to focus on the Artsmark criteria. The framework provided the guidance we needed to evidence the skills, progression and whole-school approach/commitment to delivery in order to gain our Silver award.”
Liddell acknowledges that adapting to the Artsmark criteria was a “steep learning curve”. Some steps that helped included sending staff on CPD courses and working with external providers to get the right skills in place before looking at what it would be possible to deliver.
In time, this meant the school was able to offer far more authentic opportunities – from photography and animation workshops to visiting sculpture parks – in order to develop pupils' interests and skills in areas they would otherwise have been unlikely to encounter.
No doubt, delivering these kinds of arts and culture experiences can be time-consuming and require a lot of hard work. English teacher Lauran Hampshire-Dell, who was integral in helping her previous school to boost its arts provision, using Artsmark and Arts Award as tools, acknowledges that this can seem like an obstacle.
“At the start, it did involve sending some pushy emails and putting my hand up in staff briefings to remind people to get involved, and it probably seemed like another workload barrier,” she says.
She adds that getting teachers on board across the school is key – indeed, it's a good idea to find out what skills already exist in the staffroom and utilise them.
At Hampshire-Dell’s school, for example, some maths and science teachers had drama and dance skills, while others had entered poetry writing competitions.
Another approach the school took was to get teachers to work together and think of ways to bring arts and culture into lessons. This led to ideas such as creating war poetry in history lessons or short story writing in RE about the origins of mindfulness.
“Finding out your colleagues' creative strengths – away from their subject – and looking at how you can combine both of your academic strengths in lessons are two of the best things schools can do [when starting an arts journey],” Hampshire-Dell adds.
Liddell suggests organising an event as a starting point to get as many people as possible engaged.
This was an approach Bloemfontein School took, using animations and films produced by children about the mining history of the region.
“Parents, staff, children and the local community all embraced this event and it was made even more significant due to the poignant mining memories and culture,“ she says.
Ultimately, enhancing arts provision requires time and effort. But, as the experiences here show, taking the plunge and trying out new things can be hugely rewarding and provide children with the chance to learn new skills and take part in unique events that can have life-long impacts.
Perfitt sums this up: “When we went to the ballet [to see Romeo and Juliet] I had one Year 6 pupil who was really smitten with [the performance] and thought it was amazing. He turned to me in the interval and said, ‘I’m keeping up with the story and everything, Miss!’”
Find out more about Artsmark here