How does a school embark on a journey towards strengthening children’s access to arts and culture? Strong leadership is one of the key aspects shared by all the schools featured in this publication. When facing up to the challenge of embedding the arts, the inspiration of one leader or one teacher can be the spark that lights the fire.
Kristian Hewitt, headteacher at The Mary Bassett Lower School has very clear, and very personal reasons for why he has prioritized the arts and culture in school.
‘I grew up in this town as a disadvantaged pupil and, for me, one of the biggest dangers in our current educational situation is that we’ve lost the focus of developing the whole child in favour of academic progress’, he says.
‘There’s been a national agenda for schools to refocus on academic outcomes, but I think it’s been at the expense of those other things that actually support children to become successful adults. So, my big passion is to see how a local community can be transformed, using the influence that schools can have when developing the next generation’.
As the former head of a secondary school Design and Technology department, Kristian has taken a big leap into the unknown as a lower school leader, but his powerful sense of mission is already informing the strategic vision he has put into place at Mary Bassett. All three of the key aims within the school’s vision reflect both the school’s community ambitions and the focus on the arts and culture that will help to realize it.
‘The first priority is a whole school approach that develops physical and emotional well-being and positive mental health. Second, is to broaden our pupils’ interest and exposure to arts and culture. This is about celebrating the richness of the world and making exciting, broad learning a daily experience. And, the third one is about pupil progress, and preparing young people for the next level of education - which we overtly say is not just about English and maths, it has got to include all subjects across the curriculum’.
Part of the community outreach that Kristian seeks involves bringing parents more actively into the education of their children. Mary Bassett takes children from two years old and upwards, an age at which parental engagement is key to learning.
I’m looking at ways of engaging young parents in arts and culture activity as a tool to build their confidence and understanding of how their child will develop and grow. If we could find an accessible place where these young parents can actually start getting stuck in… seeing the differences these experiences can make to their child’s confidence and language development. I know the arts and culture opportunities that we provide stimulate discussion, they stimulate vocabulary, and I know that is partly why the evidence shows that arts and culture opportunities improve children’s outcomes because you develop curiosity. You develop the intellect, the critical thinking, and the confidence to talk even at a very early age’.
‘As a starting point, I’m looking at setting up an art class on a Wednesday evening. I’ve found a local artist who I think is going to be willing to do it and I’m looking at investing some resources in order to transform the hall into an art studio for the whole evening’.
Kristian is aware that much of what he does is a risk - ‘I decided I’m going to act by what I believe could work, what I know works, what I’ve learnt so far’ - but is convinced that his approach is the right one for his pupils. To support his position, he has utilized positive feedback from school inspectors to continue to sell his vision for the school to the local authority and to the governing body: ‘I don’t see Ofsted as the problem, I see Ofsted as a freeing opportunity to back up some of the arguments that I feel passionate about’.
His conviction is paying dividends in unexpected areas. ‘I did a recruitment drive last summer, ready for September’, he says, ‘and I was very bold with the style of advert that I put out, focussing on the vision for the school. At a time when schools locally are really struggling to recruit, I was overwhelmed with applications. I found that really positive: we’re selling a vision that people are interested in. It meant we were able to select the ideal candidates to join our team’.
The need to build support and skills within the staff is one of the big challenges Kristian is addressing.
‘That’s the Achilles’ heel at the moment, that arts and cultural expertise sits with a limited number of employees. I need to really make sure I’ve embedded a vision for arts and culture and provided all of our staff with experiences that makes it become part of their own instinct. We are just on the threshold of establishing the routines and opportunities that would support this becoming a reality’.
To achieve this instinctual attitude to arts and cultural learning, Kristian is encouraging teachers to think of where cross-curricular links can be forged and the school has started an Artsmark journey.
‘We have two teachers in each year group. They plan together and I’ve said, “let’s throw planning up in the air. How do you make every day in your classroom an exciting possibility?” How do you deliver maths and English criteria without the boundaries of, “This is maths, this is English”?’, he explains.
‘This transition in mindset, expertise and understanding in my teachers is the key thing for me. I can talk about arts and culture until the cows come home, but I can’t teach every child in the school. My challenge is how to ensure that every child has an experience every day that reflects the creativity that I know will make a difference’.