For schools that have previously focussed relatively little on the arts and culture, it is often the spark provided by a new member of staff that can fire up a new approach. Many teachers have had access to ambitious and exciting creative partnerships, experiences which built their professional conviction of the value and impact of creative and cultural learning.
When James Newell, a veteran of cultural learning programmes under the auspices of Creative Partnerships, took up his first headship at Wix and Wrabness Primary in a remote seaside district of Essex, he was soon able to utilize his knowledge and experience.
‘I came into a school where I didn’t know anyone or anything about the school. I looked at their long-term plan and I was a bit surprised, really, with the way it was going. The main focus was the government’s drive and direction. So, it was very staid, very safe, quite test-based; it had lots of maths, English and grammar’.
James soon realized that to change the school’s ethos he would need support, so when a vacancy arose in school, he was able to bring in a former colleague, Vanessa Lindsay, who had similar experiences in creative and cultural learning.
‘We put our heads together and started to open up the curriculum and think about how we could make it culturally rich’, says James.
Together, the two developed a new vision for the school that put at its heart the ambition to provide children with inspiring cultural experiences, to broaden aspirations and horizons, to ignite natural curiosity and to grow lifelong learners. Pupils were fully involved in the process of designing this new vision for the school.
‘For the first term, I used every assembly to talk about the vision and got the children’s ideas and input’, says James. ‘I didn’t use parents so much because I think they needed to see what it was about, rather than have me telling them. They needed to hear the children tell them and it seems to have worked well’.
With pupil voice embedded from the outset, James and Vanessa began to think more about involving children in decision making. As a start, they asked students to submit ideas for how to change the school for the better, the results of which are stuck up on the wall of the headteacher’s office.
Vanessa explains how this has continued to spark inspiration. ‘I was in the assembly where we asked the question and they came up with 23 things. There’s some great ideas: really plausible, sensible things. Following on from that, I said, well, hang on… how about children running an assembly? So, I, with another teacher, do a music assembly, once a week. The children organize it, they plan who’s going to do it, and they introduce it. At the end of it, they’re all coming up saying, “Can I do it? Can I be in it next week?” So, by the more confident children modelling what you could do, now lots of other children want to follow them’.
James and Vanessa also needed to bring staff with them on this new path, and ensure that they have the skills to support the new creative curriculum of the school. To do this, the two have drawn on their former connections to identify cultural partners to work with, including local authors, musicians and artists, the University of Essex and Harwich-based performance group The Grand Theatre of Lemmings.
‘They’re part of the staff, really’, explains James. ‘They’ve worked with us from pretty much day one of us being here. It’s an extra cost but it’s now highly valued by the governors’.
‘How do you, therefore, provide value for money? You ensure creative opportunities are never a bolt-on. These people – the Lemmings and their extended family, the Bhangra dancers, the musicians, whoever it is – they’re not just working with the children. They’re working with the staff, as well. For
want of a better word, they’re upskilling the staff. So, we’re getting this rich CPD as well as brilliant cultural arts experiences for children. That’s linked to the plan’.
The focus on teacher development extends also to teaching assistants
who work at the school. As James notes: ‘It’s no good if you’ve got everyone on board, apart from the teaching assistants and they’re working directly with children’.
Teaching assistants are encouraged to attend staff meetings and to avail themselves of the opportunities for arts-based CPD; Vanessa specifically cites one teaching assistant who overcame a lack of confidence in performing through participation in a drama workshop. Another, a former journalist, is bringing her professional skills to bear as coordinator of the school’s newspaper ‘The Curious Times’.
The school is beginning to see the results of these innovations. Ofsted
inspectors recently commended Wix and Wrabness for its ‘new creative curriculum’ with which they ‘broaden pupils’ aspirations and horizons, and ignite natural curiosity’. In the last year, the school has almost doubled the combined results for Key Stage 2 and is in the top ten percent nationally for Key Stage 1.
James is aware that he is taking risks, but retains his faith in a creative approach, with the school now on an Artsmark journey: ‘I’m confident in what we do. If I wasn’t, we could have retained a narrow focus on reading and writing, which would have been safe but uninspiring for our children’.
Vanessa agrees: ‘Obviously, as leadership, we’re constantly looking at data and monitoring but really, we know this is doing the right thing. It’s a way of proving that you can do it another way’.