For many parts of the Royal Opera House Bridge region, the cultural opportunities that London offers loom large. But physical proximity often masks a wide cultural gap as schools and families inconsistently take advantage of London’s opportunities and more local cultural offers are stifled by the overpowering influence of the capital.
This is particularly true at Kenningtons Primary Academy in Thurrock. The school and the community it serves are located within the orbit of the M25 and the sound of traffic is audible from the school playground. Yet the centre of London – 16 miles away as the crow flies – can feel much further away. Historic levels of cultural engagement amongst both adults and children have been low.
It was, in part, to address this challenge that the Thurrock Trailblazer cultural entitlement programme was established four years ago. Kenningtons Primary Academy has been an enthusiastic participant in the programme since the very outset, taking part in a range of activities including the Royal Opera House Create and Sing: Carmen and Create and Dance: The Nutcracker programmes and school activities themed around the Historic Royal Palaces. In 2016, they were rewarded for their work on the latter with a national award for the Historic Royal Palaces’ Time Explorer Challenge.
Jo Sawtell-Haynes, headteacher at Kenningtons, is realistic but positive about how far their journey into the arts has taken them: ‘I wouldn’t describe us as an “art school’’, she says. ‘I would describe us more as an academic school. The key drivers for us are English, maths and science.
‘We’ve revamped our core values and one of them is about children experiencing success. It’s really important for us to make sure that we do lots of things so that every child finds the thing that they are really good at and can experience success’.
Bianca Brand, Assistant Head and the school’s Cultural Champion, agrees: ‘We are promoting the love for the arts. We are exposing children to a range of experiences. For me it’s about giving these children opportunities so that they can make choices and decisions, and not be closed to things. They might say they don’t like ballet, for instance, but have they ever seen ballet? Give them the opportunity to see it, and then they can make up their mind: do I like it or not?’.
The school’s recently-introduced pupil entitlement tracking system works to ensure that children make the most of the opportunities available with as little repetition as possible.
‘Our aim’, Bianca explains, ‘is that by Year 6 they have been to a gallery. They have seen a ballet. They have experienced some kind of opera. They have been to a historical place, like the Tower of London’.
Pupil feedback surveys have shown clearly how this approach has strengthened children’s understanding of the arts. Before Kenningtons joined the Thurrock Trailblazer programme, only one-fifth identified singing as an art form, but in more recent surveys that number has risen to over 70%. Likewise, the playing of musical instruments was previously recognized as artistic activity by 8% of pupils. Now over half do.
Almost all children surveyed said that participation in the school’s Arts Week inspired them to participate more in arts activity. And almost every parent surveyed agreed with their child’s assessment. And 98% of parents said that children had shared their learning at home – a figure that Bianca cheerfully acknowledges is ‘a lot’.
Engagement with parents has been a particular area of interest for the leadership team. The school is within a community in South Essex where levels of cultural engagement have been comparatively low, something that has presented real challenges as the school broadens its offer for its pupils.
‘In the past, we had quite a bit of resistance from parents’. Bianca says, ‘Perhaps these are things that they haven’t experienced themselves or something that’s out of their comfort zone. The arts were not as valued as they should have been: we had boys who weren’t allowed to go and see a ballet because of how the parents felt’.
But Bianca believes that real advances are being made – albeit slowly - with an approach that is increasingly bringing parents into the life of the school in a way that is targeted and progressive. Both Bianca and Jo acknowledge that there is still a way to go but there have been some significant changes.
‘Three years ago, we had a couple of parents in to come and support our Arts Week. The year after that we opened up a museum for parents where they could come and view the work, and then last year we had the doors open to the public to come to the carnival. With the carnival, we were really concerned about how people would respond to it, and actually it was quite positive’.
Outcomes in the arts are a key area for future development for Jo: ‘How do we really know if our children are getting better at sketching or painting? We are starting to monitor now how its delivered, but, at some point, we’re going to start looking at progression in what children are producing’.
Bianca echoes this: ‘The next focus is on delivering quality: the effort and money we put into CPD, is it actually making a difference in how we deliver lessons? How are we going to monitor or assess the children’s work or get quality out of them? Small steps at a time, but we have moved on’.
Kenningtons is making the institutional changes that should ensure these small steps are taken. Delivery in the arts is embedded into performance management for a number of teachers. A cultural governor has been appointed and the wider governing body is enthusiastic for the arts journey to continue.
And, perhaps most importantly of all for the future of cultural learning at Kenningtons, teachers’ enthusiasm and expectations have been dramatically raised right across the school. As Bianca says, ‘I know this is going to continue now. It’s going to be part of the school no matter who’s leaving and coming. It will stay’.