For schools across the Royal Opera House Bridge region, geographical isolation can make ensuring cultural learning for children a difficult task. When schools are far from providers and venues, senior leaders need to work hard to secure relationships with the cultural sector.
John Bunyan Primary School has faced up to these challenges. The school came into being as the result of a merger between an infant school that had participated in the Creative Partnerships programme as an ‘enquiry’ and as a ‘change’ school, and a junior school that was in special measures.
To the leadership team of the new combined school, led by the former infant school head Deborah Bailey, cultural learning offered a pathway to school improvement.
‘One of the stark things at the Junior School was there was very little on offer with regard to the arts and culture’, says Deborah. ‘There was a big drive to improve maths and English. We passionately believe that we can get those results through a broad and balanced curriculum, ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities’.
Results are starting to bear out Deborah’s belief. Key Stage 2 Level 4 attainment increased from 57% to 88% in two years and in 2017-18, 57% of children were reaching the expected standard across all three areas of Reading, Writing and Maths with school leadership predicting further improvement.
Key Stage 2 attainment isn’t the only area in which Deborah is seeing improvement: ‘We see our attendance rates improving, so children are coming into school excited about learning and they are making great choices because we’ve got our code of conduct’. This code of conduct and a culture of high expectations is paying dividends in pupil behaviour, something that had been a challenge for the predecessor Junior School.
‘Children are more respectful’, says Deborah, ‘and they’re buying into the culture of what’s expected’.
John Bunyan Primary School is particularly notable for the unusually close relationship it forges with cultural providers. This relationship goes beyond simply booking provision offered by a cultural organization, and in the case of one, Colchester’s Mercury Theatre, has been a long-standing partnership.
‘It’s not an add-on’, says Deborah. ‘It’s not that an artist comes in, delivers a project and then disappears. The practitioners know our children really well, our children know them and they feel that they’re part of the staff. I have seen teachers ask them for advice because they are part of our community’.
Martin Russell, Head of Creative Learning and Talent at the Mercury Theatre, is similarly enthusiastic about the benefits of such partnership working, ‘The long-standing relationship helps us to develop our offer and strengthens our understanding of the needs and demands of primary schools. Working with them, we can talk about impact, rather than just the ‘tick box’ evaluation – they genuinely see the long-term evidence of everything we say about the skills that the arts provide’.
The school devotes substantial resource to this kind of training but, significantly, takes steps to ensure sustainability. ‘Because we have a high level of pupil premium, we have funding which we can draw upon for the Mercury Theatre to visit us’, says Deborah, ‘Having said that, we do say that our teachers have to participate in those workshops. If, in the future, we cannot fund external practitioners, we have put in an awful lot of CPD so that our teachers will be able to run it themselves’.
A model of reflective practice is built into this work: ‘At the end of each morning of working, the children, the practitioners and the teachers gather to discuss the learning. They [the Mercury’s practitioners] are working with three classes over a morning, some classes will take it in one direction, other classes will take it somewhere else. So, I think that it’s important that they have that discussion and are able to cater to children’s needs and interests’.
This close working relationship with the Mercury Theatre has informed other approaches to partnership. Claire Worrall, Assistant Headteacher, explores how a local history trip benefitted from the school’s experience of successful partnership building.
‘It was a topic that was quite tricky for us because if you don’t come from Braintree then you don’t know much about its heritage or its culture. We worked closely with Braintree Museum over the summer and organized a bespoke trip. This led to a trail around town where children looked at different historical sites. Having something which we’re able to design with practitioners over time is a key element of making something that’s really authentic’.
It’s clear that ambitious leadership is a central part of how John Bunyan has been able to achieve such change, something Deborah identifies in herself: ‘I’m a kind of starter. I’ve been a fire-starter and then I give it away to others’.
Claire recognizes the success of this approach: ‘If the leadership team are passionate about it, it will happen. If they’re not passionate about it, it’s not going to happen. Now, we’ve got a team driving music, a team driving English and drama and that’s the power behind it. There’s a lot of people doing a lot of work to make sure it happens for our children’.
The school is currently on an Artsmark journey, and, despite the pressures on primary school curriculum time, Deborah’s belief in the power of the arts and culture to change lives continues unabated: ‘I’m passionate about this’, she says, ‘I’m not going to be driven solely by an English or maths agenda by which we are measured. I know it exists, so one has to keep one’s eye clearly on it, but one also has to keep a balance’.
‘Our community is thriving on a rich, broad and balanced curriculum which focuses on individual’s needs and passions and allows them time to become engrossed in their learning’.