In a small school, with limited budgets and a smaller pool of staff experience to draw on, embedding the arts and culture into the life of the school can be particularly difficult. Senior leaders often have to show remarkable flexibility and tenacity to grab hold of and exploit any cultural learning opportunities that become available.
St Meryl Primary School serves the community of Carpenders Park, an estate dating from the 1930s, just south of Watford. With just over 200 students on roll, St Meryl is a one-form entry primary in which almost all of the students come from Carpenders Park, which, owing to infrastructure, is somewhat isolated from neighbouring communities. Michele Geddes, the headteacher, outlines some of the challenges that come with working in such an environment.
‘Recruitment is an issue for any school, but our geography makes this even more challenging for us as we’re close to Harrow where schools are able to offer London weighting. Our budget has pretty much been frozen but what we have to pay out has increased. So, things are becoming more and more stretched: things like the national living wage, the apprenticeship levy and pension contributions have had a significant impact’.
Michele joined St Meryl in 2013. The school had experienced some time without a substantive head, had experienced a big turnover of staff and Key Stage 2 results had suffered. After an initial period of intense focus on English and maths in order to get standards back up to where they should be, a favourable Ofsted report gave Michele and her staff the space to think about the kind of experiences that they wanted pupils to have at St Meryl. It was, says Michele, ‘a refusal to allow the arts and culture to be marginalized’.
Unsurprisingly, the twin challenges of isolation and pinched finances have informed how St Meryl is trying to develop its offer of arts and culture.
‘I’ve not found it easy to access cultural organizations. I’ve gone out to them, rather than them coming out to me. And while there are lots of things around, if you haven’t got a lot of money, then it’s very difficult to access’.
The school has, therefore, pursued multiple partnerships, with organizations like Hertfordshire Music Service and Watford Museum that are able to bring a strong focus on teachers’ CPD to the table. It has also made use of its proximity to London to take advantage of the capital’s cultural offer: just one example being the annual Year Three visit to Tate Britain.
Michele personally has taken hold of every opportunity to expand her own network – she is a graduate of Royal Opera House Bridge’s Leaders for Impact programme. She also wants to involve St Meryl in wider networks, particularly in the emerging Hertfordshire Cultural Education Partnership.
What perhaps makes St Meryl stand out most amongst its peers, both in Hertfordshire and the wider Royal Opera House Bridge region, is its deep focus on pupil voice.
‘I’d say pupil voice is really strong here; we seek children’s views in all sorts of ways and for lots of different things. We’ve got the steering group for the Rights Respecting School programme that we’re a part of. We’ve got our School council, Eco Council and our Arts Ambassadors. The children are very much involved in designing their own curriculum and they have their say through regular ‘News and Views’ assemblies’.
The Arts Ambassador programme is something that Michele is particularly proud of. This brings together a group of children with a particular talent in one or more artforms, who are passionate about the arts. The group meets every month to talk about the opportunities they’ve had and how they can help to enhance the curriculum even more.
‘For example, this year, the Arts Ambassadors have said that they would like to do an arts week’, Michele explains. ‘They’re going to plan a whole week, based on the arts, with a performance at the end’.
This focus on pupil voice has fed into how teachers at the school plan lessons and St Meryl has broken away from some established orthodoxies in how to arrange learning.
‘Before teachers start a unit of work, they will always ask the children what they know and what they’d like to know and plan accordingly. So, teachers here don’t plan too far in advance. In fact, we don’t use planning formats at all… we plan directly onto whiteboard slides, which was a real leap of faith. But I wanted teachers to use their time resourcing fantastic learning opportunities rather than wasting time filling out planning forms. It’s made planning much more creative and enjoyable’.
Pupils too are encouraged to demonstrate their creativity in their day-to-day learning. ‘We use ‘choice of challenge’ across the school so children are able to take greater responsibility for their learning. We also encourage them to make choices about how they present their learning’, says Michele.
‘If we’re teaching them something, we quite often will say to them, you can choose how you want to present your learning today it might be through writing but it might also be through some artwork, or drawing, or making something or through working with others to create a piece of drama’.
This approach marries in with other innovations, including cutting down the number of exercise books children are given, putting English and humanities subjects in one book and science, technology, engineering and maths subjects in another book with no separate workbooks for the arts and creative subjects. The impact of this is that there is now consistency in the work produced by children in all subjects and creative work is subject to the same scrutiny and monitoring as other subjects.
Funding remains a key issue for the school and one of the measures that the school is investigating to redress this is joining a Multi-Academy Trust, in
order to benefit from some economies of scale and work more collaboratively.
But, whatever comes next, Michele is determined to hold on to what makes St Meryl special. ‘A degree of autonomy is really, really important to us. We want to keep our own identity and our own ethos’.