I’ve started this blog as a place to collate writing, images and information all connected to my role as a specialist teacher of art and design within primary education. I hope to share ideas and practice that might support teaching and learning beyond my own setting.
The Making the Case for the Arts in Schools conference was held on March 29 2019. I was invited to present a case study, highlighting the creative approach and impact of our art and design projects within school.
How do you engage and teach children through the arts in a relevant, purposeful way? One of our key curriculum approaches, and a starting point for many of our projects, is to use our history and locality to inspire and embed a sense of pride. Through the Room for Art project, our children became architects of their own environment.
Our school building is a cultural gem. It was built as part of the Lansbury Estate in Poplar for the Festival of Britain Live Architecture Exhibition in 1951, and along with mid-century architectural style it is home to impressive tile murals by the designer and teacher, Peggy Angus.
Like many East London schools, over 88% of our children are learning English as an Additional Language, and we believe that developing creative confidence is inclusive and crucial to help our children communicate in different ways.
We value the arts. Creativity is at the heart of our school, and we actively seek opportunities to collaborate with cultural organisations to enrich our offer. However, despite some wonderful projects happening across the school, we do not currently have a dedicated art room, so a couple of years ago while trying to find a suitable space around school while working with the Whitechapel Gallery, a conversation began that was the spark for one of our most ambitious projects to date.
The Whitechapel education team had recently met Matt+Fiona, architects who were keen to work with children designing a space, and we were a school that desperately needed a space. Between us we started to plan the Room for Art project.
Matt+Fiona were brilliant, and engaged with our Year 6 children as professional designers from the start. They introduced architectural vocabulary, and the process of how a building is planned. From the start, children were leading the project and pupil voice was respected and children developed in self-assurance.
We knew we wanted our art room to be for the whole community, so the children interviewed other stakeholders within school. Here they are interviewing Phil the school handyman, they also interviewed teachers, the school cook, and teaching assistants. They asked people what they thought the art room should contain, and if they had any skills they could share to help realise the project. The Whitechapel filmed the whole process of the project, and it gave the children an insight in to other creative careers. One child who sometimes found school challenging, was absolutely engaged with holding the microphone and being the sound assistant throughout this day.
Architects from Matt’s practice came to support with the technical aspects of locating the Room for Art on our school site, again providing opportunities for children to work as professionals and learn about creative careers in a relevant way.
Scale, access, purpose, function, design… over the course of a few months these ideas were explored and developed as a team.
Initial designs were quite extravagant, with curves and twists and swimming pools and slime rooms, but gradually these designs were pared down to what we really needed at school; an art room that every child could go to, that our community could also be inspired by and create within.
And once the design was finalised, the exterior was considered. Staying connected to our Angus tile murals within the school, the children designed tiles for the exterior of the art room. These were then made in to beautiful bespoke handmade tiles by Darwen Terracotta. The same company who made the tiles for Grayson Perry’s House for Essex.
Continuing the design process, a section of the art room was built by the children. They used power tools and collaborated to build a big structure together. Our whole school was involved, including our head-teacher who is attaching some of the tiles in the picture here.
The project concluded with an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery that showed the whole journey of the project from initial designs and models to the final idea for a structure.
Parents came to the gallery to watch the film of the project and to look around the exhibition. It was amazing to see the children talk with such pride about what they had achieved, and also to see our community within the gallery. Over 100,000 people visited the exhibition over the course of the three months it was on.
After the project, our governors agreed the art room was a necessity for our school and we had a feasibility study completed. We had a community consultation with the plans up for everyone to comment on, and we are now submitting our planning application.
Next step is to find funding for the project. We’ve got an exhibition of the project in the Canary Wharf community gallery now. The project won an Artskickers award earlier this year, which was really lovely. Our children won the Future Artists Award for all of their hard work. Year 6 have moved on to secondary school now, so our Lansbury Lawrence Arts Council are taking on the job of advocacy for the project in school. Our Arts Council is cross-phase, so the project will continue to be embedded throughout the school. When the room is realised, it will be a way we can bring our community and families together through creativity.
What other impact has there been? The Arts Council England’s recent Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case report shows under-representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds currently working within arts organisations. Over 92% of our children are from ethnic minority backgrounds. With the creative industries being one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy, having our young children working with creative professionals and organisations has helped inspire and develop understanding of art and design being the foundation of many different career paths.
It’s through this project and others that have had a purpose …. that has made art the favourite subject across the school.
I was invited to be a part of a Long Conversation at the recent Open Doors Vote 100 event, held at Here East in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The event, organised by the V&A, Smithsonian, UCL, London College of Fashion, Sadlers Wells and the BBC, was celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage through performance, dance, music, workshops, poetry and talks.
The Long Conversation was a really inspiring format to talk within; I was interviewed by the speaker on stage before me for 10 minutes, and then I interviewed the speaker on stage after me for 10 minutes. A whole afternoon was filled by the ebb and flow of an interesting variety of thoughts and ideas. The person I interviewed was completing a PhD in researching the dark web, which is something I knew nothing about; it was absolutely fascinating to hear and learn about their work.
The only structure to the conversation, aside from the timings, was that the first question each speaker was asked was, “So, what one thing makes you optimistic about the future?”.
I spoke about being optimistic about the growing networks of teachers who are collaborating, both with each other and with cultural organisations, to create some really exciting learning opportunities for children. I’ve just had a fantastic year at my school, completing several ambitious art projects across the school, and it’s through communicating with other teachers, educators, and cultural organisations… building and developing a like-minded supportive network.
These networks have been gradually developed, through organising and speaking at Teachmeets; sharing best practice from the classroom with peers. Through the brilliant A New Direction AND Advocates programme, where I have worked alongside some amazing colleagues, all driven by the common cause of children’s entitlement to arts and culture in education. Through the The Poplar Partnership, a network of ten schools all in the same vicinity, supporting and working with each other in all areas of the curriculum and school development. Through Bow Arts who facilitate Poplar Partnership consortium meetings for art leads. Through THAMES, a fantastic umbrella organisation supporting the arts offer within Tower Hamlets schools. Through the Whitechapel Gallery, and the amazing Room for Art project. There are networks beyond my local area too, and Twitter is useful to connect with like-minded people virtually.
These are my networks that inspire and excite me about the work and impact of arts education in schools. I am optimistic about the future because despite the current political climate and challenges, through continued collaboration and working together our voice is collectively stronger.
I was 10% braver today by presenting at the WomenEdLondon Conference. Here is my presentation:
‘Leading from the middle within the Arts – creating a Cultural Passport’
I first heard the phrase Cultural Passport from Professor David Woods, when he was talking about how he approaches and gets a feel for schools. From the first impressions of the foyer, to asking about a school’s DNA – their cultural passport. The phrase resonated as something I was well placed to lead within my own school, as an arts lead and cultural leader through A New Direction. And also, because it’s something I feel strongly about – every child’s entitlement to a creative and culturally rich education. And for many of the children I teach in Poplar, Tower Hamlets, school is the only opportunity for those experiences.
Coincidently, our school foyer actually has the advantage of having a huge tile mural by the artist Peggy Angus dominating it. A mural that spans two floors, which is a significant cultural reference from when the school was built as part of the Lansbury estate, for the Festival of Britain ‘Live Architecture’ exhibition. There is work by Angus throughout the school, and teaching the children the importance and history of our environment is part of our arts curriculum. From a creative cross-curricular viewpoint, working with what we have around us is both grounding and purposeful – relevant to children’s everyday experience.
Bow Arts recently commissioned a hanging sculpture by the artist Haidee Drew in a stairwell at the back of our school, adding a more contemporary piece alongside Angus. Can working alongside an art collection improve children’s well-being? Can a school grow and develop to include providing space for creative reflection? These are questions we are interested in exploring. Throughout the school, children’s work hangs alongside artist’s work creating an inclusive atmosphere of celebration and questioning.
Along with Bow Arts, we have developed relationships with other cultural organisations, and this has been a key part of our school development. We have appointed a dedicated school arts governor from Wigmore Hall, who we have had a brilliant two-year partnership with – hearing opera being sung echoing around school was definitely one of the highlights of last week.
We take full advantage of London’s Cultural Capital, knowing how fortunate we are to have so many leading galleries, museums, innovative exhibitions, architecture, design, theatre around us. Find those opportunities, make friends with like-minded people, build supportive networks and collaborate.
Embarking on the Artsmark journey can also help guide and provide focus, it encourages you to reflect on your cultural offer so far and structure how you are going to build upon what you already have.
Having creative professionals come in to school inspires children; not only to become an artist, actor or musician, but to learn about the wide range of careers a creative education can lead to. A recent project our yr6 children completed with the Whitechapel Gallery and architects, Matt + Fiona, enabled our children to meet, and learn from, not only architects, but a photographer, film maker, gallery curators and technicians too.
The Arts Council England’s recent diversity report, shows “significant” under-representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, disabled people and – in some roles – women, in the organisations it funds. Over 92% of our children are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and we actively seek opportunities to engage them creatively and encourage ambition, to inspire the next generation within the creative industries.
Arts Council chair, Sir Nick Serota, said, “Our young diverse population is a national asset – a multitude of perspectives, ideas, talent and creativity.” As leaders, this is our platform to work from.
Leading from the place where aptitude meets personal passion will also inspire both the children and the adults you work with. Be in your ELEMENT, as Sir Ken Robinson says. Lead subjects you are good at and that you love; in my case that is art and design. Share your knowledge; lead in-school CPD, engage with your teacher training providers to ensure continuity. Involve your parents and your community. Blog and tweet about the impact your leadership is having.
Most of all, embrace the opportunity and responsibility a school has of filling the first few pages of that cultural passport, setting up a child for the rest of their life.
After the summer holidays, one of the first lessons I like to teach in the new school year is to explore the question, What is Art?
Initially children often answer, “Painting” or “Drawing”. Painting or drawing are usually mentioned before sculpture or making. Sculpture or making is usually mentioned before printing. And printing is usually mentioned before textiles or digital art. This can vary from year group to year group, and is always an interesting piece of assessment.
Once we’ve got the different media established, we move on to discuss what is painted or drawn, or made or printed? Where does the subject matter come from?
Year 5 child’s sketchbook page.
Year 3 child’s sketchbook page.
Then we talk about how art can make us feel. Images of both figurative and abstract art are provided as stimuli for discussion, and we notice how we all see different things and how different art works can make us feel in different ways.
Year 2 child’s sketchbook page.
Year 3 child’s sketchbook page.
Exploring the question, What is Art? gets the children ready for developing their critical thinking skills in art over the year ahead. Another question might be, Can Anything be Art?, which would make an interesting philosophical enquiry.