Making the Case for the Arts in Schools

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[1] 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. 

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