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Embedding the arts within the primary curriculum

Written by: Kerri Sellens
Photo by Ibin Siraj on Unsplash
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5 min read

Tower Hamlets did not have a single student entered for A-level music in 2017–18 (Whittaker et al., 2019). It’s shocking statistics like this that reassure us that we are taking the correct journey with our primary curriculum; the decline in the arts as an academic progression route within our borough is something we need to address. 

With increasing external pressures on schools, including budget and data requirements, the arts can easily become an area not considered a priority. It takes committed leadership to stand strong and invest further in the arts, understanding the impact that they can bring to their school community, developing critical thinking and confidence through personal expression.

Lansbury Lawrence Primary is located in Poplar, East London. Almost all of our students are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, with most learning English as an additional language. The arts are embedded firmly within our curriculum, and learning through creativity is at the core of our school. We believe that the arts allow our students to develop further ways to communicate and help to understand the world around them. Tower Hamlets has the highest child poverty rate in the country, with the Lansbury ward having the highest number of children living in poverty within Tower Hamlets, as measured in the Children in Low Income Families Local Measure (Tower Hamlets Corporate Research Unit, 2018). Our students are regularly exposed to the art, music and theatre that living in London allows, with trips and visitors organised every half term to both enrich and deepen learning and enable equality of access.

It has taken a few years of strategic development to refine our arts offer, and we continue to review and reflect, build upon and grow. One of our initial approaches for school improvement within the arts was through using the Artsmark framework (artsmark.org.uk). Artsmark encourages you to evaluate your provision, partnerships, teacher development and pupil voice. Recognising specific areas that we could foster has helped to shape our progress.

We are particularly proud of how the way in which we work with cultural organisations has progressed. Sustained relationships have been developed and as our collaborations have grown, so has the ambition of our arts projects. A method we use as a regular starting point for collaboration is our school heritage and locality. Using what students have around them instils creative aspiration that is meaningful and relevant.

Lansbury Lawrence was built as part of the Lansbury Estate for the Festival of Britain, Live Architecture Exhibition in 1951. Learning about the importance of the school and estate is appropriate for our curriculum and introduces a sense of pride in our immediate environment and community.

One of our first partnerships drawing on our school’s history was with the V&A Museum, which opened a Micro Museum in neighbouring Chrisp Street Market. Working with a ceramic artist, students produced tiles directly inspired by our Peggy Angus murals, which were then exhibited in the museum. The interest and enthusiasm that the V&A showed in our school was a catalyst for further projects; it reminded us what was unique about our building and why it needed to be celebrated.

Further projects have been planned in partnership with local cultural organisations Bow Arts and the Whitechapel Gallery, each time considering the school as the foundation from which the project should grow. Students have produced Jesmonite accessories, inspired by our building’s architecture. Students have produced a tour guide to our school, highlighting all of their favourite locations alongside historic features. Students have even become architects of their own environment, designing a bespoke art room for our whole community to use, which we are now raising funds for to make a reality.

What these projects have in common is their sense of purpose and legacy. When collaborating and planning with cultural organisations and professionals, the long-term impact needs to be considered.

We appreciate that our school is located in a city with a wealth of accessible cultural organisations, but how would this curriculum approach translate to somewhere with limited resources? Using your location and celebrating local history is a good place to start. Engage with your community. Creating an arts network with local schools is a great way to share opportunities and ideas. Lansbury Lawrence leads the art network within the Poplar Partnership schools. We meet once a term, and create our agenda depending on what we would like support with, or an area of our practice we would like to share. Starting small and slowly building up projects across the school gains momentum as successful outcomes become apparent. Student advocates for the arts can also raise the profile of your provision.

A student-led Arts Council has been established at Lansbury Lawrence to allow pupil voice and leadership in the arts. Recently, the Arts Council designed a resource for our EYFS students to use, through working with designers. They researched, planned and considered the needs of their young peers, to produce a fantastic child-led Curiosity Cart: a moveable station that encourages early creative exploration.

Creating opportunities for leadership and inspiring the next generation are especially important for our context. The Arts Council England’s Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case report shows under-representation of people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds working within arts organisations (Arts Council, 2018). With the creative industries being one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy (Department for DCMS, 2017), having our young students working with creative professionals and organisations helps to inspire and develop understanding of the arts being the foundation of many different career paths.

In our recent pupil voice survey, when students were asked what subjects they enjoyed learning, art was the favourite. In end-of-year reports, arts experiences are always the prominent memories. Parental involvement has improved through the many opportunities we provide for performing, exhibiting and cultural experiences. It is this evidence of impact and engagement that supports our vision of why the arts are essential within the primary curriculum. Lansbury Lawrence is an environment that encourages students to create, explore and imagine. We firmly believe that the arts support and prepare our students for whatever they choose to do in their future lives.

References

Arts Council (2018) Equality, diversity and the creative case. Available at: www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Diversity_report_1617_FINAL_web.pdf (accessed June 2019).

Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) (2017) Creative industries’ record contribution to UK economy. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/creative-industries-record-contribution-to-uk-economy (accessed June 2019).

Tower Hamlets Corporate Research Unit (2018) Child poverty in Tower Hamlets. Available at: www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/Documents/Borough_statistics/Income_poverty_and_welfare/2015_Child_Poverty_Briefing.pdf (accessed June 2019).

Whittaker A, Faultley M, Kinsella V et al. (2019) Geographical and social demographic trends of A-level music students. Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education, Birmingham City University, Royal College of Music and Royal Academy of Music. Available at: http://researchonline.rcm.ac.uk/502/1/RCM%20RAM%20Report%20FINAL%20%20%28redacted%29180419.pdf (accessed July 2019).

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