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How can we embed arts across the primary curriculum?

Written by: Matthew Courtney
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash
4 min read

In 2017, the Cultural Learning Alliance published an updated version of their ‘Key research findings’, which explores large-scale research into the impact of arts and cultural education. The report cites research conducted that demonstrates the staggering impact that the arts can have, stating that ‘children from low income families who take part in arts activities at school are three times more likely to get a degree’. Geoff Barton placed further emphasis on this in his briefing paper on the findings, which highlights the power of an arts education to ‘fuel social mobility’ (Barton, 2018). As well as the social impact, the report also highlights the educational impact that the arts can have, including improving students’ maths and English attainment.

The ‘Key research findings’ provided empirical evidence in consonance with what my professional judgement already told me: the arts are of vital importance for children’s academic and holistic development. But how does one ensure access to the arts for all in a climate of reduced real-term funding and constraints of time? When reflecting on the research, I began to explore ideas to adapt my classroom practice in order to embed the arts across the curriculum.

Artwork of the day

I wanted to expand the repertoire of artwork that the children in my class were familiar with. Each day I show my class images of a piece of artwork (including paintings, sculpture, drawing, etc). We discuss how it makes us feel, our favourite parts of the work, sometimes biographical information about the artist and the inspiration and methods they used to create the piece. Importantly, I pay consideration to the diversity of the artists included, ensuring that female and black and minority ethnic group (BAME) artists are well represented. We explore artwork from a range of different cultures. The National Curriculum makes a claim that it ‘introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’ (DfE, 2014, p. 6). Ofsted have echoed this definition and stated that they will be inspecting education providers’ coverage of ‘cultural capital’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 43) when making a judgement of the quality of education under their new inspection framework. In order to appreciate human creativity and achievement, children first need to be exposed to it through the arts.

Poetry across the curriculum

Every day, I read a poem aloud to the children. The poetry we share and discuss is sometimes linked to our learning across the curriculum, an event or a celebration. I often invite the children to respond to the poetry we have heard, through discussion with their peers or sometimes even through drama and music. The poetry is sometimes used to reinforce concepts taught in other subjects, including science and maths (I recently used Sara Coleridge’s poem ‘The months’ to complement the teaching of the names and order of the months of the year). Again, I pay due consideration to the diversity of poets and poetry included. The daily poetry session is also a great way to expose children to a wide and varied vocabulary. Poetry has been shown to improve children’s reading and fluency skills (Newsome, 2008). I have seen the positive impact of poetry in my own classroom, with children using increasingly ambitious vocabulary in their writing after hearing these words used in poetry.

Signposting local events

Signposting local events includes making parents/carers and the school community aware of artistic and cultural events through the school newsletter and other methods of communication, and letting children know about cultural events, galleries, dance workshops, theatre productions, music concerts and exhibitions in the local area. This is often easier to achieve in cities rather than rural areas. Children have returned to school with an increased appreciation of the work of William Morris after visiting his house, following a topic focusing on the Victorian period and the work of this artist; a renewed love of Julia Donaldson’s stories after watching a theatre production of The Gruffalo; and enthusiasm to try out techniques seen at the Tate Modern. Research has demonstrated the value that visits to art galleries can have (Kisida et al., 2016). Another great idea is to signpost your local library to children through librarian school visits and promoting summer reading programmes. I have previously had success with doing this, and the impact has been measured through increased public library membership amongst pupils, increased discussion around books and a shared love of reading being fostered throughout the school.

Valuing the arts

We can ensure that children are aware of the high importance of the arts through displays celebrating children’s artwork, assemblies centring around creativity and showcasing the work produced by school dance and drama clubs, signposting children to artistic events and developing a whole-school culture that values and celebrates creativity.

Although the strategies I have listed are not ground-breaking, they allow us, as educators, to refocus attention onto the arts for both ourselves and the children in our classes. With the seemingly increased external pressures, it is temptingly easy for the arts to fall by the wayside. The Cultural Learning Alliance’s ‘Key findings’ encouraged me to reflect on my own practice and ensure that all the children I teach receive exposure to the arts. The strategies I have discussed are not, however, a replacement for high-quality and explicit teaching of art and related subjects. Although they provide a forum and exposure for existing artwork, they do not replace the need for children to engage in activities that allow and encourage them to express themselves creatively.

References

Barton G (2018) Cultural Learning Alliance Briefing Paper 4: The Arts in Schools – Why the Arts Matter in our Education System. London: Cultural Learning Alliance.

Cultural Learning Alliance (2017) Key Research Findings: The Case for Cultural Learning. London: Cultural Learning Alliance.

Department for Education (DfE) (2014) The National Curriculum in England: Framework document. London: DfE.

Kisida B, Bowen DH and Greene JP (2016) Measuring critical thinking: Results from an art museum field trip experiment. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness 9: 171–187.

Newsome KE (2008) Using poetry to improve fluency and comprehension in third-grade students. Georgia Educational Researcher 6(1): 1–21.

Ofsted (2019) School Inspection Handbook. Manchester: Ofsted.

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