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Professional learning to embed learning in and through the arts in the primary curriculum

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The arts can be a powerful vehicle for supporting children experiencing disadvantage, with rich approaches to learning in non-arts subjects and connecting the school curriculum with experiences beyond school. The growing commitment from teachers and leaders to harness the full potential of arts in the curriculum, along with the increased policy drive for the inclusion of the arts and the emphasis on thoughtful and specialist curriculum design (Ofsted, 2018), offer great opportunities to schools and arts organisations. But they also pose challenges in, for example, developing shared expertise across different specialist and sector boundaries – challenges for both teachers and arts practitioners.


Paul Hamlyn Foundation is one of the largest independent grant-makers in the UK, with a mission to help people overcome disadvantage and lack of opportunity. CUREE has been working with Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) as independent evaluators of the Teacher Development Fund (TDF), which forms part of the Foundation’s strategic priority to support education and learning through the arts.

This paper summarises key factors in continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) for supporting the embedding of learning in and through the arts in the primary curriculum, identified through the independent, formative and summative evaluation of the TDF. It also includes examples of practice, along with implications for those leading CPDL and arts in school.

The TDF was developed as a one-year pilot programme running from September 2016, involving seven different projects across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in which over 400 teachers and school leaders engaged in enquiry-based CPDL, facilitated by artist practitioners. During the first year, it was recognised that more time was needed to further embed the learning, so an additional year was added to the pilot. Six projects were involved in the second year. These ranged from using singing to transform whole-school environments to giving teachers and students the skills and confidence to be critical consumers and makers of film, as a way of enhancing literacy and numeracy.

Evaluation aims and methods

The evaluation aimed to explore the capacity of the pilot projects to address key TDF priorities, including using evidence-based approaches to scaffold and support CPDL.

Throughout the pilot, CUREE collected and analysed evidence about project activities and learning progress of students, teachers, leaders and artists. The evaluation was designed to be useful to participants at all levels and included:

  • Participant surveys: Participants were asked to complete three surveys across each year: an initial survey to capture attitudes at the beginning of the project and create a baseline against which progress could be measured; a mid-point survey in March to track emerging successes and obstacles; and a final survey in June to identify what had been achieved over the year and to capture thoughts on sustainability. Evaluators worked in partnership with grantees, who gave regular feedback about response rates.
  • Practical enquiry tools: Practical local evaluation tools were provided by CUREE to the programme participants to build a coherent picture of how the project was affecting students, teachers and school leaders. These included tools to explore the impact on students’ emotional and subjective experiences, engagement and wellbeing; teacher journals; and teacher and leadership enquiry tools, which enabled participants to reflect on the impact of project learning on student progress and activity across school.
  • Interviews: These were held with a wide range of stakeholders, including PHF grant managers, project leads, teachers and leaders in case study schools. All projects were asked to submit interim and final reports to PHF, which CUREE used to gain insight into the projects’ self-assessments of the successes and progress made during the pilot year, improvements still to be made and plans for continuation. To supplement this, CUREE also conducted phone interviews with project leads from May to June 2017.

Evidence collected during the evaluation was used at several levels. For example, teachers used the student enquiry tools to reflect on the learning of children experiencing disadvantage and so refine the way in which they used arts in the curriculum to meet these students’ needs. The teacher and leadership enquiry tools were used to identify next steps within school, based on a combination of the reflections of both teachers and leaders, which were built into the tools. The tools were also used to inform evaluation within and across each of the six projects. The design of the evaluation tools was rooted in wider evidence about effective CPDL (Cordingley et al., 2015). Additionally, regular interim reports were made to PHF colleagues and the Programme Advisory Group to enable them to make evidence-based refinements to the programme.

This evaluation analysis revealed several key factors that are of particular relevance for those with a role in leading CPDL and arts in and across schools.

The key factors

The key factors in CPDL for supporting the embedding of learning in and through the arts in the primary curriculum included:

Developing a shared learning environment

The evidence highlighted the importance of developing an environment where all are positioned as learners, where arts specialists, school leaders and teachers all work together for the benefit of the children (particularly those experiencing disadvantage). So whilst arts practitioners brought important specialist expertise about the arts, teachers had in-depth knowledge of their students’ needs in the context of the school and leaders had specialist knowledge of disadvantaged students’ needs within the school and of curriculum organisation and priorities. Programme-sharing days where feedback from the surveys was explored gradually helped projects to tease out the important and distinctive contributions that each stakeholder group could make and areas where expertise and capacity existed but was, so far, underused. In the context of local experiences and the emerging evidence about practices, over time, the projects developed a learning environment that recognised the important expertise that all brought and encouraged the development of reciprocal learning. The forms of CPDL and way in which these were used were often important in building such a learning environment. For example, in one case study school, teachers and artist practitioners planned sessions together. The work with the artist practitioners struck a good balance between inviting challenge, drawing on expertise and retaining teacher ownership of the planning process. As one teacher reflected: ‘I feel having the artist practitioner there to support, but taking responsibility for the implementation in my class, has allowed my confidence to grow.’

Developing teacher autonomy

The broader evidence emphasised the importance of developing teacher autonomy. Teachers gained skills, knowledge and confidence about learning in and through the arts so that they were able to innovate in their classrooms. Projects were required to design CPDL in accordance with the CPD Standards to enable teachers to acquire new specialist skills, knowledge and confidence and take increasing control and ownership of how they used them. For example, in one case study, which focused on enabling children to access at least one hour of high-functioning learning through the arts per day for four days a week, school teachers’ capacity and confidence to experiment with new techniques and to take on the approach were supported initially by the structured lesson plans designed and refined as part of the project. From this relatively scaffolded – and, some felt, prescriptive – starting point, support became increasingly focused on co-planning to enable teachers to gain skills, knowledge and confidence, and on taking control and ownership of how they used the knowledge and skills. Over the two years of the project, the lesson plans became a cornucopia of ideas rather than a prescription. As the school’s lead teacher said: ‘I read one session plan now and see a multitude of opportunities from that one session’s plan. And I think that’s how [the teachers] feel as well. They followed them quite strictly to start with and gradually became more fluid in the way they approached the use of them. They really valued the support of them to start with.’

Developing CPDL leadership

The evidence highlighted the importance of leaders taking an active role in promoting and participating in arts-based learning, as well as the importance of enabling participating teachers to develop as CPDL learners. Thus projects learned in the second year to design CPDL that involved leaders in taking an active role in working with arts specialists. In the second year, teachers were increasingly involved in facilitating the learning of other teachers. As the ICT coordinator said: ‘Now that people know I’m the film leader, they will come and ask me about things they can do.’ Her plans for leading CPDL in learning through film at the school included setting aside three training days and/or time during weekly staff meetings in the first term to introduce staff to different aspects of filmmaking, and building the approaches into the ICT and literacy School Development Priorities. The headteacher pointed to her particular strengths in disseminating her own learning to other staff. These included her ability to talk to teachers about the purpose of the approach and willingness to explore with them examples of what her students had achieved. There was also an appetite amongst other staff to take the lead in developing the use of film in the year groups they teach – for example, exploring where there might be opportunities for younger students to be introduced to filmmaking and the challenges this would involve.

Paying attention to the project management of CPDL experiences

The evidence highlighted the importance of ensuring that all elements of the CPDL worked cohesively to fulfil the project aims. In this case, the project funders supported projects in setting a vision for student learning and planning a rhythm of quality assured CPDL that maximised teacher and leader learning to fulfil the vision and that was manageable within the constraints of the school timetable and physical environment.

Some implications for those leading CPDL and the arts

This evaluation was focused on arts-based learning projects funded by PHF and so it is important to recognise that its findings cannot simply be generalised and applied without recontexualisation and an awareness of the limitations. However, the CPDL was designed, in the main, to align with the English CPD standards, which were themselves evidence informed. The key building blocks were also aligned with best evidence about effective CPD (Cordingley et al., 2015). As a result, the core building blocks align with the wider evidence base about CPDL and pay particular attention to creating opportunities for teachers to contextualise their professional learning for different subject contexts and sub-groups of students (in this case, those experiencing disadvantage), through support from specialists. Therefore, we tentatively suggest that those leading CPDL and the arts might want to consider, in relation to their context, the extent to which their vision for CPDL for embedding the arts in the curriculum:

  • promotes a shared learning environment where students, teachers, leaders and arts practitioners/experts recognise the interdependencies between the specialist expertise that they all bring, to develop reciprocal learning relationships in which they all feel safe enough to share their learning processes
  • develops teacher autonomy so that colleagues feel able, supported and secure to use the knowledge, skills and confidence they have gained to innovate in and out of the classroom
  • involves leaders at all levels in actively participating in professional learning, including working directly with artist practitioners
  • uses CPDL designs that carefully align to fulfil the curriculum vision and identify and remove barriers to learning for students experiencing disadvantage.


Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Project Report. London: Teacher Development Trust. Available at:[site-timestamp]/DGT%20Full%20report%20(1).pdf  (accessed 19 July 2019).

Ofsted (2018) HMCI commentary: Curriculum and the new education inspection framework. Available at: (accessed 19 July 2019).


Project report:

Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Teacher Development Fund (including case studies):


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      Author(s): Bill Lucas