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Insights into inspirational arts practice in schools: Investing in an integrated arts curriculum

Written By: Adrian Pitts
7 min read
Investing in an integrated arts curriculum

Tonbridge Grammar School is an Academy IB World School with 1182 pupils on roll and 2 per cent pupil premium. There are two members of staff in the music department, including a full time head of department and a part time music teacher who is also the school’s assistant head teacher. Additionally, there are 16 visiting peripatetic music teachers. Tonbridge Grammar students follow a compulsory programme of music, drama and visual arts until the end of Year 9 following the Middle Years Programme (MYP) of the International Baccalaureate. This is supported and enriched by a wide-ranging programme of co-curricular activities. 

I was head of music for 16 years prior to becoming assistant head, where I placed emphasis on developing a wide range of musical performance opportunities, with access for all abilities as well as auditioned ensembles. Although about 30% of our students were in our school peripatetic system, not many were involved in ensembles from the start, and linking the co-curriculum explicitly with classroom teaching saw a rise in participation, confidence and resilience. 

To further the challenge, I founded two auditioned choirs as an extension of popular and well attended junior and senior choirs, with a focus on high standards and national competition. Over its 25-year history, the 50-voice senior choir (SSAA) has been very successful in national competitions; winning the Barnardo’s National Choir Competition several times and reaching the final stages of the BBC Young Choir of the Year four times in the last ten years. 

Today, under our current head of music, staff and visiting specialists run a range of popular ensembles, from wing band to ukulele group. The junior choir, Cantores, is run by a specialist colleague funded by the School. They participate in an exciting range of performances both locally and nationally, including a charity fundraising event for Barnardo’s and most recently, the 2019 Music for Youth National Festival in Birmingham. 

There has also been a strong emphasis on singing in the curriculum and throughout the school community. Year 9 and 10 singing showcases are a regular feature of the curriculum, with the winners making their own single in our recording studio. ‘Music Mondays’ have introduced singing assemblies for all year groups on a rotation. With a strong extra-curricular tradition, we have recently shifted the focus specifically to the music curriculum.

The School has offered the IB Diploma since September 2004, and from 2012, we have run an exclusively International Baccalaureate Diploma curriculum for Sixth Form students with an emphasis on global awareness and international mindedness. The Middle Years Programme (MYP) was introduced as the next step, enabling the department to look afresh at their units of work. The MYP aims to develop active learners and internationally minded young people ‘who can empathise with others and pursue lives of purpose and meaning’ (IB, 2005). The programme seeks to give students a range of tools to use in order to inquire into a wide range of issues and ideas which have significance locally, nationally and globally. 

Our (long term) aim for our KS3 curriculum is to encourage students to view themselves as agents of change. Our previous curriculum was about doing – performing, listening and composing. But now it’s about more than that – we are aiming to cultivate a different mindset. One where the ‘doing’ is put in context with knowledge and understanding through a framework of global contexts. 

We have adopted a concept-based curriculum framework, adding concepts to the knowledge and skills that we teach –a lens for our students to explore their conceptual understanding. There are six areas of life that all 21st century learners should explore, question and develop well-informed ideas around:

This figure shows six segments of a circle arranged over the Pacific region of the globe. The segments are labelled as "Identities and relationships", "Orientation in time and space", "Personal and cultural expression", "Scientific and technical innovation", "Globalization and sustainability" and "Fairness and development".

Concepts are those big ideas that students need to understand for the rest of their lives; often experienced across several subjects. Within subject disciplines, they can inquire into issues of personal, local and global significance, in order to examine knowledge holistically. The ideas they need to take with them from the learning that they can’t just google!

The key pedagogical developments from a music teacher’s perspective are:

  • facilitation of students’ own active enquiry
  • building lessons around problem solving
  • engaging in collaborative curricular planning with teachers from other disciplines
  • developing non scholastic attributes as well as academic skills

This was a light bulb moment for us. It led to several interdisciplinary units of work being designed in collaboration between arts departments and other subjects. 

The Arts –  “Borrowed Learning” within the Disciplines – Commedia Dell’Arte

Our Year 7 students use knowledge from a range of arts disciplines to approach their work. In visual arts, they look at the work of Hundertwasser and Mauri tattoos and then create an alternative identity for themselves. They then adapt this for a Commedia Dell’Arte mask, based on the characters they have learnt about in drama. They create a physical mask and use this in drama lessons during their performances. In music, they learn about leitmotifs to depict characters through film music and character-based pieces such as Peter and the Wolf’ or ‘Batman’. Then they compose their own piece of music to be played whenever the character in their drama performance appears. 

By linking learning between subjects, students have a context for creating the mask and the music and can see how the subjects would work together  for a professional performance. Along the way, they have learnt about how culture influences appearance, how music can portray characters and how actors cope with the lack of a common language as they travel across Europe. The connecting concept here is “Communication” and this is made explicit during the teaching in each subject.


3 different heads showing designs from tattoos to pens.

Languages & Music – Interdisciplinary learning – Fusions

This year, Year 9 students looked at how different cultures use music and language to celebrate life’s milestones. We wanted them to explore our similarities as opposed to our differences.

They build towards their assessment by 

  • looking at cultural celebrations and listening to styles of music across the French and Spanish speaking countries in their MFL lessons 
  • researching some cultural artefacts such as paintings, poems, artworks and buildings and used them to inspire their own musical composition 
  • using their knowledge of the musical instruments from different cultures and their own language skills so they can write lyrics that fit a rhythm or melody and then perform it. 

They have used music technology to compose a piece by using audio samples from music listened to in music and MFL and cutting these up to make an original piece of fusion music. They improvised and composed songs and pieces inspired by Francophone or Hispanic culture. A visit to the Horniman Museum helped support them to collect evidence that they needed to answer the inquiry questions posed and to respond to the Statement of Inquiry: Both languages and music clearly communicate our common humanity through the ways in which different cultures mark life’s milestones.’

With our emphasis on international mindedness, it was a logical extension to promote international arts activities in the co-curriculum, leading to highly successful participation in two international music competitions in Magdeburg, Germany (2015) and Riga, Latvia (2017). Concerts in school have culminated in an international performance each spring in a local venue, with singing from Year 7 students and above.

Sharing music is also a feature of our established humanitarian relationship with the Joshua Community in Blantyre, Malawi, a small UK and Malawi-based charity supporting community-driven sustainable development projects in Malawi. Their projects help vulnerable children, their families and communities. The school has had close contact with this community over a sustained period, and one of the high points of the annual visit by our students is the welcome ceremony with dance and music, enabling the students to experience real-world insight into  how different cultures use music and language to celebrate life’s milestones. 

In drama, the shift in curriculum to more concept-based work, coupled with a plan to introduce key aspects of the GCSE curriculum during Key Stage 3 (evaluations, practitioners, increasing length of scripts), has seen an improvement in the starting point of GCSE students, as well as allowing them to transfer these skills into other subjects.

The ‘borrowed learning’ and interdisciplinary links enable students to confidently tackle unfamiliar situations and complex problems. Good quality, continual formative assessment means that teaching is responsive. 

Abstract sticker of a learner profile


Character development and resilience building are integral through the skills and strategies for teaching and learning. The outcomes are excellent and subject leaders have commented on the impact the students’ approach to learning is having on their KS4 experience. 

Student forums as part of our self-evaluation show how much the students enjoy what they are learning and can see why they are learning it. 

This approach has allowed us to focus on what we already do well and establish a coherent vision for what we aspire to do. Looking ahead to the new Ofsted framework, we are confident that our curriculum fulfils all the new expectations. For us it is more than knowledge and skills – it is about the conceptual understanding that enables our students to have real impact – to care enough to make a difference, and be well prepared for life beyond school. 

IBO (2005) What is the MYP? Available at: (accessed 19 July 2019).

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