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Insights into inspirational arts practice in schools: Nurturing the mind and feeding the soul at Netley Camden Primary School

7 min read
Nurturing the mind and feeding the soul at Netley Camden Primary School

The seed of an idea

In 2013, our school had been judged by Ofsted to ‘require improvement’ and we were operating out of a building site. Pupils were taught in portacabins separated by a much reduced playground, and our staff was facing a rather uncertain and challenging future. We needed a strategy that would inspire, motivate and unite the school community during these trying times.

The school’s 130th anniversary was around the corner and we thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to shape the year’s learning across the school. We wanted our students to explore the history of their school and its surroundings through storytelling, archival work and the arts. Some staff were skeptical about the idea, but we harnessed local intelligence in the form of former pupils, some of whom were current staff, and senior citizens in the community. Alumni began queuing up to speak to the pupils about their time at Netley; a chance for oral history to play an important role in children finding out about the past. Eventually, everyone was swept along by the tide of creative freedom.

Our school is situated in central London, just off the Euston Road, with some of the country’s finest organisations right on our doorstep. Organisations like The London Metropolitan Archives gave us a wealth of information in the form of photos and maps, old and new, to note change. The school was also able to take advantage of the National Gallery’s Take One Picture project which featured Seurat’s The Bathers, painted a year after the school was built. Links were made with the Victorians, the railways of local significance and children’s rights. Design and technology helped children develop the skills to produce a large-scale art installation with augmented reality, showing children speaking in role as child rail workers, and made it a winning entry. Incredibly, the artwork took central display in the gallery, and the children were also asked to act as tour guides during the summer holiday. Within the school, each year group produced a display of art, maths, English, humanities and science-based outcomes, set up in one of our halls, and people from the local community and our external learning partners were invited to see the fruits of everyone’s labours.

We were onto something. The exhibition was a success. New, higher expectations had been set, and both pupils and staff had risen to the challenge. This would be the vehicle; an annual exhibition, based on a curriculum that would inspire staff and bring relevance, rigour and reciprocity, with children acting as agents of change. In 2014 we were judged good by Ofsted.

Who do I want to be?

Diversity is our strength. But many of our children come to us with limited cultural capital and, as a school, we have a responsibility to offer the kind of education that enables every child to have an equal chance in society.

Some facts about our school profile:

  • 92% of our pupils speak English as an additional language
  • 50% of our pupils are entitled to Pupil Premium funding
  • 23% of our pupils receive support for special educational needs
  • 11% have EHCPs
  • Over 30 languages are spoken.

As a UNICEF Rights Respecting School, the UNCRC, and the core values of respect and equality underpin our school curriculum. National Curriculum objectives, key articles from the UNCRC, in particular articles 2, 19, 29 and Global Goals 3,4, 5,10, sit together in our Curriculum Framework to ensure clarity of purpose. Also included are the competencies and skills needed to empower children to become responsible global citizens. Alongside the annual exhibition, the introduction of the whole school big question: “Who do I want to be?” brings coherence to the curriculum and our aspirations for the children.

Pupils in Year 6 addressed national curriculum requirements for planning, drafting, evaluating and editing in English; constructed pie charts in maths and located countries of the world in geography. In doing so, they exercised their right to be heard (Article 12) and tackled Global Goal number 10 (reduced inequalities) when they wrote to publishers after investigations into the representation of black, Asian and ethnic minority authors in the children’s section of Camden Library. Pupils read news articles around the subject, and their subsequent letters to children’s publishers demanding better BAME representation provoked a tremendous response on twitter, which bolstered the children’s argument. Theirs was a powerful, personal and impassioned display of pupil voice.

The way in which we have woven together a values-based curriculum, and the competencies we want to develop in our pupils through a whole-school themed exhibition, convinces us of the value of such an event. The approach has also led to the school developing a theme for every term. For example, this year our themes are as follows:

Autumn Term:

  • Pioneers: annual exhibition showcasing learning across the school; Global Goals 3, 4, 5.

Spring Term:

  • Inclusion: annual celebration of Shakespeare and raising awareness of Autism
    Global Goals 5 and 10.

Summer Term:

  • Future You: annual careers, enterprise and financial education
    Global Goals 3,4,5,10.

Nurture the mind, feed the soul

Fast forward to 2018 and our most recent exhibition – Pioneers – and you would find it hard to believe that it all began in such an understated way. The exhibition has developed into an all-encompassing festival of everything that is special about Netley. There is still, just like in that first exhibition, a campus-wide theme to create coherence. Previous themes included The First World War to mark the centenary celebrations, The Global Goals, Who do I want to be?, The Magic of Books. But now the exhibition takes over almost every space we have. Children recite poetry live in the corridors; coding and technology is showcased in our iThink Lab; pupils hold debates around a conference table; walls are covered in spectacular artwork; videos of dance performances are looped and the choir sings at the closing ceremony. Pupils act as guides, sharing the process of their learning to its end outcomes which often weave together STEAM subjects. Families look forward to this celebration of children’s learning. They line the corridors delighting in listening to the confident voices speaking with pride about their work.

Staff are proud too, and excited about teaching a curriculum that asks them to be imaginative. Planning is bespoke, and teaching is precise and allows for creative, quality outcomes. There is a real team effort and the experience for all staff is rewarding – it nurtures the mind and feeds the soul.

The exhibition has certainly helped to cement our place in the local community and is a real chance for us to show our external partners just what we are able to do with their support. It also celebrates and validates all the work we do to give our pupils the broadest possible learning experience. The responsive curriculum with enriched provision builds knowledge, understanding and confidence. Participation in the exhibition is one such opportunity for our children to see themselves as a part of the bigger picture and the impact is seen in parental engagement and pupil response.

Our pupils say:

“It includes all subjects; we learned about pioneers in history and how they changed the world.”
“I felt proud and important talking to all the visitors and showing my work.”
Fizzah, Year 6

“I think the exhibition makes us think about our future.”
“I was excited because it was a chance for me to feel part of something big.”
Jinan ,Year 5

“I enjoy the exhibition because it makes me think about Who Do I Want To Be?”
“I feel proud to show guests our work and let them try the interactive exhibits.”
Blin, Year 5

“Everything links up in the exhibition.”
“I also felt respected and pleased because everyone was listening to my voice and I was doing something I enjoyed.”
“There is so much variety and it felt very interactive.”
Deenah, Year 6

Our staff say:

“The exhibition shows that the curriculum is broad and cohesive with clear, common threads and overarching themes (Pioneers, The Magic of Books, Global Goals etc) all firmly rooted in the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). The exhibition shows that the curriculum is current and dynamic through topics such as the NHS (70th anniversary), the representation of BAME authors and characters in literature, the anniversary of WW1 etc while also demonstrating a clear progression in knowledge and skills from the foundation stage to year six.”

“The exhibition is the focal point for all classes to share their work around a common theme using a range of media and artistic outcomes. The outcomes weave together different curriculum subjects for purposeful and powerful learning. The strong focus on Global Learning and campaigning for equality, using the Sustainable Development Goals, gives the children a voice and shows they have the right to be heard, demonstrating that we all have the power to make a change to society.”

“We are able, within the campus-wide theme, to build learning around current affairs, national events or on-going exhibitions in galleries and museums. Our First World War theme tied in with national events; the broad, overarching Who Do I Want To Be? theme in 2015 enabled Reception classes to use Tim Peake’s expedition to the International Space Station to focus on what it takes to be an astronaut and they even emailed video questions to Tim Peake. The key, I think, is to have a theme open enough to provide a wealth of visits, resources and experiences, but which also unifies the whole campus.”

Our external partners say:

“Working with Netley is such a pleasure and a privilege as an Arts organisation; they embrace all that is creative and risk-taking in education. Our relationship has been one of mutual respect and shared learning. The staff, children and families understand and appreciate the importance of the Arts and creativity and they relish in opportunities to engage with artists. They have fully embraced dance into their school life and we have been inspired by their drive to continue to do so. There is so much enjoyment of the Arts and creative learning at Netley and that makes our job so much easier. The world needs more Netleys!”
Maria Ryan Creative Learning Producer – The Place

“Netley Primary School is one of Open Academy’s most important partners. The school has an understanding of the importance of our students being able to experience the environment of a primary school, and are accordingly flexible, welcoming and supportive. The school is always warm and welcoming, and it is wonderful to see the value that is placed upon music and the arts in general.”
Julian West Head of Open Academy – Royal Academy of Music

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