Case study: The arts across the curriculum

Written by: Jane Ryder | Published:
Arts and minds: Pupils taking part in arts activities at Sidegate Primary School, many of which are linked to the delivery of the academic curriculum

Balancing high-quality arts provision with meeting core academic measures is a challenge for primary schools. Jane Ryder discusses how this is tackled at Sidegate Primary School and offers some examples of their practice

The positive impact that the arts have on young people is no longer up for debate. They provide pupils with the opportunity to develop and exercise creative skills which promote independent thinking and a mindset that looks beyond learning facts. Studying the arts improves pupils’ communication and presentation skills and builds confidence for the challenges to come.

But how do you balance delivery of the arts with the ever-increasing pressure on meeting core academic targets? Time pressures can restrict teachers’ freedom to integrate the arts. Reaching attainment levels and properly preparing children for the more advanced curriculum they will face in secondary school is, of course, essential. But it really is possible to combine the two – to focus on SATs while maintaining high-quality arts provision, and for example, to combine learning about the solar system with teaching dance and drama.

Through drama, dance and visual arts, children are able to create characterisation and explore the development of a story or poem.

While measuring the impact of this on writing and reading is difficult to assess, the literacy benefits of giving children the opportunity to learn in an environment and through lessons that integrate the arts are clear.

Using methods such as conscience alley, hot seating and freeze frame tasks, pupils are able to explore the possible causes and effects of a character’s actions or a particular setting. For example, our year 2 classes recently had a visit from Samuel Pepys (a member of staff in costume and in role), as he described the events of the Great Fire of London before being interviewed by our eager young reporters. The role-play brought the whole experience to life, enhancing the pupils’ writing as a result.

Similarly, our year 4s were recently introduced to an animated Julius Caesar, who challenged them to join his army and write with persuasion as to why they should be recruited. A creative introduction can often spark the imagination – particularly in children.

As well as providing stimulation, art can also enhance a response to reading and writing. The arts provide opportunities to interpret writing, using descriptions to guide the artist in visualising and representing what has been written.

The arts can also be used as a presentation tool for core subjects. For example, using dance is a fantastic way to teach children about rivers: how they flow, their currents, the meanders, the differing sizes and colours; these are all terms that translate seamlessly to dance.

At Sidegate, children are asked to devise ideas around how they want to explore a particular project, and the presentation of homework in an artistic form is encouraged. Children have the option to submit homework in the form of 3D models, PowerPoint documents, films, drama or a puppet show illustrating what they have learnt. We want our children to understand that there are many ways to present an idea, and in practising these skills, gain the confidence to develop them.

In addition to being weaved into day-to-day teaching, the arts can also be integrated into extra-curricular events. The vast majority of school trips, visiting workshops and, of course, religious festivals, will have an “arts angle”.

For example, this year’s Roald Dahl-themed World Book Day provided a brilliant opportunity to incorporate the work of Dahl’s illustrator, Quentin Blake. This could have included education about Blake himself, a comparison of different styles of illustration or cartoon, or just purely a debate among pupils around why they feel the illustrations work – or not.

Last year at Sidegate, given that we were in an Olympic year, we decided to hold an Olympic-themed sports day. The day included a Samba band and dancing, in reference to the Olympic host city Rio de Janeiro, as well as all of the other traditional elements associated with a school sports day.

Getting parents onside is a key aspect of successfully balancing the arts with core academic measures. Many parents may have had negative experiences of the arts when they were at school, or may deem progression in maths and literacy to be far more important for their child’s development.

Aside from the obvious benefit of relieving parental resistance, getting parents on-board can be of real practical advantage. You may find there are those with talents you weren’t aware of, willing to come in and hold demonstrations, or failing that, happy to provide additional assistance at extra-curricular events.

Holding dedicated events that parents can attend – or even participate in – is a great way of embedding the arts into schools. Earlier this year, we held our first “Arts Festival” at Sidegate. The festival was a brilliant demonstration of both the diversity and the benefits of the arts. A stage was erected on the main playground, hosting singing, drama and dance; the school gym was transformed into a mini-art gallery and there was a demonstration of performance poetry. Children were taught how to create Rangoli patterns and a group of children with SEN put on a display of Mayan drumming.

It is vital that we, as teachers, utilise the full spectrum of arts activity – it ensures that opportunities are afforded to all. There may be children who would shy away from the prospect of drawing or painting, yet embrace the opportunity to take on a musical instrument or learn to dance.

We also welcomed a number of local, professional artists to the festival, including a children’s author, a representative from a local museum and two stained-glass artists. Tapping into the expertise and resources that local theatres, museums, musicians, galleries and dance studios have available will have a big impact on school arts provision. Providing an opportunity for children to be inspired by working alongside both experts and professional artists develops confidence, creative awareness and will lead to children adopting the language of artists and musicians. In doing so, the arts are embedded in both the child and the school as a whole.

All of this, of course, is reliant on passionate, talented and creative staff – something we are fortunate to have. Staff who are able and willing to give up their time to run the after-school music or dance group, staff who are prepared to dedicate time to manufacturing a way of combining music and multiplication, and staff who are prepared to champion the benefits of the arts to senior leadership, governors and parents.

We pride ourselves on tackling the challenge head-on, weaving the arts into as much of the core academic curriculum as possible. Furthermore, our School Improvement Plan gives equal priority to meeting core academic measures and delivering high-quality arts. As a result, the school was awarded the Gold standard Artsmark by Arts Council England last year, which provides access to a variety of high-quality practical resources and indicates that the arts are ingrained in the day-to-day running of the school.

The Artsmark is something all schools looking to improve both the quantity and quality of their arts provision may wish to consider. The award lasts for two years before being reassessed, ensuring that the arts remain a focus in the school. It provides further motivation for senior leadership to get behind increasing arts provision and shows parents, both prospective and current, that the school is serious about the arts.

In conclusion, the arts need to be seen as more than just extra-curricular activities. While they should keep their place in the lunchtime and after-school clubs in which they are currently so popular, they should also be recognised as opportunities for skill development that will aid, support and reinforce other areas of the curriculum.

Schools do not have to make a choice between high levels of arts provision and meeting academic measures. With passionate staff, a little creativity, and the willingness to take a risk every now and then, the two really can go hand-in-hand.

  • Jane Ryder is arts and culture coordinator and year 4 class teacher at Sidegate Primary School in Suffolk, an Active Learning Trust academy. Jane is also a Specialist Leader in Education, specifically arts and culture, for the Springfield Teaching Schools Alliance.

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