Inspirational arts practice in schools
Written by Rachel Smith for the Chartered College of Teaching
Beaconsfield High School is a girls’ state grammar school that prides itself on excellence for education and beyond. We provide an exceptionally, happy and high achieving learning environment for our 1,100 students and this year, we are proud to be one of the top three grammar schools in the country for progress with a P 8 score of +1.21. We are a modern, diverse, inclusive and dynamic community valuing a broad and creative curriculum, supported by an inspiring extra-curricular programme.
As a school, we don't sit on our laurels and, despite receiving Outstanding at our last Ofsted in 2007, last summer we achieved the Exceptional Schools Award, (a prestigious quality standard based on the attributes and practice of the best schools nationally) and have gained Governor Mark.
When I joined Beaconsfield High School five years ago, creative and performing arts were ‘under-achieving’. There was little or no art on the walls, DT displays were dusty and dated, far less students were engaged in music, and drama was not taken seriously. I was determined creativity would not be squeezed out in the push for ‘academic’ success.
Staff and Governors readily agreed to our core purpose was to be a ‘happy, high achieving learning community discovering and developing individual potential’. There was one word to describe this school; ‘remarkable’. My astonishingly creative Deputy Head, Tina, worked with students and re-visioned a previous support programme developing what is now our ‘Getting Life Ready’ (GLR) initiative, an initiative which primarily supports the ‘happy’ in our plans. The concept of academic and emotional happiness, incorporating resilience, curiosity, reflection and resourcefulness, and key life skills such as creativity and striving to be a committed learner reflects our desire to provide real depth in life skills. Students can then use these skills to overcome academic anxiety and build opportunities for better personal control over personal mental health problems.
It is not the silver bullet for life, but it helps! Four years later and those subjects are now thriving, and the reason they are thriving is because we have the right staff teaching them.
In three years, our Head of Music, Caroline Goodall has increased the number of students taking part to over 150 each week. And it’s not just the students; staff are taking part in a ‘grade one-athon’ and we have an incredible group of dedicated parents who regularly fundraise to ensure that music continues to grow and succeed at Becky High. Most of our 14+ music groups are staff-led (either academic staff or peripatetic), but some are student-led. The girls are VERY enthusiastic and as there are regular concerts to perform in, they remain committed to their ensemble. This ethos underpins the creativity in our school.
Caroline and her team believe that the best musicians are ‘made’ from understanding and being able to experiment and make their own music. Hence the curriculum is practical based with academic information ‘dropped-in’ regularly when relevant; there are no booklets to complete!
Performance raises aspirations and deepens the joy and appreciation of music, and students have many opportunities to do this ranging from community performances at residential homes and local churches, to more high-profile gigs at the RAF Club/House of Commons. European tours create awe and wonder and in her short time at Becky High, Caroline has organised a choral tour to Barcelona, a wind band tour of Belfast and in 2021 they are heading to Venice or Salzburg for a choral tour. Take a minute to listen to one of the rehearsals for their Winter Concert:
Competitions provide excellent motivation and we have won a number of local competitions, for example the Marlow Music Festival several times (choir and string classes). We were honoured when HRH The Duchess of Kent came to our 50th birthday celebrations, (having opened the school 50 years before) and personally asked to listen to our choir as she had heard they were so good. She almost got up and danced!
The hope for the future is to continue building on what we have already achieved. As a direct result of her inspiration, we now have 49 students studying GCSE music and 13 taking A level; remarkable! Governors have allowed me to support small class sizes in order to grow our own ‘customers’. Our students have been offered places to study music at Oxford, The Royal College and The Royal Northern, and we like to believe their natural ability was enhanced by us!
Caroline is passionate about what her department has to offer students:
“I have a real love and passion for music, and I want the students here to have opportunities that I, as a former grammar student, didn’t have. I want to give older students opportunities to lead groups, so they learn fundamental life lessons and also give them the opportunity to inspire younger girls”.
Drama is also a vibrant and growing subject. We don’t have a dedicated drama studio and instead, we use the main hall which is equipped with lighting and sound, for productions and lessons; we lost a good Head of Department who could not work that way. However, everything happens for a reason and we recruited our present and genuinely remarkable Head of Drama, Julian Smith two years ago, a talented and active thespian, playwright and all-round performer.
Our GLR programme has two central foci; collaboration and risk taking, and Julian brings this to life via ‘playfulness’. Students are encouraged to be playful in the development of their improvisation skills and text analysis.
In Years 7-8, there is a strong focus on ‘throw-away’ improvisation where any idea has to be embraced positively. Whilst there is some focus on classic texts such as Puck’s speech from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, students shape-making a grumpy fridge door is likely to take precedence!
Taking risks in a playful environment enables students to see the drama studio as a safe place to experiment and develop. Workshopping ideas and being open to deconstruction and reconstruction of these ideas is essential. Praise for commitment and having the energy to test an idea, is valued more than the idea itself and a key phrase often heard is ‘don’t trash til you try!’
Praising energy and commitment above content means that decisions made about content can be rigorously scrutinised and challenged. Students feel comfortable offering critical feedback and exposing their work to others, because they understand that critical responses are about considering the bigger picture of exploring how we communicate to an audience. An example of this can be seen below.:
As with music, drama offer. a range of real-life performance opportunities beyond the class-room:
- Year 7 took part in the Junk Band Clowning for the Beaconsfield Festival of Lights and a Commedia Dell Arte performance for the Wycombe Arts
- Students were interacting with the general public and learning how to think on their feet as busking performers.
- Year 8 took part in the Mock Trial Competition at a local magistrates court in High Wycombe,.
- Year 9s took part in the Shakespeare Schools Festival, performing “Romeo and Juliet” at The Kenton Theatre.
- Year 12s took a production of “The House of Bernarda Alba” to The Desborough Theatre, Maidenhead.
- Year 12s also completely led their own production of “Pancake Day”
- Others were invited to take part in an Open Mic/Theatre Night at The Cockpit Theatre, London and performing a devised piece entitled “Cut” alongside industry professionals.
Julian personally oversees and contributes to our annual school productions. They are open to all students in Years 7-10. He creates an ensemble musical theatre production where the students are able to take a lead in choreography, some scene writing and arranging the music. It is presented in an intimate thrust/environmental setting in order to encourage some performer/audience interaction. Some ad-libbing is encouraged so that students understand the value of living in the moment and learning how to deal with mistakes or opportunities.
This model of different year groups ‘coming together’ to create an organic production, as opposed to a “perfect” production, means students value everybody’s input and a sense of a community is created beyond the artefact of a piece of theatre.
Each year group has a minimum of one theatre trip per year, Year 10-11 have two and Year 12-13 have 6. By GCSE Drama students have 5+ productions to draw on when evaluating influence of other practitioners in personal devised work. Many of the trips are followed by a post-show discussion with the director/performers.
Julian explains why drama is such an important part of school life:
“We all need to communicate our feelings, our ideas, our sense of fun, our questions about the world, our desires to be understood. Our students recognise the value of the arts in ‘feeding their soul’ and expressing themselves. They want to be led by inspiring leaders, but they also want to lead themselves because they instinctively know how important it is to be part of something, to engage and have a go. As an art form, theatre has a transient quality which is incredibly healthy. The workshop approach allows students to keep moving, keep chipping away at progress, to always know that there is a further opportunity to experiment, consolidate, re-invent. The arts are a powerful space for helping us discover who we are (and where we are) in the world and for helping us understand that we can shape our own image.”
Art and Design
Five years ago, the number of students taking Art GCSE and A ‘level was declining; we knew we needed a new pedagogy and renewed investment to turn this around. When we recruited our current, highly imaginative Head of Faculty, Art and DT were separate entities delivering tried and tested projects, but they lacked creative vibrancy. Nicky Monk created a unified Creative Arts Faculty that delivered Art & Design as the overriding subject with specialism in Graphics Communication and Art, Craft & Design. Staff support each other’s teaching by sharing best practice, developing resources together, observing each other’s lessons, and even team teaching. By using the same exam board across the faculty, staff are supported in assessment and materials to mark and moderate work more accurately.
Specialist Leader of Education, Annie Hearne, was recruited to help overhaul the outdated practice. This provided a fabulous opportunity for students to present mixed media design outcomes, fully embedded in quality first-hand photographic sources, outstanding observational drawing skills, creative experimental sampling with the added bonus of 3D work. This has become our recipe for 'top box' marks. Students are introduced to a wide range of skills including; mono printing, felt making, silk painting, fabric dyeing, free machine embroidery, working into gloss photographs, wire work, mod-rock, air dry clay sculpture, to name but a few.
Annie’s skills, inspirational ideas and new staffing rejuvenated the team. Under Nicky’s leadership, a stunning new five-year curriculum is emerging; students present their work in sketchbooks or A2 presentation boards in the same way they will for their GCSE and A ‘Level coursework.
Please have a look at some of what I am trying to describe:
Art and Graphics workshops are open on a rota system (lunch/after school) for quiet, dedicated, independent working. Students learn first-hand through enrichment trips to art galleries and museums. We encourage students to visit unusual places, for example the Natural History Museum to see how butterflies are presented, behind the scenes at a butcher’s shop, a building site or the shoreline of a beach, and to use photography to support design themes.
Students thrive on positive energy and one of the key ideas behind inspiring our students, is to 'hook' into an individual. In class, the teacher, art technician and student often have mini-tutorials to discuss work in progress, further experimentation, additional artists etc. More often than not, one of those lovely 'ta-dah moments' will happen where we know a student is ‘hooked’ into the next exciting phase of the design process. Teachers share personal creative industry experience to demonstrate how design ideas (however bonkers) come together. When asked, students will readily list a stream of examples which demonstrate how they are effortlessly applying GLR to their learning.
New wall displays of artwork promote inspiration, and within hours of new coursework being mounted on the art room walls (today), they were already being used as teaching tools for younger students to exemplify possible starting points of research and experimentation. Students are naturally inquisitive of techniques and want to try new materials for themselves.
It is our intention that our Art and Design students will morph seamlessly into highly confident and technically skilled artists and designers. The importance of having an excellent work ethic with a 'no excuses' attitude when meeting regular deadlines, is impressed upon every student. We already have one student who we think will inspire the next generation of British designers, with an unconditional offer for St Martin’s College? which isn’t bad for a highly academic grammar school!
Nicky explains why her department has seen a rise in popularity:
“It is my belief that creativity is developed through working in the style of artists and by experimenting to produce unique personal outcomes that might not have otherwise been previously visualised. The renewed energy of our students who have been ‘given permission’ to give everything a go and to succeed through trial and error is very exciting!”
I am so proud of our creativity and what it brings to our students and staff. I think it is part of what we expect; #dare to be remarkable! The school looks great (as does my office), and the buzz around the school is surely supported by the flair of joy from creative expression. Oh, and the exam results are great too!
Headteacher at Beaconsfield High School