St. Philomena’s journey to Artsmark Gold

1 May 2019

Art Subject Leader, Timothy Devenish, shares his reflections and tips on completing the Artsmark process

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My school were delighted to be awarded Artsmark Gold earlier this year. This award recognises the fantastic commitment and opportunities provided by the staff in the arts curriculum at my school, and the high level of engagement our students demonstrated in their participation. This came at the end of an extended and rewarding Artsmark journey, from writing our Statement of Commitment to summarising our progress in completing our Case Study.

After reaching the end of this process, it is clear that completing Artsmark is not just an exercise in filling in an application form. More importantly, it was a launch pad for putting creative, cultural and performance experience as a key driver in school development.

Below are some of my reflections and tips on completing the process.

Why is the new Artsmark Award an improvement on the previous format?

The new Artsmark process has done away with the data audit process of calculating participation rates and arts curriculum allocations, and instead is now about the school demonstrating the two way process of developing a high-quality, broad creative curriculum, and the contribution of arts and cultural subjects to school improvement. One of the responses of Arts Council England to the pressures that arts organisations and educators have found themselves under in the current climate is to identify a common language of Quality Principles that the arts demonstrate. There are:

  • Striving for excellence and innovation
  • Being authentic
  • Being exciting, inspiring and engaging
  • Ensuring a positive and inclusive experience
  • Actively involving children and young people
  • Enabling personal progression
  • Developing belonging and ownership

Demonstrating and evaluating our performance against these strands helped us to make a case for the value we bring to young people's experience in schools.

We chose to expand the original time frame of the completion of the Artsmark Case Study to allow us to record further developments, and to use the process as a tool to drive the development of the arts in the school into a second academic year. In 2017 we sought to broaden our initiatives with one focus on developing leadership of both staff and students.

Bringing senior teachers on board

I found that one of the most important aspects of the initial Artsmark Development Day was the requirement to also have a senior teacher involved. Personally, I was confident I could have created action plans for developing arts education at the school. However, having an Assistant Headteacher in attendance who is both responsible for assessment across the school and has been a regular supporter and contributor to arts activities, gave direct access to the concerns and central issues pertinent to the school. I had confidence that our key focus would have a resonance with the Headteacher and the Assistant Heads throughout the process of developing our Case Study. As a result, we have been able to speak with authority to school leaders, governors and at whole staff forums about the importance of what we are doing.

This helped ensure positive participation by senior staff when I volunteered the school to be involved in A New Direction's Narrowing the Gap research, exploring how secondary schools are aligning their narrowing the gap strategy with providing opportunities for students to engage with arts and culture. This was something particularly aligned to our Statement of Commitment, which set out the aim of using the arts as a tool to enhance student experience and achievement in the school, particularly focusing upon the more vulnerable students and those with lower engagement.

Helping arts teachers to work together

As a result of Artsmark, I was able to argue for and secure regular INSET time to develop an action research project where arts teachers could plan and share strategies to further meet our key objectives.

This ensured a wider group of teachers and students directly participating in the project, and also helped to continue driving the programme forward. This has allowed us to move forward as a team with dedicated time allocated to work on a shared objective where we can demonstrate the positive impact of increased engagement in the arts for students.

I was really delighted with the enthusiasm and commitment shown by arts teachers for the project; they welcomed the opportunity to participate in a project that resonated with their own creative values.

Making the most of new opportunities

Near the start of our Artsmark journey I received an invitation for our school to participate in an initiative called “The Elephant in the Room” - a project which encouraged students to explore mental health through the visual arts.

The project allowed students to produce artwork reflecting on their welfare, some of which has been presented around the school and in an exhibition at London Galleries. This allowed us to delve into greater depth with our theme and provided exemplary work evidencing how the arts can contribute to improved wellbeing.

This was just one of several opportunities that we encountered during our Artsmark journey that we could use to enrich our story and broaden our offer. Other experiences included:

  • Students creating an Audio artwork with digital artist's their vision of the future
  • Visiting Barbican Piano Trio performing to Year 9 music sets
  • Visiting the October Gallery and participating in a workshop based on the Nigerian Artist Nnena Okore
  • Completing a workshop at the Wallace Collection

I found that broadening staff and curriculum area involvement in the arts journey naturally grew the diverse links and connections that were made with outside agencies.

Involving students in leadership

In addition to involving teachers, we also set up discussion forums with student arts leaders, who in turn requested more encounters with artists to help with their progression. As a result, we increased authentic and exciting opportunities for our learners to engage with arts practice, such as working with Frantic Assembly on practical lessons, taking part in workshops in gallery settings including St Ives Society of Artists, and participating in local open studio weekends. We have also continued to provide a wide collection of peripatetic musical tuition, music groups and bands for students to develop their abilities.

Part of our role in developing the arts curriculum at school surely must focus on developing young learners' leadership and soft employability skills. Developing student arts leadership has been identified as an important focus for developing our creative offer to students, and was something Arts Council Engand specifically recognised and commented on in our Award feeback:

You have taken significant steps to increase extra-curricular provision and develop partnerships with external providers, and can evidence that pupils engaged in such activities achieve highly in examinations. Your focus on inclusiveness has improved the engagement of vulnerable pupils, with evidence of benefits to well-being. You have established student leaders and have allowed them some influence.

The process of completing our Artsmark Case Study made us realise that it is just as important to plan for the future, continue development, and show a seamless evolution to move to the next level. The Artsmark journey definitely doesn't stop once your recieve your certificate. I think this realisation is vital to securing the status of the arts and cultural curriculum as significant players in school improvement.

What support is out there?

You are never alone during the Artsmark process.

Firstly, the Development Day run by A New Direction was invaluable in providing a self-assessment of where our school saw itself in our arts provision. Misconceptions about the application process were cleared up, and a clear focus was agreed.

A New Direction also provided helpful and incisive feedback on the drafts of our Statement of Commitment and Case Study as we completed our journey. This ongoing support is free and available to all schools once they have attended a Development Day.

Many new doors were opened to us to enrich our offer to students, and provided with many opportunities for networking, support and guidance.

Ready to start your Artsmark journey?

Find out more here

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Timothy Devenish is Art Subject Leader at St. Philomena’s High School for Girls in Sutton, and is also a previous participant of our Cultural Leadership Community and Advocates teacher CPD programmes.