Creating an artistic school from scratch

AND Advocate Soren Ramsing tells us about his school's journey to embedding creativity and the arts in their work

16 April 2018

The surroundings of Riverside Campus, the school where I work as Director of Music & Cultural Arts Lead, are bleak but hold promise. Pylons, windmills and Cranes dominate the view now, but an expansive river view from the fourth gives hope for the future.

The surroundings could be seen as a metaphor for the current political and educational environment - where the Ebacc is the pylons and cranes, but the river and open space ripe for regeneration are the arts subjects.

But rather than bang on about politics, I want to document the school’s and my own journey from 5 years ago when the school had a total of 240 Year 7 & 8 students, to our current 6th year in existence with approximately 800 students, and into the future when the campus will be home to approximately 2,500 secondary, primary and SEN students on one site - the first in England to do this, I believe.

The school’s geographical position is in a quite unique new part of London, with 12,000 new homes currently being built - the equivalent to a town with the population of Windsor or Derby (depending who you speak to). Staff at the school have the opportunity not only to create an ethos and a vision for our school from the bottom up, but also help shape the future of the local area, which is a very exciting prospect. Incidentally, the idea of building a department from the bottom up was the main selling point at my interview five years prior (my ego likes a challenge). Little did I know the ideas and opportunities would expand almost exponentially, along with the work I created for myself!

From 0 to 100mph

The transformation from a school that only had two NQTs in art and music, to currently having three art teachers, one drama, one dance, one DT and one music teacher that work seamlessly collaboratively with each other, was not stress-free. The first main driver behind the development of the arts departments was a, possibly naïve, sentiment that we should say yes to most things that came our way and, luckily, our senior leadership team backed this mindset.

We were also lucky to have a 3 year period of no GCSE stress, which allowed us to lay the foundations for a mindset of experimentation and facing outwards. Another ingredient was having single person drama, DT and music departments - this effectively forced us to seek inspiration from peers in schools, partner schools and cultural institutions and organisations.

Some of the organisations we've partnered with include The Coultard Gallery, The Tate, The Globe Theatre, Fuel theatre company, and The ENO, all of whom have provided everything from artists in residence to jazz workshops. We are also partnered with AUL and UEL in art and drama, and later this year we will create a concert with the ENO, local primary schools, our SEN school and a local community group to mark the centenary of the end of WWI. This project will involve history and English, as well as the traditional arts subjects. I will document the outcome of this project and the formation of our local arts hub in a later blog entry.

Even though art, music, DT and drama are on a carousel system, with the latter 3 only having 19 hours a year with KS3 students, we have a healthy uptake at GCSE in Year 9. The EBacc, the government's new favourite way of measuring learning, is, unfortunately, leaving less space for the creative subjects in the budget, meaning we have no choice but to employ this model.

Having a supportive SLT team behind me has been a game changer. Being given the time out of school to participate in the A New Direction Cultural Leadership Community programme last year, and continuing this year as an AND Advocate, has allowed me the time to reflect on the possibilities for the arts at our school, connected me to like-minded people from all over London, and given me a more complete and nuanced view on what problems and solutions we face in the current climate. It has also given me the confidence to engage and instigate larger scale projects in school and beyond.

The strength of our school is the collaborative ethos between departments, with projects over the year crossing subjects. Some great examples of this were: a musical on sustainability that involved geography, history, music art and civics; the aforementioned ENO project that will cross many subjects and be part of a celebration of the end of WWI; and music and English continue to have many ties in KS3, such as Ballad songwriting projects, War monologues and a Romeo & Juliet rapping project for lower ability students. The drama teacher has also regularly run CPD project for the English depart.

We have just written the Statement of Commitment to mark the start of our Artmark journey, and have identified the need for creating an arts hub for local community groups, and primary, secondary and SEN schools. The formation of this arts hub and it’s first tender steps will be the theme of my next blog which is due at the end of the school year.

Until then, adieu!

Soren Ramsing is Director of Music & Cultural Arts Lead at Riverside Campus, and is also one of our AND Advocates. Click here to find out more about him and the Advocates programme.

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