Artsmark – why we’re in it for the long run
Two schools explain why Artsmark is not an end in itself, but a long-term commitment, a spur to further action and just the start of their arts journey
Some awards bring a moment of glory; once achieved, the winner can sit back and bask in their success, the certificate hanging proudly on the wall. But for many schools, Artsmark is not an end in itself; rather, it is a long-term commitment, a spur to further action and, in some cases, just the start of their journey.
Admiral Lord Nelson School (ALNS) in Portsmouth has been an Artsmark Gold school since 2001, when the scheme was in its infancy. In 2015, it became one of the first schools to reach the new Platinum level when the Artsmark programme was refreshed.
But rather than rest on its laurels, the school re-registered and began its next Artsmark journey, reflecting on its achievements and setting new goals. Earlier this year, ALNS became the first school in England to achieve its second Artsmark Platinum Award. This ongoing commitment represents a determination to ensure that its students have regular access to arts and cultural activities, according to Julia Wisbey, senior leader for curriculum and personal development at ALNS.
The 1,000-pupil 11-16 school serves a deprived area on the outskirts of the city where there are few leisure and arts facilities. And while Portsmouth has a thriving cultural scene, the arts have typically had a low profile among ALNS pupils' families.
“Artsmark not only helps us to reach out to practitioners to bring them into the school, it also raises the profile of the arts among our students and gives us an opportunity to celebrate what we do,” says Ms Wisbey, who is also curriculum leader for the performing arts.
Becoming the first school to achieve a Platinum award twice has brought positive publicity, as well as the opportunity to take part in national events. Earlier this month, for example, students recorded videos as part of a national campaign for Stonewall, the LGBT equality charity.
“Our students know they come from a school that is nationally very special, and that is really exciting for them,” says Ms Wisbey. “We had our open evening the other day and we had people who were making a beeline for our arts and performing arts department. They know we provide amazing opportunities.”
The number of students taking drama and dance at key stage 4 has doubled since the school embarked on its Artsmark journey, while the school has also focused on increasing the number of opportunities for Year 7 and 8 students to take part in performances.
'Artsmark gives you that focus'
Artsmark also provides assistance when it comes to keeping up this effort in the face of the twin pressures of tighter budgets and greater accountability.
“It gives you the perfect platform to ensure your senior management maintain that commitment," says Ms Wisbey. “The arts are suffering in schools everywhere and Artsmark gives you that focus.
“It would be very easy to say we have got Platinum, we got it again and we’re done, but from a senior leader point of view, once you have achieved something, why would you not want to sustain that and build on it even further?”
Artsmark has also proved to be more than a one-off at Treetops, a special school in Grays, Essex, with just over 300 pupils aged 5-19. Treetops was awarded Gold this year, three years after it first reached that standard.
And its focus on the arts means pupils get to enjoy activities including 3D arts groups, puppeteers and local music groups.
“It helps us make sure that the arts are kept highlighted within the school and it is one of our key priorities,” says assistant headteacher Angela Davies. “And it shows our parents and the community how important the arts are in our school.”
A continuing commitment to Artsmark has put the arts at the centre of the school’s approach, reaping enormous dividends for its pupils, adds Ms Davies. “Some of our children are quite severely autistic and children with autism sometimes don’t pay any attention to their surroundings, but we have seen them engage with professional musicians and reaching out and dancing,” she says.
“We have completely embedded the arts into the curriculum and our whole school ethos. It is not just one person, and the staff see the benefits. It is the norm rather than an optional extra.”
Treetops is part of a local Trailblazers scheme, which provides access to arts and cultural activities, meaning the school does not have to find the full cost, which is a big advantage when budgets are tight. The programme has given pupils the opportunity to take part in activities including costume design, silk painting and theatre workshops.
Sense of achievement
The focus on the arts means the school is always looking out for opportunities to bring outside organisations into the classroom, while students eagerly anticipate arts activities. And for some, it has a lasting effect.
“One boy has gone on to study music at college,” says Ms Davies. “[Visiting musicians] showed him that there are jobs out there and it is a realistic decision to study music.”
Next on the agenda for Treetops is to aim for a Platinum award, while ALNS, with double Platinum already under its belt, has ambitions beyond its own students.
“We want to be truly ambassadorial with our work,” says Ms Wisbey. “I feel that every school should be looking at Artsmark in some way.”
ALNS has already supported three other schools in the city on their Artsmark journey, and Ms Wisbey hopes to take this work further. “We’re trying to have a bigger impact as a school than just on the children in our school,” she says.
“There is no harder job than convincing your senior team and the rest of the staff how important the arts are, but what Artsmark does is it brings a real focus and sense of achievement. It is worth it and it is amazing.”
Nick Morrison is a freelance education journalist