Keeping the arts alive in schools: creativity, school development and youth voice 

When Chris Howarth, Deputy Head Teacher of Ripley St. John’s CofE Primary School & Nursery, set out to build a curriculum around the interests and passions of pupils within the school, the resounding theme from all consultation activity was found to be sport.

This was just over ten years ago, and so with the 2012 Olympic Games just around the corner, it appeared that the school, its pupils, and the nation in general had been gripped by the hot topic of the timeA creative curriculum was developed, enquiry-led learning launched, many and varied sports-related clubs blossomed at school, all of which were met with interest and success.   

However, as time passed and the nation’s sports fever waned along with the Olympic torch, it became apparent that a new approach was neededThis time, through further consultation with pupils, it was the arts that came to the foreAnd since this time, the arts have flourished in every conceivable way throughout every aspect of the school: Arts Award delivery at Discover, Explore and Bronze levels, Platinum Artsmark, professional development across the staff team, projects, performances and exhibitions within the school and beyond into the wider community, pupil-led clubs and workshops, invitations for the school to present at conferences, and even a visit from the Director of Policy and Research at Arts Council England in recognition of the significant achievements of the school in relation to culture and creativity. 

These achievements have spanned the last decade and continue to thrive despite the many competing priorities and pressures facing schools, not least in the wake of the pandemic and the added challenges this has introduced to us all.  What can other schools learn from the experiences of this larger than average Primary? How do you prioritise and resource the arts in schools to such an aspirational standard? And just what are the tangible gains for a school rich in culture and creativity? 

For Chris, it all starts with youth voice.  Through the arts, Chris believes every pupil in the school has been given the opportunity to be heard…


Every child has a voice now.

All children can discover and show their talents, socially they can become better known among their peers, emotionally they can feel stronger, feel proud of their abilitiesAs most teachers passionate about the arts affirm, a purely academic approach does not allow all children to experience this.


Arts have allowed pupils to flourish, and recognise talent isn’t just a score on a times-table sheet.

The quietest of children are given the opportunity to stand up to perform on a stageThose that might otherwise feel invisible are encouraged to share their skills with classmates through art clubs and workshopsThrough the school’s ‘Arts in the Yard’ programme, Chris has witnessed 45 children ‘wedged in’ a lunchtime art club, hanging on the every word of a fellow pupil who, until their artistic brilliance was discovered, could quite easily have slipped through their time in school as ‘the quiet child’, ‘the child with additional needs’, ‘the reluctant writer’It’s moments like these that Chris feels is the essence of what they are trying to do as an arts school, when he can step back and momentarily feel our work here is done. 

But there is always more that can be done, and the school has not shied away from taking on a leading role within the wider communityAs their own creative provision has developed, so too has their commitment to seeing the arts flourish within their own network of schools, the local town, and beyond. They have been drivers in creating Valley Arts, a creative network for local schools, set up to encourage schools to come together and support each other to develop creative provision. They have also been instrumental in supporting the development of the Wool and Woods Arts Festival for Ripley Town.

Exhibitions have appeared in libraries and unused local shops, and partnerships have developed with local artists and arts organisationsSt John’s commitment to the arts goes well beyond the school walls, and the development of their own creative provision has in turn benefited countless others. This is school improvement at its best and most inspirational, becoming a driver for change in the broadest sense.  As Chris says,


If you are passionate as a school about how to engage and motivate, the arts is it [what you are looking for].

In addition, the arts have played a key role in staff development. Chris believes staff have been reinvigorated in their teaching, reconnecting with their own artistic and musical talents. A staff ukele band has even formed, providing performances to the school and connectivity among the team. Through training to become Arts Award Advisors, the school’s TAs have become empowered, and in turn more involved in the school

That’s not to say that creating a school devoted to the arts hasn’t been met with some resistance. Some teaching staff still had to be talked into it’, and many required a substantial change in mindset. Yet again, it was youth voice that provided the answer. Through interviews with pupils, the message came through loud and clear that art was important to them, that this was the direction that they wished their school to go in. Some school governors were also resistant to change, but school developments have since been met with universal support once the impact on pupils and staff began to become apparent. As Chris says, “the proof is in the pudding”. 

The impact of COVID has also had a significant effect on this thriving provision, a moment Chris likens to pressing pause. 


Everything valued in school came to a stop and our role became to keep everyone safe. 

Whilst the arts provided a positive way of engaging children at home, Chris reflects that post-pandemic has become a time for rebuilding and looking ahead. Colleagues are currently being supported to take on the role of driving the arts as Chris turns his attention to the not unrelated area of environmental education. If his track record in developing arts within the school is anything to go by, this too will be a further example of outstanding provision that other schools can learn from, and pupils can flourish through engaging with. As Chris says himself in summing up a final piece of advice for any other teachers wishing to champion quality arts provision in their setting,


If you are passionate about it, it will be successfulIf you believe in giving pupils a voice in the school, it will be successful. 

Interested in hearing from other schools about how Artsmark has supported them?

Read our other stories and watch our Artsmark celebration videos to discover how all arts, culture and creativity have supported schools and their students.

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