How to Teach Art with Mandy Barrett from Gomersal Primary School

2nd August 2018 - Adam Halls

Thanks to the hard work of teacher Mandy Barrett, Gomersal Primary School has become one of the best schools for teaching art in the country, so much so that they were invited to appear before Parliament to talk about art education. So we sat down to talk with Mandy about how to teach art.

Can you talk a bit about how art is taught differently at Gomersal Primary School?

So, on a practical level two of the biggest differences between the approach we take and what other schools do is that we have a dedicated art room instead of doing art in individual classrooms and that I work as a specialist art teacher with every year group across school rather than getting classroom teachers to deliver the subject.

The big advantage that this gives us is we are able to invest quality time into the subject, so children can really develop an individual project. From practicing and developing new skills to creating individual ideas based on a given starting point. You can really get involved and dig deep , getting involved in the arts lesson. Because it is only me teaching it with the entire school, you can see the progress. When our class teachers teaching delivering art lessons, it’s was kind of isolated, in little pockets. With one specialist teacher, you can see the starting point, the middle and the end, makes it more individualised.

I think, if you’ve got the time to dedicate to the subject (the children come down here for full morning/afternoon every week) children are able to thrive.  We’ve got that pure time where the children can plan, prepare and create. It’s not just getting the paints out and doing an arts lesson. Art is taught and children are encouraged to respond and explore.

It also helps that I have massive support from the school in terms of budget. The Art budget is really  healthy and as a result, the resources  we use are of high quality. Anything I need I can order, so we are really rich in resources. Having the beauty of this room also makes a massive difference because we can get really messy and equipment is always on hand.

I suppose it’s also down to, having the philosophy of allowing the children to be creative and for them to be brave enough to let them take projects in their own direction.

How did that way of teaching art emerge?

It was a combination of things. I’ve been a class teacher at this school since graduating from university in 2003. There was a massive rejig in our area of Kirklees where the first school/middle school system was dissolved and replaced with Primary and Secondary schools. Where we were originally a first school, it meant we stopped having the children at year 4. We closed down  as a first school and gained a couple of year 5 and year 6 classes and eventually moved into this building to form a new primary school in 2013.

This building was geared up as a middle school. So there were D.T labs, a science lab, the classrooms and then there was this art room space. For the first year of being here, I was on maternity leave so this room was empty. When I came back from a year’s maternity leave to be a regular classroom teacher again I bought my class down here for an arts lesson every week to use this space. Over a period of time, it got used as dumping ground and wasn’t set up as a classroom and it was just an odd room that used to be an art room.

When Melanie Cox took over as Head teacher in 2013 that’s where it all began. She approached me in July and asked if I would like to become a specialist art teacher as of that September? I only had that summer to plan and plot to think how am I going to turn this into a classroom?  It was literally, finding appropriate chairs and tables. I ordered as many resources as I possibly could and began planning a whole school approach to teaching art.

We already had a PPA teacher who taught whatever subject you wanted them to teach so it was the easiest swap of making that PPA teacher a class teacher and me moving into the art room. All schools need an element of PPA  cover time so it didn’t cost the school any more money to implement the change. It was just using the space more wisely and tapping into specialist skills.

As a school, we weren’t very good at teaching art no matter how hard I tried as an art leader. It is hard sometimes to convince people who aren’t there to do art on a regular basis to do it well.

When we moved into here, bits of the building weren’t finished. I spent that summer thinking that I have got no curriculum and a classroom that doesn’t look like a classroom.  In circumstances like that you have just got to sit down and think ‘this is my vision’ and ask yourself ‘what do I want this room to look like? What do I want my curriculum to look and what do I want the children to achieve out of this?’ It was one of those summers that I was thinking, ‘where am I going to start?’ I had to gather together all the topics for all the different year groups and thought that’s definitely going to be my starting point. If I know year 4 teach Romans and year 5 teach Egyptians at least I can work out what projects are there and where to start in that first half time.

We went from bare walls to producing to massive amounts of artwork and just got it out there. We were a very beige school so it was getting the beige down and ordering more colours and going from looking really drab to really vibrant without it being too much of a distraction, it’s about getting the balance right.

And what impact has having you as a specialist art teacher had?

Prior to moving to this building we hadn’t had Year 6, so as a school hadn’t had KS2 SAT’s results, it was all brand new. Our SATs results weren’t great. It was a combination of all sorts, we went through a massive build move where we had to employ new staff, take on new classes etc. We’ve gone from a Requires Improvement in 2016 to Ofsted in May 2018 awarding us a school rating of ‘Good’ and noted this in the Ofsted report: ‘The curriculum is well planned. Pupils achieve an exceptionally high standard of art work. The good quality of the curriculum and visits into the wider community contribute well to developing pupils’ spiritual, social, moral and cultural understanding’ and ‘The curriculum is well thought through and enhanced by visits, for example to the local mosque and the Houses of Parliament. High-quality, well-presented artwork reflects the school’s emphasis on broadening pupils’ interests. The importance of spiritual, social, moral and cultural aspects permeates the curriculum. Pupils have a good understanding of British values and respect for people from different backgrounds and faiths.’

We had a really short period of time to improve and develop a creative curriculum to work in conjunction with improving our English and Math scores, that was our primary aim. To nurture the whole child and ensure well being was at the forefront of our curriculum offer for all children. This is why all our Year 6 children leave school with an accredited Arts Award alongside their SATs result.

Are there any down sides?

No there are no down sides. I haven’t come across any.

We have a Twitter site for school, which is run by the headteacher but I use a different one that is specifically for art. That’s how the parliament visit came about. It all came through our prolific online activity because you get noticed don’t you?

The president of National Society in Education for Art and Design, NSEAD, who are primarily focussed on art and education, Susan Coles, was online and said  “wow what you’re doing is great” It then all escalated from there.

The bottom line is, all children should have access to a curriculum like this. For me, it shouldn’t be something special and it shouldn’t be an add-on, it should be normal like it is to our children and their parents. If, as a school, we can do anything to encourage other Primary Schools to invest more time, care and skills into developing a thriving art curriculum, then we will support in any way we can.

Why is arts and culture so crucial to the ethos of school?

Because we believe it’s really important for the children, it’s just fundamental for them to enjoy being at school and having a rich experience. It’s not just about testing, reading and writing. Art is a vehicle that allows children to express themselves.

As a primary school, we have not had a good ride over the past few years with Ofsted. We’ve moved new buildings so we had no identity therefore we ploughed ourselves into creative subjects. It has brightened the school up and the children are happier. Standards have risen. It feels like the right thing to do. Arts and culture tick every box as you can feed it into every curriculum area, you can make strong links with organisations and you can also link it to home life and pupil life.

Has the curriculum changed since you started working this way?

Yes massively, and since having a new curriculum from the government we  have encouraged  our class teachers to be as creative as they want in their delivery of the curriculum.

The difference is phenomenal, we have displays in the corridors and everything feels more natural. The children seem happier. They are not stressed. Children bang on the door wanting to come in to finish their artwork, it feels nice. Parents are contacting through Twitter to say how their child is inspired to do things and go to art galleries, so it’s not just the fact that children are coming to school and doing an art lesson and going away. It’s having a really big impact.

A year 5 child said “because we are expanding more artistically in year 5, I am finding more things I am better at.”

The children are really embracing what we are doing and the enjoyment is there. So if the children are learning about the Romans, we’ll get the leather out and build a Roman sandal and we will look at designers and design.

How does what you do in art link to other areas of the curriculum?

It can link to other areas but also it’s not necessary to link at all. We view Art as a subject in its own right. I come across a lot of teachers who say ‘I’d love to do that but it doesn’t fit into the curriculum’. But yes it does because art is a subject.  We also make clear links into other subjects such as English, History and Geography and we do a lot of work building art projects around these areas.

We do a lot of work in here around creative writing and I suppose with also teaching the children how to self-evaluate and ponder and take on advice, means it encompasses everything.

How does that work in terms of your planning? Say you had year 3. How do you plan the art work that you’re going to do with year 3 over a term? How much is linked to other areas of the curriculum and how much of it is stand alone art for art’s sake?

The absolute beauty of the position I am in, is that I am the only one doing this role across the whole school. This means that I don’t have to share planning with anybody else and I can keep a close eye on the progress of all children.

I’ve got the full support of SLT and the head teacher. I am open to do whatever I want in this room and a lot of can be related to History and Geography and other areas of the curriculum.

If I’ve got an idea on a way to work in the morning, I can come in and go ahead with it. If the children share an idea, we can throw the planning out the window and just roll with it and I think that’s the beauty of the curriculum in here as it is not rigid, it is not set out on stone or paper. I don’t have grids to say what I am doing in this year, it’s so flexible which allows me to be creative and that’s getting the best out of everybody.

If something happens in the news and I know I’ve got year 5 tomorrow and I think that this would be really beneficial for the year 5s, then it would be something to bring up the next morning.

We also link the art we produce to other areas of the curriculum – Year 3 for example learn about the stone age to iron age as part of their history curriculum – it therefore makes sense to learn about cave paintings, how they were created, the stories they tell, how paint was originally made and the techniques that were used by early artists. It’s the beginning of art history.

How do you work with other schools in the cluster?

I am a Specialist Leader in Education (SLE) for Art in primary schools so technically any school could buy me in to consult with what they are doing.

Do they?

No, and I think this is mainly down to limited school budgets. I get asked to do a lot of stuff for free. I do volunteer and give advice a lot, but mainly, via email. Within our primary cluster I deliver workshops throughout the year for staff and children.

So every now and then, the head teacher will put an email to the local schools, offering workshop spaces.

What about Secondary?

We would love to work more collaboratively with our local high schools. This way they are more aware of the artistic capabilities of our children as they move forward into Year 7.

You got lots of attention on twitter recently for an amazing cityscape the pupils created based on the work of Mike Barrett. Can you talk us through the inspiration and techniques behind that?

It was a particular type of pen called a Posca pen that our children love to use. A Posca pen is a pen similar to a felt tip pen but with acrylic paint inside it. It is a really fabulous way of using acrylic paint but in a more controlled way and they are very vibrant. So if you painted a canvas for example and you wanted to put detail on top with felt tip pen, you’re not going to get that colour coming through whereas with a Posca pen you’ve got that vibrancy.

The artwork we that we put on Twitter recently were just made from cardboard. The children will get time in their sketch books to plot, plan and design. Then they get their little piece of cardboard, sketch it out, then add paint and Posca.

Mike is a local artist. We’ve done a project where the children worked with Mike to take self portrait photographs. We would talk about how to pose and we would talk about feelings and bring all kinds of emotions into discussions. He’d talk about what it is like to be a photographer and an artist so children learn about different creative careers. Mike comes in regularly and they’ve seen him use the pens and there’s another local artist called Fabric Lenny who also uses them too. I suppose they feel like artists because we make such a big deal out of it. They are not your everyday kind of art material that you get in any school as they are expensive to buy. I like to let the children know that we have spent money on these materials. This is because we are expecting children to produce high quality work and alo look after the equipment they use. They can’t tell you how excited they are about using these pens and then they just work over the top. There is usually a cheer when we get them out of the cupboard.

Because the Posca pens in here are special and whenever we take them out, the children gasp for air and say “she’s letting us use the Posca pens” It’s just a technique that they love and because the pens are so special, it makes the children want to work hard for it.

We are also teaching the children that there are many different pathways to go down with art and that it is not just an art lesson. Art can lead to many different careers. Mike does a lot of fine art work and colour theory with them and he’ll bring his own canvas in and look at his own digital work.

How do you keep on learning new artistic skills for use in school?

I go on a lot of CPD training and the school are very supportive about that. I’m also part of a learning network at the Hepworth Art Gallery.

Is that the Wakefield Creative Learning Network?

Yes it is.  I’m just genuinely interested. I trained at Bretton Hall as an artist as part of my degree at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. I live with an artist. It is just part of my life. I don’t think about it as training or learning new skills.

Twitter helps too as I am quite prolific and there is a lot of really good stuff out there that inspires. There’s also the NSEAD Facebook site where a lot of teachers come together and we’ll ask loads of questions and post good examples of their work.

I suppose it’s just about constantly working but I don’t see it as work, I’ll go home at night and research new artists and project ideas. I don’t mind browsing the Internet for ideas and as a family we visit galleries regularly. It is just who we are as a family. It just naturally happens and it is about being open to new ideas.

Because of the nature of the way I’m contracted to work, specialising in one subject, it allows me to work in this way, focusing on developing my skills and training in just one subject area. If I was a class teacher I’d be dissipating, quite good at this or that but not really fantastic at any one thing.

So one person one subject, it’s easy to keep on top of anything easy to find out what is going on in the art world. I personally enjoy it.  There are lot of leaders of subject who are forced to lead a subject that they don’t particularly enjoy.

Where do you get the inspiration?

Everywhere around me and from the children. Sometimes they come up with the ideas that I wouldn’t dream of.  It’s having the flexibility and ability to let them inspire me. If one child has a crazy idea, I often think, that’s a  really good opportunity to allow children to steer their own learning. It keeps the curriculum fresh. We never get stale, we can make it so different on a day to day basis so you can get inspired by even the little ones.

What advice would you give other primary school teachers to improve the quality of the arts education that they offer?

I think one of the main things is to see art as a subject in its own right. A lot of schools see art as their golden/treat time and they use it as reward rather than a subject. It is a subject that needs to be taught. Art doesn’t magically happen,  you need to teach it. I think there are some people out there who give children a pile of resources and give them an end goal and say we have got 30 minutes to produce this. But by doing this, you’re not teaching them anything.  It will be like expecting children to understand Maths without teaching any of the basics. Techniques need to be taught, learnt and acquired.

One of the main things teachers regularly say to me is that they would love to fit in this idea but I can’t fit it in to their topics. But you don’t have to, you can do it just because it is art! I mean you can see how you can enhance other areas of the curriculum and topics etc but don’t use that as your sticking point. It doesn’t need to link to other areas of the curriculum but it’s obviously great when it does too.

Initial teacher training is an issue at the moment. A lot of trainee teachers are only having 90 minutes of art training on their courses. We are beginning to support local universities with their art curriculum training and content on their courses.

What would you recommend teachers do if they wanted to find out more or if they are interested in  improving their ability to teach art?

I use my blog a lot with other primary school teachers.

I’ve got a lot of examples of the projects I run up there, a lot of photographs and a lot of visuals. Teachers can magpie from us, it has been tested from us and the examples are there. It’s given people confidence, a lot of people feel that primary school children are not capable of producing work to a high standard but my advice is to aim high.

I use a lot of examples with our children that are from GCSE and A level because there are children out there who are capable of rising to the challenge. I think if you aim high then you’re going to get the children producing stunning pieces of work.

What would you advise them to do if they are in a situation where both teachers’ art time and budgets are being squeezed?

It’s tricky isn’t it? I mean for budgets and for resources, there are always things you can do. Recycling materials and learning about global issues that are going on at the minute. We have recently created art using recycled plastic to fit in with the global plastic waste problem highlighted in the news recently.

You can tap into the parents. As a school we have 420 children so there are a lot of parents out there. You will have parents who work in the textile industry. I’ve got a mum who works in a sofa-making factory and she brings in leather. We’ve got architects, art dealers, weavers within our families. It is about tapping into what you’ve got. There’s a company up the road who donate all their spare sticky vinyl that they would just throw away. So it’s about being thrifty and clever at certain times.

When do you do that and how do you enlist that support? Is it via school newsletter asking parents?

Yeah when we are having Art Week, we will say “is there anybody out there in the industry who can help?” After being here after a long time, you get to know the families. Things just crawl out the woodwork or the children will mention something and if you get to know the parents then you can mention it.

During Parents’ Evening, when classes are having their official parent evening time, the art room is open. I set out all the children’s sketchbooks so it was just like a drop in area so parents could come down and have a chat to get to know them and find out what they are up to and if they can support in any way. Through doing this, we found out one of our parents works for a tile manufacturer and we are now working on a whole school mosaic using donated tiles.

There’s a lovely father who’s a painter and decorator so it is as simple as someone coming with stashes of wallpaper books and paint samples. Whenever he sees me, he always ask me if I want anything else.

After doing this for so long and being so prolific, people approach me with ideas and materials. I think my most random example is a family whose father makes toilet seats. So where does the hole of the toilet seats go? They cut out holes that are a perfect shape for creating portraits!

Could you just tell us a bit about how schools approaches the other art like drama, music and dance?

We have a performing arts specialist teacher. She has a private business where she owns a local dance school. She is a theatrical, lively, fantastic lady who knows how to really get the best out of children so every class has time with her to do performing arts.

We’ve got a spare hall downstairs which is set up as the performing arts studio, there’s a timetable for that and she will help put on productions, school nativity and one off workshops. She will work with class teachers to put on class assemblies, again linked to the curriculum if that’s what people want, so she creates a Roman assembly if they have been learning about the Romans.

Our year 6 pupils put on a massive leaving production at the end of the year with her. It’s tapping into her specialist skill,  her acting skills are phenomenal so she’s got the background experience in that. Our sports leader is very big on dance, so we have got Northern Ballet in and the children go visit the ballet.

How does that get funded?

Parents often fund it and some of it comes out of the sport premium funding. For some workshops we get funding. So for example, because the whole of year 2 bought tickets to see the Northern ballet, that then entitled them to Northern Ballet coming in to do workshops with them for free.

Our music subject leader was the original music teacher from the middle school so she applied to be a teacher with us during the primary reshuffle.  There’s her music background knowledge that we use in school to develop our music curriculum. She plays a lot of instruments. She used to lead the orchestra for the middle school so she has now brought her skills into this school as a primary teacher. I think we have got the specialist arts teachers in the areas where we need them.

So are they all full time staff?

Yes, they are.

So does the performing arts lead teacher have a class as well?

No, she is used as a higher level teaching assistant but she also teaches performing arts.

I think we’re just lucky that we have got the passionate people working in the right areas.

Do you get people wanting to come look around?

All the time, we get people from far and wide. We had people coming from Birmingham recently for example. I get emails from Australia and America. We’re very prolific online, we’ve got a massive following so it’s those proud moments where you get somebody from Russia who really likes this project and then they’ll send you things that they have done with their children and it is just absolutely brilliant. We’re inspiring people we don’t even know about as not everyone we inspire will get in touch.

For more information on Gomersal Primary School check out our report about their Pupil-led Arts Council and Mandy’s blog. If you’re interested in CPD to improve the arts teaching ability we have a program of Arts CPD we can deliver as an INSET day or as a twilight. Please email to make an enquiry.

Related Articles

14th August 2023

IVE awarded NCS grant for delivery of experiences to help local teens become ‘world ready and work ready’

IVE have today announced a new community experience programme funded by NCS (National Citizen Service) that will support young people across Bradford, Leeds and…

Read More
16th June 2023

New Ways to Reduce Air Pollution in Bradford – Report and Evaluation.

Born in Bradford partnered with Bradford Council to support IVE in delivering Applied Creativity Labs in 11 primary schools in Bradford. 165 children participated,…

Read More
2nd May 2023

IVE New Executive Director Announcement

I am delighted to announce that the IVE board of trustees have appointed Tim Balogun as our new Executive Director who will be taking…

Read More
Sign up to our newsletter