In 2005, Maddi began a commission to work for Creative Partnerships Cumbria as Lead Artist at Ormsgill Primary School in Barrow-in-Furness and led the school as a ‘Creative Agent’ through to completion in 2010.

Working as a creative consultant, she diagnosed and uncovered issues, developed creative solutions, planned, managed and developed projects to help deliver change within the school.


Lead Artist and Creative Agent – Maddi Nicholson

Maddi has over 20 years of experience working in engaged artistic practice within the education sector and communities. She has undertaken, developed, devised, lead and managed, as an artist, hundreds of residencies all over the country, in schools, colleges and within communities, and business, at all levels which is a quite staggering achievement.

In 2005 Maddi began a commission to work for Creative Partnerships Cumbria as Lead Artist at Ormsgill Primary School in Barrow-in-Furness and latterly led the school as a ‘Creative Agent’ through to completion in 2010. Working as a creative consultant, she had the ability to diagnose and uncover issues, develop creative solutions, plan, broker, manage and develop projects to help deliver change within the school.

First Steps

Ormsgill Primary School, situated in Ormsgill Estate, is in one of the four priority wards in Barrow-in-Furness, scoring high on the indices of multiple deprivations. The school had struggled with its OFSTED inspections and was identified as being in need of change; this was one of the main drivers in it becoming a Creative Partnerships school.

The staff had identified the need to develop the extensive grounds to be used as an educational resource, to  help discourage disengagement and disaffection among the school children.


During the first year maddi developed a staged in-depth creative consultation process, to engage the whole school community, staff, students and parents, and look at the grounds and buildings. This ranged from intensive one to one sessions with each member of staff, INSET consultation with all staff including dinner ladies, to creative projects involving all the children and parents, looking at the indoors and out. The outcome of this process was an outline Master Plan ORMSGILL OUTDOORS, conceived by our professional team, which was developed further in years 2 and 3.

The consultation looked at needs and solutions, ensuring the whole scheme was sustainable appropriate and effective, aiming for an enhance delivery for the curriculum outdoors.

The projects detailed below are only a small snapshot of those undertaken as part of the whole Ormsgill Primary School Project. (Further Links are at the bottom of this page).

Stuart Bastik and Maddi Nicholson worked together on the development of the plan for the whole of the outdoors. The consultation work with staff and children outlined below in a range of projects fed directly into the plans and designs for each area. Ormsgill Primary has extensive grounds so the potential to develop a facility for its own teaching practice and that of other schools in the area was huge. Projects developed designs for the school’s frontage and gateway, the early years playground, and the concept Eco-Centre; with growing areas to the rear of the school. The Eco-Centre developed from a need to have an outdoor teaching space which drew focus to a larger eco-school aspiration which was to use the outdoors as a ‘facility’ through which to explore a wide range of cross-curricular teaching; using for instance, the planting of seeds to learn not only about biology but maths, english, creative arts, history and culture.

The concept Eco-Centre structures are made from timber clad with corrugated sheet metal. The off-grid structures produce their own power by means of a wind turbine and/or solar panels. There is a geodesic glass house for bringing on seedlings and a number of planters for food production, two are shaped like a knife and fork. The cloud shaped structure is repeated in a pond for ‘dipping’ and an additional look-out space higher in the grounds; facilitating learning away from the classroom, capitalising on views across the Irish sea.

Art Gene have an ongoing interest in developing unique outdoor learning spaces, and educational facilities for young people. This project represents a mid point in the evolution of our ideas, a development of the earlier Kid Pod, Outdoor Teaching Space, for Sacred Heart Primary School, which was hailed by OFSTED as ‘representing the way forward’ and many of its aspirations are now being realised in the mobile off-grid Roker Pods project for Sunderland City Council 2012.

Eco-School Project


Creative Consultation

Martin Gent is an artist, performer, and skilled engagement specialist, working with business and the education sector. He collaborated with Maddi Nicholson on a number of creative consultation sessions, with staff and children, drawing out issues ideas, and understanding.

Staff Consultation

Teaching and support staff ‘interviews’; one to one sessions to draw out true issues, need and opportunity. This was done creatively, working with staff to ensure that individuals had an opportunity to speak their minds, in a private confidential session. Pressures of the work place with its hierarchies inevitably result in some degree of deference and self-censorship that can leave important ideas and concerns unexpressed. Frustrations and even resentment can build up and eat away at new cohesions and developments from the inside out. This is likely in today’s school communities, with their increased pressures and can be particularly severe in establishments labelled as ‘problem schools’.

“The confidential consultation sessions very successful, where the teaching and support staff, almost despite themselves, let their guard drop and allowed us to be true confidants.”

Maddi Nicholson

Staff Away Days

INSET- ‘Creative Away Day’- whole school adult community A workshop event designed to gel the adult school community, solicit new ideas, identify concerns and raise aspirations. Teaching and support staff, cleaners and dinner ladies were brought together to draw a 100 sq. metre aspirational plan of the school and its grounds in the Art Gene Gallery.

The artists facilitated a focused lively and inclusive discussion, amongst the group, most of whom were meeting for the fist time as the school community of stakeholders sharing and learning from each other: school meetings were normally held within smaller task dedicated groups. The workshop identified possible new approaches to teaching and a linked vision for the school’s grounds. It was useful for all to see the school from the perspective of other staff with different responsibilities and for each to see the value in the others perspective.

Special Projects – Dens

Pupil consultation, through performance skills, verbal consultation play, and art based work as a creative consultation for the whole school. Each class worked on Den Models of Aspirational Outdoor Spaces working on a box form as a 3-D plan.

Each child was practically involved, focused around the common agenda, their ideas and input valued – building the self-esteem of the children.

Swap a Sketch

Swap-a-Sketch was a creative mechanism employed to solicit the views of parents and gain an understanding of local perceptions of the school. The process helped raise community awareness of the project, and parental involvement.

Maddi talked with parents and their children whilst drawing and parents completed a questionnaire in return for an on-the-spot portrait sketch of their child. Nowhere else would one see a queue to fill in a questionnaire.

Teachers Inset

Rachel Ashton is a Theatre Director and runs the Ashton Group, a Youth Theatre and apprenticed Actors company, in Barrow-in-Furness. Rachel and Maddi collaborated to develop and deliver a Teachers INSET looking at creativity, and how to formulate ideas for future working around the agenda of Ormsgill Outdoors. The INSET training day, covered performance work and creative thinking skills. Part of this process is to develop confidence and team cohesion among the staff.

Performances for outdoors.

Rachel worked with each class to devise, develop and script stories around issues to do with the outdoors. These covered many subjects, from bullying to what the mice and other creatures get up to. Each of the stories involved a full class and were performed to the rest of the school and all the parents, in an enormous outdoor extravaganza, which was indoors because of the bad weather. The process aimed to gel the whole school around issues to do with the outdoors and further enhanced the possibilities for how outside spaces could be used as well as developing performance and confidence skills among the children.

Surveying the Grounds

As part of the process of developing a outline master plan a professionally produced topographical survey was commissioned, from Spatial Design to map the school grounds. This was used in the production of the Ormsgill Outdoors Design and 3-D Visualization. The Surveyor Martin Ives for Spatial Data Limited, gave a presentation to yr. 5. He brought along a theodolite Leica TCRP 1205 robotic total station, which he set up in the classroom, showing the children the red laser and infrared functions, before taking it outside for them to “have a go”. The children also used a little Magellan hand-held GPS which they could use around the grounds seeing the map change and “track” where they had been.

Growing Food

Part of developing the whole school grounds was to look at focused areas for planting and growing. Sally Beamish, Estate Manager for Brantwood, worked with each class helping the children and staff  learn about gardening. Sally covered similarities with plant and family groupings, plants that you can eat and those you cannot, the children cleared, dug, planted and grew flowers and vegetables. Two large focused areas developed: The early years woodland with natural planting and a series of beds which were to form part of the eco centre. The school became a local award winner for growing, and received a gardening trophy from the Borough Council.

Photographic Survey

Finnish Artist Minna Kantonen, lives and works in London and was artist in residence at Art Gene. She is interested in showing through her work, the minute details of everyday life, and the hierarchical structures within that. Her Line of Height photographs show the office place as part of the public realm, with staff in a line of height highest to lowest, suggesting a bogus physical status.

Leon Cole is a photographer working in London and specialised in panoramic long exposure night photography, looking at buildings, architecture and streetscapes and how the environment changes after dark. Barrow-in-Furness has less than a 0.5 % of ethnic minorities in the town, therefore for Art Gene its important to bring a cultural mix to projects we develop in the area. As part of their role artists Minna Kantonen and Leon Cole talked about their cultural heritage to the classes they worked with.


Photographic Books

Project 1: Learning to work with digital and Polaroid cameras, the children made a detailed and intimate photographic survey of spaces within the school grounds: how they are used and experienced on a daily basis. The images were compiled into two different limited edition publications recording and authenticating the children’s ‘viewpoints’, photographs and experience.

Project. 2: Maddi Nicholson worked with the Children’s Client Team who were given disposable digital cameras to take home and photograph, places in their gardens, homes or on the Ormsgill Estate that had special significance to them. The resulting photographs were displayed as part of the School’s Celebration Day. Seven images were short-listed and a prize-winning family received a digital camera.

Early Years Woodland

The early years woodland area, developed from the needs of the young children to develop their learning in a safe but naturally wooded area of the school. Pods were created for shelter and to act as little hides for the children, post boxes were installed as part of a story trail, and landscaping, with natural woodland planting. Around the whole of the school grounds, and as part of the orienteering process informative signs looking at trees, plans, animals and birds acted as markers for orienteering. All the signs have drawings developed by the children incorporated into the design.

Projects Assistant

Clinton Rimmer, known as Rimsky was Art Gene’s projects assistant for the duration of the Ormsgill Outdoors project. Rimsky worked as assistant across many of the outdoor projects, helping build the pods, signs and post boxes, as well as back breaking work moving numerous plants, and digging the groundworks for the huge knife and fork planters.

Garden Design

Garden designer Zoe Norman, worked on the early years woodland area, clearing and planting up the woodland around the pods with native plants ferns grasses and wild flowers and seeding the front of the school with meadow plants.

She worked with the whole school and the gardening club an after school activity group, to plant up the Knife and Fork Planters. Looking at the production of food on this allotment style area. Cabbages, lettuce, chives and strawberries grew particularly well. Children who had formerly struggled with eating vegetables at lunchtimes would take great delight in pulling carrots wiping off the soil and eating them. Excess food produced was given to the dinner ladies to add to the lunchtime menu.

School Branding – Uniform

The promotion of a school is key to how it sees itself and how it is perceived by the local community and amongst its pupils. As part of this process Maddi worked with the children and staff to develop designs for a whole new uniform and school emblem. The new green and yellow outfits and logo aimed to promote the Ormsgill Outdoors project and its ecological aspirations to the outside world. The busy Bumble Bee became the emblem stitched on new green sweatshirts, matched with yellow shirts. The new school livery was a resounding success within the school.

A Warm Welcome

The school entrance was planted up in a whole school activity where parents came with their children to plant bulbs spelling WELCOME, cut into the turf. A simple but incredibly effective way of engaging the whole school in improving the way it is perceived within the community.

Science Project

Antony Hall is an artist that looks at the ‘madness’ of the scientific environment for inspiration in his personal work. He also works in a partnership called Owl Project, currently (at time of writing) looking a floating machine for the Tyne as part of The Cultural Olympiad projects.

As part of the final year of work with the school the staff wanted to look at Science and English, and how bringing artists into this mix could help develop these subject areas. Anthony looked at tabletop experiments, with borax, and the creation of rockets and sound sculptures. He also devised training for the staff so they could deliver sessions in following years.

Ormsgill School Soap

The idea of an Ormsgill Soap Opera began as a way of the staff looking at engaging children and their families with English. Sticky Street was devised and written by Kevin Fegan working with the schoolchildren. Direction by Juliet Ellis with pupil assistance, Juliet also looked at the performance skills. John Hall worked on filming and props with the children. The soap is set and based in and around the Ormsgill Estate and has two episodes. The project also engaged a number of parents as writers and actors.

Kevin Fegan is a writer and poet, who has a long association with Barrow. Kevin was a storyline writer for Coronation Street, has written over 40 plays for the stage, 7 plays for Radio 4, plus a woman’s hour serial. He is also a stand up poet, with 8 volumes of poetry published.

Juliet Ellis is an actress who has starred in Coronation Street. She recently played Rose in Ken Loach’s film, It’s a free world. Juliet is a theatre maker, actor, live art practitioner and emerging film maker and was awarded the Black Progress Trust award for contributions to Arts and Media.

John Hall is an artist who lives and works in Barrow, and is part of the Octopus Collective. John is a painter and performer working with sound and video as well as facilitating workshops in schools. He has shown work as part of the Art Gene’s U-Hang Exhibition Programme and in the Art Gene Open Prize exhibition 2007.

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