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Abstract ways of giving art to all

A Cardiff school believes emphasising non-figurative forms is the way to interest more pupils in art, discovers Reva Klein

I was not wearing rubyslippers when I crossed the threshold into Gladstone Infants, but for a moment I knew just what Dorothy felt like when she set foot in the Land of Oz.

Outside, it had been as monotonal and joyless as any Victorian schoolhouse, set in a residential street in Cardiff. But once inside, my eyes were first assaulted and then delighted by a riot of colour and variety of shapes and textures.

It is not that everything you see is award-winning art, picture-perfect representational crea-tions on display to impress parents and visitors. Of course there are plenty of polished paintings, drawings, sculptures, tapestries, printed cloth and mobiles.

However, they are laid out, pinned up or even suspended side by side with work that is abstract and that shows the developmental process of creating art. They are as valued as the more conventional life drawings and finished products so beloved in many schools.

The emphasis at Gladstone Infants is on making children interested in what they are doing and in building up their skills incrementally.

It is also what Nigel Meager, who has worked extensively with the school as a freelance art consultant, calls "democratising art". "In our culture, so many children write themselves off at the beginning and say 'I can't draw, I'm no good'," he says. "But this kind of approach removes the pressure of drawing as realistically as possible without diminishing its educational value.

"On the contrary, explorative work leads to high levels of skill and sensitivity. By valuing non-figurative work so highly, every child becomes an artist."

Sue Snell, acting headteacher and art co-ordinator, believes that the key to learning all subjects - whether it is art, maths or science - is to draw children in, and abstract art is an ideal way to do this.

"It's an easy way of getting children engaged with art because it's something they can all do," she says.

"We get them to make patterns with colour mixing and using line and mark. We ask them to think of different ways of using a brush, a pencil, a piece of charcoal. We say to them 'take the pencil for a walk on the paper'."

On the walls of the corridors as well as the classrooms, there is evidence of children taking pencils and other objects for a walk as a way of exploring, experimenting, investigating.

In a reception classroom, one section of wall displays a Blue Project. Here, the class added all manner of materials including sawdust and sand to pastel paint to create abstract designs.

Other blue paintings were created by putting a marble into different hues of blue paint. It was then rolled around on paper to get different patterns.

Ms Snell, who developed the art curriculum at the school after doing an art diploma six years ago, is a firm believer in art as a vehicle for cross-curricular work. "We use art for topic words, which usually reflects the projects that we're working on. It's very much part of our language work. "

But despite the enthusiasm that the entire staff has for art, it is taught within a very structured scheme, in which each class teacher plans one or two activities for a term only, as a unit of work, once or twice a week.

"If it's done properly in stages", Ms Snell says, "the children get enough experiences in that single term a year."

If their displayed work is anything to go by - ranging from copying Monet's "Waterlilies" in pastels to whimsical water patterns in watercolours - these children are getting not just the skills and experience, but an understanding of different ways of communicating images.

Nigel Meager goes one further: "The high standards maintained in the school (test results above the national average, a glowing OFSTED report) are in some part a result of the richness of aesthetic experience that children receive at this school."


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