Up and away from those curriculum shackles

Pupils at an art and design summer school progress five times as fast as in their regular classrooms, finds Raymond Ross

A blend of good, keen teachers, quality artists and enthusiastic pupils is how Janice Aitken, head of education at Dundee Contemporary Arts, describes the two-week summer school in art and design being run jointly by the city council and the DCA.

The enthusiasm is palpable at both of the city venues, the DCA and Menzieshill High, where classes on jewellery-making, producing prints, graphic animation, web animation, camera work, site-specific sculpture, product design, art installation and film pre-production share the same atmosphere of quiet, relaxed concentration with little bubbles of conversation and, sometimes, pop music playing softly in the background.

The pupils are there because they want to be. They work through their lunchtimes. They are on first- name terms with the 12 teachers and the 12 artists involved.

"It's not school and doesn't feel like school," said Drew McIntyre, principal teacher of art at Menzieshill.

"When we piloted the idea last year, a lot of teachers wanted to get involved after they'd seen the display of the pupils' work. And the parents were as pleased as Punch with the work done by their kids. A demand was created," he added.

The teachers are paid volun-teers and the 240 pupils are those who have chosen art and design, graphic communication or design technology in their options for S3 or S4. There is no selection for the summer school and no targeting. All 544 pupils who had taken the above course choices were sent invitations.

The week begins with the artists showing and explaining what they do professionally before the pupils start on their own chosen projects.

Since there are no set periods, they are able to work straight through; and because there are no subject changes, they are able to achieve in four days what would take in the normal school curriculum at least four weeks. They are also able to work with materials and equipment often reserved for Higher pupils only: copper mesh, jewellery wire and digital video cameras, for example. "It's an opportunity for practical, hands-on work that wouldn't sit in the normal curriculum," Mr McIntyre says. "The shackles of assessment are off and it gives a positive vibe about the subject.

"It has a knock-on effect on the pupils' confidence and attitude. It's stimulating for them to achieve an end product of their own and to look at and discuss what their pals are doing."

Among the projects are ten-second animated films; brightly illustrated books and giant, colourful story boards (one about making new friends, featuring talking vegetables); computer graphics from the personal to the futuristic; a large, complex, suspended wire sculpture and a maze.

Jewellery designs range from belly chains and necklaces to arm and wrist bracelets; and designer products for the teenager's bedroom, including a candlestick, a clock, a mirror and a CD rack itself made from CDs.

Mr McIntyre underlines the importance of the pupils have opportunities to work with artists. "They tend to think of teachers as just teachers and see the artist as somebody real, as somebody who is making the whole process more real."

Janice Aitken, of Dundee Contemporary Arts, says: "To interest young people of this age in contemporary art you have to make it participative, enjoyable and allow them to work with professional artists. Who knows, but some of them might realise that a career in the visual arts is possible."

She adds: "Everyone is learning here - artists, pupils and teachers, all from each other. We have an environment already geared up to creating art and we want to work with young people who might not automatically relate to modern art.

"We have a pretty vibrant atmosphere, but the young people add an extra element - and I don't just mean noise!" she says.

The Dundee art and design summer school is in the first of three years of backing from the National Opportunities Fund, though hopes are that it will become an annual fixture. A display of the pupils' work at the DCA will be officially launched on August 29 between 4pm and 6pm.

Contact for the project is Janice Aitken at DCA on 01382 909900 or at janice.aitkendundeecity.gov.uk

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