Art for all in Orwell's digital studio

Reva Klein reports onthe authoring tools that are inspiring pupils to take up art

Five years ago, art teacher Kathy Stonier looked upon computers as glorified word processors, nothing more, nothing less. Today Stonier, head of expressive arts at George Orwell School in North London, has integrated computer technology into her art teaching and feels as comfortable with computer animation, scanners and multimedia work as she does with plaster of Paris, paintbrush and palette. And some of her pupils feel even more so.

Kathy is leading her 15-year-old pupils into the third and final year of a media arts project that has involved bringing together skills in photography, video and slide-tape production through the use of computer technology.

The media arts project is innovatory and enlightened for any school. But George Orwell isn't just any school and its students aren't just any students. Situated near Finsbury Park in Islington, it has on its roll the largest number of refugee children and recent arrivals of any school in London. In addition, George Orwell has an integrated department for visually impaired pupils.

Many of the children speak only the most rudimentary English - if any - when they first arrive. Needless to say, computers will not have been a fact of life for a large number of the more recent arrivals, who come mainly from Kurdistan, Turkey, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

And it's not just the pupils who won't have had experience of information technology. Until the project was introduced in 1994, many staff had only the most basic understanding of computers.

With a pupil population as diverse as George Orwell's, issues around identity, self-image and culture figure largely in the London Arts Board-funded project. In the first year, 13-year-olds worked on bodystyle and adornment. Working with two photographers, pupils created images using photography, montage and computer manipulation using Photoshop software, depicting themselves and others in wild, weird and wonderful ways. Pupils took the photographs, developed films and used the scanner to computerise the images.

Last year, the focus was on tape-slide work, using the theme of "Image and Identity - The Environment: home, school, community". Staff received training in video, sound recording and video editing.

Now entering its third year, work will centre on interactive multimedia using Apple Macs. Pupils will work with a multimedia artist to create a CD-Rom using Director software, and they will be expected to develop their own piece of project work in a medium of their choice, for example, ceramics, paint, textile or photography.

While different specialists have come in to do residencies, the common thread has been the involvement of Sue Underwood, a freelance artist working with Artec, an Islington-based arts and technology training centre. Throughout, she has been impressed with the standard of work and the liberating effect of the technology. "Some of the children who are normally shy or disruptive in class have accomplished much more working with me than they would in more structured classroom settings," she says.

She noted, too, the ease with which children who felt they couldn't draw could translate their concepts on to the screen, and the sense of satisfaction that it gave them. "They have had a lot of fun doing this work. I set out determined not to have them taking it too seriously so that they wouldn't get embarrassed or frustrated." The laid-back approach seems to have paid off. One girl, Asma, told Sue at the end of last year's project, "The best work I did all year was on the computer. I want to come back next year to try to improve."

In their final year, the project will comprise part of the 60-odd pupils' GCSE coursework. And they will have the option of doing the whole of their art exam on computers. "It's probably a first in the country." So popular and successful has the project been that the largest number of students ever have chosen to do GCSE Art, according to Sue. The next stage is getting funding for a teachers' pack to be produced on CD-Rom.

For her, the project "has done a tremendous amount for my confidence with IT. I've learned how to use Photoshop and I am getting training on Director. After that I'll be training my colleague in the art department." Elsewhere in the school, Sue is training the librarian and media resources officer on the Internet "to enable us to set up Web pages next term. This project is definitely not a flash in the pan. The whole point is making technology a part of the art curriculum. These pupils will have the skills to dip in and out of computers as a tool, just like paint or chalk."

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