Art of the possible

Children with emotional difficulties proved their worth when they worked with artists and musicians, says Elaine Williams

An iconic image of hand-shaking; pupils' hands of different skin colour, showing cuffs of different uniforms stretched out in greeting - this image, one of many exhibited at the opening of Chorlton High School in south Manchester, became the symbol of hope for the new school.

The exhibition of photographs was put together by pupils as a result of a year-long arts project looking at images of self and renewal. It celebrated the moving of this 1,500-strong secondary from its previous split site into a spanking new building, as well as the acquisition of specialist art college status. But the exhibition also celebrated something deeper and wider than the completion of a new building; the ability of young people with significant social and emotional difficulties to sustain creativity and work with artists in music and the visual arts over many months.

The seeds of the exhibition had been sown at a residential weekend in Wales. Twelve pupils, chosen because of their low self-esteem, went on a short residential visit to the Conway centre near the Menai Straits, accompanied by four members of teaching staff and three artists - two musicians and a photographer - for an intensive series of arts workshops based on the theme Imaging Imagining. During the brief time they spent there, they recorded a music CD and a DVD, took photos with the disposable cameras each one was given, made marbled paper and collages about themselves, and created a "feel-good box", in which they put found objects, bits of writing and other made items.

Zo Morris, director of the arts college and deputy head at Chorlton High, who took part in the residential, says: "The box was full of things they had found out about themselves during that weekend. These pupils all had issues with self-identity. Some were very withdrawn, others had behavioural difficulties. The idea was that if there was ever a time when they were feeling down, they could open the box and remind themselves of the positive things they created and discovered about themselves during that weekend."

Staff were so impressed with pupils' response to the residential and to working with artists, that they extended its life by commissioning the photographer to work with pupils in the months following on related themes of Old and New Self, and Old and New School, culminating in the opening exhibition.

Funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the project was one of seven nationally, costing from pound;2,500 to pound;5,000 each, that became the basis of research into the effectiveness of activities involving artists working in pupil referral units and learning support units. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) was commissioned to write a report, Serious Play, which considered the contribution the arts might make to pupils' educational, social and personal development, assessed the impact of arts projects on staff and school effectiveness, and looked at the cost of the projects.

Zo points out that, although the weekend residential proved immensely successful, the project's overall success was due not only to the fact that pupils had a finished product they could be proud of (the CD and DVD) but that its life was extended to have a longer-term effect on pupils'

schooling through the securing of extra funding.

The Chorlton experience underpins one of the key findings of the NFER research - that one-off, short-term projects may inspire and interest pupils, but that longer-term commitment is often necessary for interest and motivation to be sustained.

Indeed, since the Gulbenkian project two years ago, Chorlton has appointed an arts projects co-ordinator, an artist in her own right, whose job it is to match pupils, artists and funding to ensure a rolling programme of projects. Part of the brief is to design access arts courses to support pupils with specific needs and if necessary to develop those courses over the longer term.

For one project, the school secured funding a year ago through the charity Unity, which aims to promote diversity and community cohesion, for jazz-inspired musician Daniel Mitchell to work with a group of Year 8 students who had musical ability but organisational difficulties.

Initially, Daniel was employed for 10 weeks for one hour a week in the school timetable to create bands with the students as a way of improving their social, listening and organisational skills. At the end, students were to perform in concert.

Daniel says: "They were barely ready for the performance, but I put the responsibility on to them and at the very last minute they pulled things together." Students then requested that the project be extended into a second and subsequently a third phase which is now attracting ASDAN accreditation.

Daniel now works with them in an after-school club. Two academically able musicians act as peer mentors and run a masterclass for students with a group of Manchester musicians and they aim to record their work onto a CD.

The students have formed two bands, incorporating a fusion of hiphop, soul, funk, rock with "sensitive, informed lyrics". Over time, Daniel has seen the students' confidence and commitment grow. He says: "It's the pupils who have driven this project and I was able to draw up a contract with them, setting out my expectations: that they would arrive on time; help me set up; respect each other; and meet their own personal learning goals. Extending the project meant that they have been able to form relationships with which they feel safe and secure. The music is fantastic.

"For example, one young person started off with real attitude, but after he attended the master class he stayed behind to talk to the drummer. On the strength of that, the drummer offered him a drumming lesson, we gave him a pair of sticks and there's been no looking back. He's amazing, he's flying."

Daniel's experience at Chorlton underlines the NFER findings that artists often motivate pupils with social and behavioural difficulties because they are seen as an expert coming in from the outside world with a positive attitude towards pupils and a willingness to listen. Artists also offer fresh skills, ideas and attitudes to teaching staff, and inform "teaching practice both beyond the life of the project and in other curriculum areas".

However, the NFER points out that one-off projects cannot make any significant difference to pupils. Often, it says, such projects need to be funded over the longer term to become a sustained component of the curriculum.

Zo Morris says that as a result of its commitment to access arts courses Chorlton has learnt that: * schools must build up a bank of artists so they can match the right artist with the right groups; * there should be a high-quality end product, an exhibition, performance, or recording - "it's important pupils see they can achieve really big things at the highest level"; * projects need to be flexible, so they can be extended or shaped to match developing needs: "we are constantly seeking funding to make these projects work."

* Serious Play - An evaluation of arts activities in pupil referral units and learning support units by Anne Wilkin, Caroline Gulliver and Kay Kinder at the NFER is published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, pound;8.50. Available from Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN. Tel: 0845 458 9911. Email: orders@


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