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Artists make an impression

Musicians, film-makers and poets have opened up new lines of communication in this special school. Stephen Manning reports

It's one thing for pupils to make a film or a piece of music with their teacher, but when real artists are brought in, it can be an eye-opener. And when it's a special school with a range of additional needs from autism to behavioural and emotional difficulties, then the results can be striking.

Pendragon School in Bromley, Kent, has worked closely with a number of artists from AIR Ltd (Artist in Residence), a performing arts agency. The pupils have encountered puppetry, comedy, poetry, drama and music, all centred around the subject of citizenship.

"It adds an extra dimension. The pupils are interacting with practitioners who earn a living from their various arts," says Pancho Martinez, the school's headteacher. "Language isn't just on paper and communication isn't just about questions and answers in a classroom setting."

They have also had their work professionally launched. Last year AIR published In Our Own Write, a collection of pupils' poems edited by Dino Jacovides, poet in residence. The collection was launched at the Bromley branch of Waterstone's and pupils signed copies.

"Remember, these are pupils who have been labelled as having special needs and as not having strength in communication. So something like this is important," says Pancho.

Chris Bangs, the school's composer in residence, has completed a CD called 15 Self Songs, written and recorded in collaboration with Pendragon pupils.

"The idea of the various projects is to allow the pupils to examine their place in the world, and how their life experience affects how they see the world and vice versa," says Chris.

His wife, Tinge Krishnan, a film director, was making a documentary about the poetry project when she was inspired to make a film about the school.

"I spotted Kali Perkins, who I later chose as the female lead in the film, playing the piano through the music room window," says Tinge. "Her music is unique, a crazy mixture of dissonance and harmony. She played me the self song she had written with Chris.

"I decided then that I wanted to make a drama set in this school, something that would capture the spirit of the children and the sense of liberation that arises from being around people who are different from the norm."

Tinge observed conversations between Kali, a shy girl with Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that affects brain function, and a boy who loved rap.

"Both were apparently different from our norms, struggling with an outside world that can be fast to brush off such youngsters. It looked like a story of friendship and the meeting of different creative energies."

Kali plays a version of herself for the film while Chris Lodge, another pupil from Pendragon, is the boy who loves rap.

The six-minute film, First, was screened at the London Film Festival and will be submitted to a host of competitions.

Chris says the Self Songs CD will be launched at the British Film Institute on May 15. He says the process of making the songs begins with individual conversations about their lives. Chris then gets them to talk about things they might be comfortable discussing in a group. Finally, they chose a specific aspect to write about.

"Far from trying to change their situation or offer advice, we simply look together at where they are at in a completely non-judgmental way, with the purpose of turning it into a song," says Chris.

"The subject matter is diverse, but tends to deal with alienation resulting from bullying, mental or physical abuse, their daily routine or love for a family member, although fathers tended to be either the target of anger and resentment or entirely absent in the songs."

They discuss what sort of music the poetry should be set to and Chris provides musical ideas before settling on a final version for the pupil to sing over. It is important to capture an "honest" vocal more than a good one, he says.

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