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Arts boosted by new gang of four

Cultural co-ordinators are transforming the quality and creativity of teaching in West Dunbartonshire, Di Hope reports

West Dunbartonshire is one of the poorest communities in Scotland. The council already invests almost half of its budget in education and this year has introduced a bold pilot project to champion the use of the arts not only to illuminate and illustrate the curriculum but also to inspire and engage pupils through the development of their creativity.

Central to the strategy are the important points that "culture lies at the heart of education" and "fostering creativity in thought and action is now widely regarded as of great importance culturally, economically and socially".

As part of the pound;1.75 million national strategy to put 200 cultural champions in schools, four cultural co-ordinators, all of whom are professionals in drama, music or visual arts, have been appointed to work with the 21 schools within the council's four school clusters based around Dumbarton Academy, Clydebank High, St Andrew's High and Braidfield High, the team's base.

Stephen Bullock is an actor, writer and director and the programme's drama co-ordinator. To help kick off the programme at the end of last term, working with one of the two visual co-ordinators, Jenny Hunter, who is an experienced artist and arts director, they ran an exciting and highly productive summer transition project called Space Invaders.

Almost 50 P7s "invaded" their future secondary schools to become familiar with the surroundings and make new friends from other primaries. They created silk hangings, huge masks and face sculptures and devised street theatre as well as staging shows, murder mysteries and making short films.

Mr Bullock was delighted by the vitality of the project as much as the quality of the work. Much of the artwork is now exhibited in the schools, with Braidfield High's first year common room transformed by willow sculptures and painted silk hangings.

This month the groups will be reunited to watch 60 minutes of short films, ranging from the documented ghost story of Dumbarton Academy to a play called Dog Breath.

Mr Bullock runs in-service training sessions on early years drama at Braidfield High. He also takes highly popular after-school drama sessions in the feeder primaries, which he hopes will nourish secondary school groups in the future.

He is creating a musical with the pupils, using it as a way to explore their heritage. "We are asking the youngsters to bring in local stories, myths and tales as there are so few galleries and museums here. Going to Glasgow is impractical, so we are mining their own cultural heritage.

"The musical will be specially designed for use in schools. It will fit the Standard grade music curriculum and the staging will be straightforward," he says. "And hopefully will mean no more reruns of Annie."

Arts and education links officer Eona Craig is delighted by the pilot project. "We wanted to support our strengths in the visual arts and to redress our deficit in drama," she explains. "More than 33 teachers now attend in-service sessions with Mr Bullock, as well as his work in schools."

Before the project began there were two drama teachers - one full time, one part-time - in the whole area, giving each pupil a yearly total of 45 minutes of drama teaching, with theatre companies visiting but no coherent development plan.

"Already we are seeing much higher levels of confidence and linguistic skills in pupils," says Mr Bullock. "It is part of my job to make people more aware of the need for drama, to push boundaries, to show what is possible and what can be done."

Ms Hunter, who shares the visual arts co-ordinator post with Gillian Steel, is an experienced artist whose interests lie in themed projects including painting and printmaking. Ms Steel has skills in digital technologies as well as traditional darkroom photography. Like Mr Bullock, they see their remit as reinforcing the power and importance of the arts in education, showing that specialist teaching is essential.

Ms Hunter also runs in-service sessions for teachers, in sculpture, painting and print-making.

She is working towards an end-performance show at Lomond Shores, involving hat-makers, textile and environmental artists and pupils from the nine primary schools associated with Vale of Leven Academy in Alexandria.

Lorne Cowieson, an accomplished musician, is the fourth cultural co-ordinator, responsible for music and inclusion. His could be the most innovative part of the programme, as a study of how effective the arts are at re-engaging pupils to education.

Mr Cowieson works with intensive therapy groups, young people who are having difficulties with mainstream education and have been taken out of school and those involved with Youth Justice Services. He is based in Skypoint, a community education and social work centre, where he uses percussion and drumming with computer software, recording CDs of the pupils' work for them to take away.

A highlight for his groups was a visit from a Ghanaian master drumming ensemble, Kakatsitsi, which gave workshops in drum-making and playing.

In the six months that the cultural co-ordinators have been in their posts they have already developed and piloted more than 30 creative projects for the primary and secondary schools involved in the project, as well as raising an additional pound;31,000 to invest in arts practices.

Sylvia Dow, head of education and lifelong learning at the Scottish Arts Council, says: "It is clear that West Dunbartonshire has hit on a way of working that is strategically successful, as well as showing practical outcomes of real quality. The beneficiaries are the pupils and teachers and these benefits are the core aims and purposes of the national priorities for education in Scotland."

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