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Better life through a lens

Photography can give all students a sense of autonomy and creative achievement. Kate Graham reports

Terry Moore's typical student may frighten many. "When John arrived he was a typical one," Terry explains, "Hood up, no eye contact, very aggressive."

As head of service at the EOTAS (education other than at school) network in Redcar, Cleveland, Terry has taught the spectrum of students "failing" in conventional education: the excluded, those at serious risk of exclusion, pregnant pupils and school phobics. But although they travel widely different paths, these young people all arrive at Terry's door with one vital thing in common. "They have no self-esteem," he explains. "They are people who have only been told that they are a failure in life".

Over in Richard Aldworth School, Basingstoke, art teacher and exclusion officer Kate Watkins identifies and works with a group of key stage 3 boys at risk of exclusion.

Her job is a challenging one, according to headteacher Julie Churcher.

"They are kinesthetic learners," she says. "They won't sit down and write essays for you. They like doing, being active, not sitting at a desk for long periods of time."

What unites these two quite disparate education facilities is their artistic approach to pupil disaffection. A world away from the tickbox mentality of the national curriculum, photography has reintroduced ambition and drive in the classroom, rapidly built confidence among the students, and increased educational achievement.

When Terry Moore used local initiative funding to set up a photography project in 2002, the student response was immediate. "You'd suddenly given them an open licence to express themselves in any way they saw fit," he says. He realised the artistic endeavour freed the young people from failure. "Suddenly there was no way, no matter what they did with the camera, that they could fail," he says.

Kate Watkins, for her part, has always believed that freedom from failure is a key benefit in art-focused learning. "It doesn't involve a great deal of reading and writing," she says. "So you enable pupils to express their opinions in a fresh way." The immediacy of digital cameras allows her to teach a great deal in a short space of time. "These boys don't have much of a concentration span for sitting still, but with photography you can do a huge amount in 50 minutes, the length of a typical lesson." Advanced digital technology also reintroduces ambition into her classroom: "I stress to them that they are doing work I normally do with A-level students. They are so proud to be doing something ahead of their year."

The sense of responsibility that so often accompanies independent work was not lost on Terry Moore. "Nobody in this area would normally let a kid like that take a pound;300 camera and get into the darkroom," he says. "There was an immediate response from the students: you trusted them." With this trust came a renewed relationship with the wider educational environment.

"It's a commonly held belief that children feel disaffected or disengaged because they don't feel they belong to the school," Kate Watkins explains.

"These projects are about giving them a sense of ownership, that they are a valuable part of the school and have something to contribute."

With their increased confidence, both facilities entered the Imagine DNA photographic competition, devised by the Wellcome Trust and BBCi Science to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. In August 2003, EOTAS won a prize for "Life in the primordial pool", while Richard Aldworth School won it for a witty comment on cloning (above).

Their success has delighted but not surprised the Wellcome Trust, which strives to facilitate the exploration of scientific knowledge within all sections of the community.

"So often people define themselves by what they are 'good' or 'bad' at," organiser Rachel Hillman explains. "But photography is such a neutral medium, anyone can pick up a camera and be a success."

And it is that very success that has turned students' attitudes around. For Terry's 16-year-old student John, winning the externally judged competition was the spur he needed. "Now he's wearing a suit, on a college course, dead proud of himself, and so are his family, because everyone had written him off."

So for once, it's the winning, as much as the taking part, that matters. In her speech to the winners, Estelle Morris said: "A lot of these kids have not succeeded in the mainstream curriculum. I think it's great that these groups of youngsters have experienced success through it." Or, as Terry Moore puts it, "Public recognition for these young people is so rare. The experience of winning will stay with them forever."

= l To view images and details of the winners of the Imagine DNA photographic exhibition go to:

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