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Brushing away a shabby image

A commitment to the arts can lift both primary and secondary pupils' performances, as Diana Hinds reports

When you first arrive at Kentish Town Primary in north London, it is immediately obvious that this is a school that cares about how things look. There are murals in the playground and a series of exquisite mosaics, all done by the pupils on one wall. The entrance hall is bright and welcoming with books and cushions, and children's paintings, carefully mounted. And the headteacher's office is a treasure trove of colour, art and foliage.

But you do not need to be here long to understand the convictions that underlie such attractive surroundings: that if you have high expectations and encourage children to find, through the arts, different ways of expressing themselves, then they can all succeed at something, gain in confidence and take pride in their work, in their school, in themselves.

Kentish Town makes it look easy. But what does a commitment to the arts demand in terms of staff and funding? Is there enough time, with the curriculum already so packed? And how can you be certain that music, art or drama is really helping your pupils?

Next week, Kate Frood, Kentish Town's headteacher, will be one of a group of teachers and arts advisers attempting to answer these questions at a one-day conference at the Institute of Education in London.

"When I got here seven years ago as deputy head, I felt that the school reflected the area," says Ms Frood. "Visually it was bleak and unimaginative: it was not alive."

She set about galvanising the school's work in the arts, and in 1993 was appointed head. The 300-pupil school has traditionally served a white working-class estate, but is now attracting a wider mix of pupils.

"Everything we send out of school now has to look good. Our weekly newsletter, for instance, has border designs which the children do at playtimes. I won't have any litter or peeling paper in the school: I'm a real stickler for detail, because I believe attention to detail creates quality."

Art has become central to the school's life. At the beginning of each term every class contributes pictures on a chosen theme for a huge display - or "gallery", as Ms Frood calls it - in the school hall; pupils and parents pore over the exhibits. To have your work chosen is a source of great pride.

Classroom artwork has also been greatly boosted by professional artists coming in for week-long residencies several times a year to help the children produce paintings, mosaics, sculpture, metalwork and screen-prints.

"The children love working with experts and really respect them," says Ms Frood. "It gives teachers more confidence, too, as well as the pleasure of seeing what the children can produce."

Sometimes a big project with a visiting artist means suspending the rest of the curriculum for a week. But the school believes it is worth it - and national test results are well above average for Camden. "There is pressure to fit everything in, but we find if you give children more time to work on a picture, they get much more out of it in the end," Ms Frood says.

Even the youngest children rarely finish a picture in one sitting: Jayne Purdom, infant teacher and the school's new art co-ordinator, hangs their work on a classroom "washing line" for them to go back to.

Money for these residencies - Pounds 3,000 a year - is squeezed out of the school budget. For other projects, like the playground murals, Ms Frood has sought small grants and found that arts organisations are often willing to "match-fund" if you can raise a bit of money yourself.

About 50 children at Kentish Town are involved in an after-school drama group, and all get the chance to learn the recorder at seven. They can also learn piano, guitar or violin at school; one parent offers free brass tuition; Dot Fraser, the part-time music co-ordinator, runs an orchestra.

With the pressures of national tests, Ms Frood says, maths and English may have become the only ways of succeeding at some schools. "But in order to give all children self-esteem, you need to have lots of ways of succeeding. It helps them with everything they do. If I walk into a classroom and say to a troubled boy. 'I did like that picture of yours', you can bet your bottom dollar he will write more than he would have done otherwise."

Opportunities in the arts, she is convinced, help to extend the brightest pupils, and to bring out the less able. Rosemary Rice, who has taught at Kentish Town for 29 years, agrees: "For inner city children from difficult backgrounds, art is a way of working out their moods and feelings. It has a calming effect on them: they'll sit and talk to you, or to each other, while they paint; it's relaxing, and they unfold."

Drama, too, is hugely important, she says. "If they are acting a role, they feel they can speak in a quite different way. They then come into the classroom with more confidence, better able to face disputes and find ways around them."

Mrs Rice believes that the value now placed on the arts, and the emphasis on making the school a pleasing environment, have made the school a calmer and more ordered place than it was when she first came.

Crucially, it has also become a challenging place. As Ms Frood says: "I believe we have to take children to the edge and then push them off - on their own. We have to show them they can do it."

In similar vein, "sticking your head above the parapet" is the title of the contribution Rhyn Park School in Shropshire will make to the conference.

Six years ago, there were no heads above the parapet. An 11-to-16 comprehensive in the ex-mining village of St Martins, near Oswestry, Rhyn Park's 520-odd pupils are drawn from a rural area where there is relatively little going on: many of its pupils arrive at the school with poor literacy skills and low expectations.

But there has been a transformation. In 1990, only 16 per cent of GCSE candidates were gaining five or more A to C grades; in 1994 this had leapt dramatically to 59 per cent, dropping back only slightly last year to 51 per cent.

Janet Warwick, Rhyn Park's head, has a background in English and drama, and a passionate commitment to the arts: her gut feeling, she says, is that this improvement in performance owes much to the school's drive to strengthen the arts, as part of a broader campaign to raise expectations.

As at Kentish Town, the belief at Rhyn Park is that the arts give all pupils - and especially the academically less able - the chance to do well at something, to express themselves and to gain in self-esteem.

"Arts is an area where success is very tangible - a part in a play, a picture framed on the wall," Mrs Warwick says. "There is also a sense, for the pupils, that so much depends on their own input."

Fourteen-year-old Lisa Williams says she likes drama best "because it teaches you not to be shy and to have more confidence". Zoe Boit, 14 who is busy designing a chair from cardboard, likes art "because it's up to you; the teacher lets you do your own ideas".

When Mrs Warwick joined the school 12 years ago, she found an interest in art, and a certain amount of brass-playing - a local tradition - but the general approach was narrow. With the support of Shropshire education authority, she introduced drama, making it a GCSE subject (not offered in all schools) in 1989.

In 1992, with a government grant to improve technology, she found money in the school budget to improve the arts facilities too, reallocating and reorganising existing space. The school began to look like a place that pupils wanted to belong to, with attractive fabrics, bright working areas, and pupils' own art work mounted around the school.

In the same year, and with support from the Oswestry Arts Development Group, Rhyn Park began to run a modest programme of arts events for the local community. Professional theatre companies gave several performances a year in the school hall - which is now well on its way to being "Rhyn Park Arts Centre", with raked seating, sophisticated lighting and a cafe-gallery area, where pupils' work can be displayed. If the school succeeds with its National Lottery bid, all this could be in place next year.

Pupils already benefit from occasional workshops with visiting actors, as well as having the chance to attend performances with their families. "Having professionals in from outside helps them take it more seriously," says Rob Goss, deputy head who teaches drama. "For staff, too, it acts as a fresh stimulus."

Staff, Mrs Warwick believes, are the key to improvement - and a new arts team has been appointed in the past four years. "I felt it was important to have staff who are not only very committed to the arts, but to extra-curricular activities, too." Richard Jones, for instance, head of drama, runs a youth drama group one night a week, for 13 to 19-year-olds in the area, including ex-pupils, and last Christmas put on a highly-successful pantomime at the Miners' Institute in St Martins. This term he is doing three after-school rehearsals a week for the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Like drama, music has much to teach pupils about working as a team, and under Tim Jones, is now flourishing at Rhyn Park. The school choir performs and competes locally, as well as performing abroad; there is a youth choir for 14 to 19-year-olds, a Year 7 choir to encourage new pupils, especially boys, and a band. Shropshire still runs a peripatetic music service, and about a quarter of pupils are learning an instrument.

"Opportunities in the arts are just as important here as opportunities in science or in sport," Mrs Warwick says. All GCSE pupils take one or two arts subjects - music, art or drama. Fifty out of 110 pupils are currently doing GCSE drama, 70 art, and 15 music.

While they may be taking one of these instead of a second language, or second humanities subject - more common at other schools - Rhyn Park staff are adamant that nothing important is being sacrificed.

"I think we deliver the arts curriculum in less time than some schools might - two hours a week, instead of two-and-a-half or three," says Sue Lovecy, head of creative arts and a former furnishings designer.

"We also have a strong commitment to arts homework, or additional study. All my pupils have sketchbooks, and I encourage them to be an artist outside school as well as in."

Rob Goss says the key is to give pupils a belief in what can be done, more confidence, and encourage a bit more risk-taking. "At Rhyn Park, the creativity was always there: it just hadn't been tapped."

Improvement Through The Arts, March 21, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC. Tel: 0171-612 6344

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