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Chaos to calm

Diana Hinds reports on how the Art Room has created a refuge for challenging pupils - with a splash of colour and a homely environment. The four Year 10 pupils arriving at the Art Room this morning at Oxford Community School are noisy, edgy, giggly, fractious with one another, just on the edge of behaving badly. They are from the school's inclusion unit and have begun weekly sessions in this special room, next door to the unit, to help them with their challenging behaviour and to find a little bit of calm in themselves.

Today it looks as if Juli Beattie, director of the Art Room, and her staff have their work cut out: will they be able to bring these disparate, troubled individuals into a harmonious group? The four go off to find the chairs they have already started to decorate, donning overalls, finding brushes, stencils, pots of paint.

Within 15 minutes or so, the atmosphere in the room, a cross between a studio and a family kitchen, with large wooden tables, sofas and tea, is transformed. The four have taken up their work, supported by Art Room staff, and are immersed in their painting, talking quietly. Juli puts on some Mozart, and busies herself sorting beads.

One boy is drawing a highly-detailed keyboard and speakers on to the base of his chair. Another is painting his chair legs in gold and maroon. A girl is painting pink and orange flowers on to a chair that she says is to go by her great-granny's grave.

"I like doing art here," she says. "When you do it, you go into your own little world."

Juli, a trained teacher with a love of art and years of experience working with challenging, vulnerable children, set up the Art Room as a charity at Oxford Community School seven years ago.

Its main aim is to provide for children who are creating problems in the classroom and may be on the point of exclusion, because of troubled home lives, specific learning difficulties and mental health issues, and help them become more focused. It works not only with pupils from Oxford Community School, but also from local primary and secondary schools, which make a contribution towards running costs.

"These are chaotic youngsters," says Juli. "This is possibly the only time when there is complete peace in their lives. This is a place where they can be creative with their art and talk about the things that are going on in their lives. We become their family, their social workers, their carers, their teachers: we are a bit of everything."

Key Art Room ingredients are its attractive, homely environment, its high ratio of staff to pupils, shared meals of toast, tea and fruit, intimate conversation, praise, good quality art resources and 3D pieces of work - decorated chairs, mirrors, clocks, trays - to take home.

"The art is a tool," says Jackie Rose, a community artist helping in the Art Room. "It's relaxing to sort through colours, to choose your paint and often it's what they have missed out on in early childhood."

The Art Room has also evolved its own non-confrontational methodology for working with these children. "When the children become challenging, we become passive," Juli says. "We look at each other and become very quiet. It can make the children nervous, because they don't understand it."

The Art Room has received a grant from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), enabling the charity to set up a similar room at a primary school in Nottinghamshire. Next year sees the publication of two books detailing the approach.

Find out more about how the Art Room can be incorporated into other schools at a free symposium taking place at NESTA, London, December 10, 1pm. Pupils and staff will talk about their experiences. To reserve a place, email

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