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Death masks and sibling rivalry;Curriculum

Julie Morrice reports from a specialist arts centre that supports small rural primary schools across the Borders.

The setting would suggest a production of Murder in the Cathedral. We are in the nave of a church. Scant light filters through the stained glass. A group of people gather, intent on the words of a dark-suited figure who talks slowly and persuasively.

In fact this is St Andrew's Arts Centre in Galashiels. The group is a 19-strong Primary 6 class from Burnfoot Community School in Hawick. And the charismatic figure is Nicola Toneri, assistant adviser in arts.

The Scottish Borders Council bought St Andrew's in 1979 and gradually transformed it from a disused church into a wonderfully atmospheric workshop.

Primary school children come from all over the Borders to make large-scale works of art. They play on the impressive variety of glockenspiels, chime bars and African drums with colourful patterns. And they explore their world through creative dance and drama.

Classes come with their teacher for a whole day at St Andrew's. "We can have a concentrated period of activity without bells and interruptions," says Nicola Toneri, who teaches drama. "That's good for the children. But it also gives us a safe, well staffed environment where we can be more ambitious and try out new ideas, which can then be taken out to schools."

St Andrew's is the base for curriculum support staff in the arts, and the staff clearly relish the opportunities for fertilisation across disciplines and straightforward sharing of ideas and techniques.

Probationary primary teachers come here with their classes for an introduction to teaching expressive arts. For more experienced teachers, a visit to the centre is a rare opportunity to stand back and see their class at work.

"We do see sides of children here that teachers don't often see in the classroom," says Mhairi Lafferty, senior support teacher in music. "Staff often say they appreciate the chance of observing their pupils without being up to their neck in teaching."

A day at St Andrew's is tailor-made to the requirements of each class. A few weeks before the session the curriculum support staff visit the school to meet pupils and teachers and discuss what their day of arts will consist of.

At the end of the day at St Andrew's, suggestions are made about how to display artwork, or how to follow up the work done at the centre.

Topics can be chosen to fit in with a class project or a whole-school event, and the range covered is impressive. "This term I've done sibling rivalry, Border Reivers, taxidermists and birds of prey, building a fountain in the desert - the context requires a certain amount of mental dexterity," laughs Toneri.

A class coming to the centre chooses two of the four disciplines and the day weaves in and out of the different areas. One class combined drama and mask-making in a story about apprentices to the maker of Mary Queen of Scots' death mask. "I think some of them did the whole day in role play," Toneri says.

Another class improvised a drama around a group of African people who had survived a terrible drought. The survivors made batiks of figures and images of water to remember and celebrate the villagers who had died.

Whatever the theme, the centre is a tremendous opportunity for pupils to leave their usual selves at the door and step into a new persona, a new set of opportunities and choices. The entrance hall is decorated with a wonderful underwater mural of swirling fish painted by Primary 3 from St Boswells. It is, perhaps, symbolic of the new medium children are entering as they come into the centre.

The art room is the former church hall, a great big studio space lined with rows of drawers marked SOCKS, PASTA, CONES (PLASTIC) and TARTAN. Egg boxes wait to hatch into new life. Reels of wool spill their many colours. Sheaves of paintbrushes stand at the ready. A kiln ticks away in the corner, bringing one class's pottery to perfection.

"When the place was refurbished they wanted to give us a carpet in here," says Diane Mitchell, the assistant adviser in art, looking lovingly at her paint-stained wooden floor. "Then they suggested they varnish the floor, but I said 'No way'. It's fantastic for doing rubbings on."

Above the art room is a small gallery packed with artwork and craft pieces from Border artists. And their growing collection of ethnic artefacts are used as jumping off points for some of the school projects.

Back in the church itself, Nicola Toneri is winding up the drama improvisation with P6 from Burnfoot. Their class teacher is delighted with the day's events. "It's not just the resources here," she says, "but the staff. Our school is in one of the most deprived areas of the Borders. Mhairi and Nicola appreciate the problems that come with the children, and make something positive out of it."

Certainly P6 are enthusiastic, especially about the drama. "I liked the acting," bursts out Thomas. "Getting to shout and argue and everything. It was brilliant." Louise backs him up: "It was just like saying things from off the telly."

Perhaps the only drawback of St Andrew's Arts Centre is its uniqueness. Even with classes coming in four days a week, pupils will be lucky to visit the centre more than once or twice in their school career.

The staff have experimented very successfully with S1 and S2 classes, but they found that timetabling a whole day out from secondary was an insurmountable problem for most schools.

Hope rises in the form of a building development plan the council is due to discuss in the next six months. But more space will require more staff. And in a climate which has just seen the number of curriculum support staff in art reduced from eight to four, that seems a bit like pie in the sky.

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