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Eureka moment

Stephanie Northen sees primary children take part in a week-long music, maths and art project that breaks the shackles of the national curriculum

Sarah Humphreys left primary school barely able to read or write. But she hadn't been wasting her time. She had learned about baboons and the Inuit - and she had learned how to think.

Sarah is now 36 and head of Kettlefields primary, near Newmarket in East Anglia. It is an outstanding school full of confident, articulate children with confident, articulate parents. Sarah does not have to worry about pupils' reading and writing - last year all of them achieved level 4 in all of their key stage 2 tests. But she is not looking for laurels to rest on; she wants to do more.

She cannot quite forget her own early investigative work and thinking skills developed through studying the people of Alaska and the monkeys of Africa. Kettlefields, by contrast, is like "a brilliant stew with no salt in it". The children are "mathematically able, but multiculturally barren", literacy and numeracy hog their curriculum, and music, for example, is dwindling.

Nevertheless, Sarah, a former literacy consultant, supports the Government's drive to raise standards in the basics. She says schools are beginning to reap the benefits, but that teachers must be careful not to allow the literacy and numeracy strategies to stifle children, to close instead of open doors. Without wanting a return to the "woolly" topic work that left her rich in baboons but bereft of the 3Rs, she wants to help her pupils experience a broadening and enriching education.

In many ways Kettlefields is a model school, the kind of place ministers would hold up as a beacon. But Sarah wants to know what staff and children in schools such as hers should aim for when they have achieved government goals. "What happens when all primaries eventually achieve optimum levels of attainment in their tests? We have to stop and think: are we happy or are there gaps in terms of creativity, individuality and expressiveness?

"I want to create an environment where children can make connections, learn about themselves and the world, and think about the bigger questions - the questions that do not necessarily have answers."

Enter Frances Sword, education officer at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. She had some big questions for the 37 nine and 10-year-old Kettlefields pupils she met last month. Questions such as: "Is there a God?" "Do you have a soul?" And "Do rules have a point?" Along with Frances, came mobius, an ensemble of young chamber musicians who brought a harp, flutes, violins, cellos and violas. They also brought a desire to get at least some children in tune with classical music.

School, museum and musicians came together to try to unpick some of the threads that weave together human knowledge in a week-long project called Music Plus Plus, the aim of which was to explore the links and patterns that unite music, maths and Islamic art.

Kathie Neal, the project's organiser, works for the David Urwin Trust, a charity set up to honour a Cambridge town planner who was a modern Renaissance man. An artist, poet and singer, he was magnanimous with his time and held many workshops for children. When he died in 1988 aged 50, his friends wanted to commemorate his life in a way he would have approved of, so they support artistic endeavours - anything from "sallies for bell ropes to tiny ballet shoes for inant ballerinas". This year Kathie invited local schools to bid to take part in the musicmaths art project. For five days the successful children were to be immersed in a world of Persian carpets, classical music and the beauty of mathematics - the last being an idea, says Sarah Humphreys, that is not always easy to impart through the numeracy hour. The project was filmed as a resource for trainee teachers and as an example of the kind of imaginative work that can be done with primary pupils.

For the children the culmination of their week of deep thought was a public performance in the Fitzwilliam Museum of a piece of music they had composed with the help of mobius. For their headteacher, the moments to savour were probably more subtle. She wanted to see pupils who had cracked the code of numeracy and literacy to take their thinking further. She was in search of "Eureka moments", when understanding dawns.

The children visited the Fitzwilliam to look at Persian pottery and a Persian carpet. They studied a painting called "L'Umana Fragilita" by 17th-century artist Salvator Rosa. The brooding image of a skeletal angel touching a baby prompted one child to try to explain the beginning of the world. The others discussed concepts such as belief, and eternity and infinity, sparked off by Frances Sword helping them discover what lay at the centre of the picture - a void.

The carpet and an ornate blue Persian plate drove talk of pattern and symmetry which fed into sessions with mobius on the structure of music. Discussions about the differences and similarities between religions helped the children understand the importance of the number five to Muslims - they pray five times a day; there are five pillars of Islam - which also fed into their music. They composed five melodies consisting of five-note scales, divided themselves into five parts to play the tunes and learned that there are five lines in a stave.

In other sessions they recreated the abstract, geometric patterns of much Islamic art. Using rubber bands and drawing pins they constructed intricate stars and hexagons, first on cardboard then paper. Eventually the designs will be fired on clay tiles. The mathematical patterns they made, inspired by Islamic art, helped in turn to inspire their music. Mobius represented the children's composition in terms of a diamond lying on its side filled with stars and triangles - starting at the left-hand point of the diamond, building to a crescendo across the middle and then fading to silence.

Kettlefields, like most other primary schools, uses the mornings, when children are at their sharpest, concentrating on literacy and numeracy. Everything else is funnelled into the less-productive afternoon sessions - though doing so makes Sarah and her colleagues uneasy. "Our pupils are not really receiving the kind of education we in our ideal moments would want to give them. We want them to grow as people; to be excited by the world, to make connections between art, literature, music, nature, maths, chemistry - all that is around them."

It is some consolation to think that 37 of them just have. That the project left its mark on them in an almost spiritual way is clear from the title they gave their composition, "Look inside you for the big idea".

For details of the CD-Rom of the Music Plus Plus project, produced by Cambridge Film and Television Productions, contact Kathie Neal on 01638 741475.

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