Arts activities in schools face continual cutbacks, competing for space in crowded national curriculum timetables and competing for resources from steadily dwindling budgets. But whatever the pressures, schools' appetite for the arts is as huge and healthy as it has ever been - to judge from their response to a new national arts scheme, organised by the Arts Council and funded by the National Lottery.
When the lottery was first launched, its grants could be made to capital projects only, such as buildings, equipment and film production. But the lottery rules were changed in April last year to allow the Arts Council to give money to one-off revenue projects, with particular emphasis on encouraging new work and young people's involvement in the arts.
Thus it was that Arts for Everyone began life in November, a two-tier scheme designed to make awards of between Pounds 500 and Pounds 500,000 to established arts organisations, both professional and amateur, and lesser awards of between Pounds 500 and Pounds 5,000 to small groups who may never have received any kind of funding before.
The first batch of the latter, known as A4E Express, were announced last month. A spokeswoman for the Arts Council described the applications as "quite stunning", and although the Express schemes, she says, were not originally aimed at schools, projects organised by schools, or involving them in conjunction with local arts groups, feature substantially among the award winners.
Given an unexpected opportunity to augment their arts programmes in ways that would be unthinkable within the constraints of the budget, schools have jumped in feet first. Most applied for, and gained, the top figure of Pounds 5, 000 for a bold and imaginative range of ideas from floating a giant fish down the Regent's Canal in London, to writing and videoing children's plays and songs, or furthering the development of young rock groups.
Out of a total of 4,500 applications, 2,026 awards were made. The projects were not judged on their artistic merits - as they must be for the main A4E scheme - but basically, all those who met the criteria, according to the Arts Council, got the money. Although the scheme was intended to be as non-bureaucratic and straightforward for applicants as possible, 1,800 applications had to be sent back because they were incorrectly completed, and a further 600 or so, including bids from pigeon fanciers' associations and judo groups, simply did not qualify. For the second round of A4E Express, the results of which will be announced in July, the Arts Council is sifting through a staggering 7,500 applications. This represents the end of the A4E Express pilot, but it is possible that the scheme may be reintroduced in future.
Successful schools' projects for the Express scheme had to be strictly extra-curricular and independent of schools' core responsibilities. They needed two referees, and support from a sponsor or partner to cover 10 per cent of the cost. They also had to meet at least one of Arts for Everyone's five aims:
Encouraging and developing participation in arts activity Getting more young people actively involved in arts and cultural activities Supporting new work and helping it develop its audience.
Building people's creative potential through training or professional development.
Encouraging new audiences to experience high quality arts activity.
Not quite so easy as it sounds. One of the main tasks for schools in applying was to find ways of extending the arts curriculum in a way that would not land too much extra work on staff, and if possible, get a bit of useful new equipment thrown in at the same time. (Up to 20 per cent of the grant can be spent on overheads and administration, and up to 25 per cent on equipment directly related to the project.)
Drayton Park primary school in north London has succeeded on all counts, winning Pounds 5,000 for a highly stimulating and carefully structured creative writing initiative that will run throughout the school for two terms from this September. In making their application - which headteacher Linda Kiernan says was fairly time consuming - the school had the advantage of an arts consultant, Sharon Plant, on the governing body, to help demystify the process. The idea itself grew out of the school's experience so far of the National Literacy Project, and its own group reading project before that, which, Linda Kiernan says, have brought reading and grammar up to a good level.
"With reading and grammar well established now, we thought it would be nice to have more of a focus on writing," she says.
In the first stage of the project, every child in the school will work on their own piece of creative writing, with support from a team of professional children's writers and illustrators, possibly including Eileen Browne, Michael Rosen and Tony Bradman. Anna Craft, a local author whose book on teaching creativity is published this summer, will be closely involved, and trainee teachers in the area will also be invited to help and observe.
Each class will then select several pieces of writing to develop further in groups, again with advice from the professional team, extending or rewriting the pieces, and planning illustrations and layout. In the third stage, the project will move on to an exploration of publishing, with assistance from an outside specialist and visits to publishing houses. The final goal is to publish a small volume of the children's writing, together with an account of the whole process, aimed at teachers and parents.
"We do have some very imaginative children here, and it would be nice to see their work celebrated outside the school," says Linda Kiernan. Less creative children will be stimulated, she believes, by the group work as well as by the visiting writers, while others may be chiefly fascinated by the production process.
"I'm hoping the project will help me find a more fluid way of developing creativity," says Judith Hindley, deputy head, "so that the less imaginative children do not simply inject something - like more adjectives - into a piece of rather stagnant writing."
The school has backing from a local marketing firm, Stretch the Horizons, and some money from the award will be used to buy a highly-desirable laminator and binder, so that children's work can be well presented.
Across the country, the care and ingenuity that has gone into devising these arts projects is heart-warming. In a deprived area of Dudley, for instance, where families cannot afford the subsidised music lessons offered by the peripatetic music service, let alone private music tuition, Sarah Barton, a primary teacher, has arranged to use the school hall of Bromley primary school for a weekly evening music club for about 20 eight to 16-year-olds.
Depending on the group's interests and needs, the club will explore a range of musical styles, from pop to classical, and some of the award money will be used to buy instruments. The children will work towards a performance, possibly in conjunction with a schools' drama group.
Also on a musical theme, Pound Park nursery school, a state nursery in Greenwich, south London, is planning a "music garden" in the nursery grounds, to be completed by September. The garden will be built over a former eight-foot square sandpit, and include various interactive musical exhibits, such as a wheel with cogs and musical slats which sound as it turns, and a selection of hanging chime bars, bells and drums. There will also be a bridge over the garden, with musical rubberised pads which sound as the children walk across.
"We are very keen on outside play here; rather than just sitting inside tapping on a drum, we wanted the children to experience music outside, physically with their whole bodies," explains Elizabeth Buck, who runs the nursery school.
In Sheffield, primary and secondary school children and other members of the community will join forces in a project organised by the Sheffield Wildlife Action Partnership to design a gateway for the point at which a nature reserve footpath joins a new housing development.
Multimedia is the order of the day for Clifton-on-Teme primary school, near Worcester, in a project involving art, dance, drama and music. The children are to devise performances, some with puppets, on subjects such as friendship and bullying. They will video themselves using new equipment bought with award money and headteacher Debbie Michell hopes that the videos can be distributed to other schools and the health authority.
Projects such as the giant fish add a splash of colour. The brainchild of a group called Art's Desire, this one will involve pupils from three London schools - Westminster Community College, Hawley infants in Camden, and London Fields primary in Hackney - in constructing, over a canal boat, a fish made from recycled materials. The fish, together with some of the pupils, will then process, in carnival fashion, down the Regent's Canal, from Hackney to Westminster. "We hope it will also help children to think about the uses of the canal, to see more of their city, and to notice how the city changes from east to west," says Helen Harrison, at Art's Desire.
Although it is now too late to apply for Express awards, the Arts Council is keen that more schools, or groups of schools, should apply to the main Arts for Everyone scheme. Projects must be extra-curricular and contribute to at least three of the scheme's main aims, and for applications over Pounds 100,000, 15 per cent of the cost must be provided by a backer. Projects might include plans for artists or writers-in-residence, education workshops with art galleries or theatres, or recordings of performances for educational use.
Winners of Express awards can also apply for a larger award as a way of extending their project. This possibility is not lost on staff at Drayton Park School, whose eyes grow steadily rounder as they contemplate perhaps a printing process of their own, one day, feeding material to other teaching institutions. . . . A rare chance, then, for schools to think big and think innovatively - and really, the sky's the limit in a scheme like this one.
Application forms and further advice on A4E from: 0990 100344. Closing dates for A4E applications are June 30 1997, November 28 1997 and March 31 1998