St Malachy's, a Roman Catholic junior, mixed infants school in Liverpool hit the headlines last summer as the first school in the city to fail its OFSTED inspection. The staff, many new to the school, are now labouring under a rigorous action plan to improve standards before the second inspection.
Acting head Judith Thomas, a senior inspector seconded from the local authority, has introduced an art project for Year 6 children run in partnership with the Department of Education at Liverpool University. "I was looking for some sort of enrichment, something exciting to hearten the school", she explains, "but something that would also feed intellectually into other areas of the curriculum, particularly English."
For the 31 Year 6 children taking part, the aim was to extend speaking, listening and writing skills and to help equip them for secondary school with much-needed control and learning strategies.
The school, with 260 pupils, occupies a large Victorian building in the Dingle, on the fringe of the centre and adjacent to the river. Although the fabric of the building is good, the environment is poor. Many of the children come from deprived and dysfunctional families. The OFSTED failure dealt a double blow to children who already had the odds stacked against them.
Jean Gilbert, lecturer in education at Liverpool University, saw the project as a chance to reveal children's intelligence and skills that were not being articulated in other areas of the curriculum. She believes that every child can be educated in art, which becomes, therefore, an important vehicle for intellectual development.
So she teaches modern art concepts, explaining the history of realism, fauvism, expressionism, cubism and minimalism. She shows paintings and sculpture by artists and discusses the cultures that have influenced them, for example African masks. This pluralism of ideas helps children move from a fixed (and often impoverished) representation of art, to a rich variety of analysis.
"All modern art is conceptual." says Gilbert, "When children are given the opportunity to discuss these abstract ideas they love it. It informs their own work; children love 'making' new ideas".
Judith Thomas attests to the knock-on effects of this approach, the enormous strides they have made in language and the way their understanding of concepts permeated other subjects such as maths and science."
Three hours are set aside for art, one day a week. The project began with the study of portraiture, in preparation for a later trip to The Tate Gallery Liverpool. They painted a portrait of their priest, casting a familiar figure in an unfamiliar context. But before they were allowed to wield a paintbrush, much preparatory work was done.
Great emphasis is placed on observational drawing. Before their visit to The Tate, the children undertook figure drawing tasks: "take the line for a walk"; "draw a moving figure", and even those who had insisted they could not draw turned out complex, confident drawings by the end of the day.
"I have learned a lot about art," said Emma. "We did fast drawings of Miss Gilbert in different positions. On the charcoal pictures we had to look very carefully at the person, especially the directions the hair went and the shape the face was. With the charcoal we could do all different shades of black. "
"There is a need to create searching, risk-taking attitudes that help dispel the climate and language of failure and fear." says Gilbert.
The priest paintings went straight on to 6' x 4' card, donated by a local supplier. Paintbrushes which Jean Gilbert had bought at Woolworth's were big housepainting brushes. The scale initially frightened some of the children so much so, one boy developed a stomach ache, then a pain in his leg. After some careful encouragement, he painted a wonderfully-composed back view of the priest. When he had finished he declared "I could get money for this."
Judith Thomas was moved and impressed by the results. "The wonderful thing about the project is seeing the vulnerability of the children when faced with these enormous pieces of blank paper, and how they overcome their fear. "
Gilbert is keen to develop children's spoken language into the written word. They learn to annotate their drawings and write reviews of work completed in their customised sketchbooks. "The sketchbooks are brilliant research tools. " she says. "While they slow down the number of finished pieces, they capture the fascinating learning processes and investigations that inform their work. "
The sketchbooks provide firm evidence of each child's development. One boy could barely write, yet his drawings were as confident and highly articulated as those of the bright children. "They are excellent assessment tools", adds Gilbert.
The latter stage of the project concerns the environment. One task involved half the class drawing the interior of the church attached to the school, and half around the school drawing views from windows. This entailed working alone or in pairs without supervision, allowing them an exciting measure of independence. The church, a hushed, awe-inspiring environment especially for Catholic children, yielded intelligent drawings of statues, stained glass windows and altars. Again, children who had declared they couldn't draw revealed excellent composition, spatial awareness and mastery of line.
They later developed these large drawings into expressionistic, as opposed to realistic, paintings. "Miss, is purple okay for the sky?" "Miss, is pink okay for the clouds?" confirmed that they had understood the concept.
Their class teacher reports an improvement in behaviour and intellectual development. It has also helped her to assess development in art. Other teachers noted the improvement in the school's environment. Children showed respect for the new paintings now decorating the walls: no grubby finger marks or corners ripped off.
The project has been designed around a visit to The Tate. Here the children will work with the education staff at the gallery, who are keen to address the problem of unaccompanied children in art galleries. One possibility is a special pass for children who show themselves to be responsible visitors.
"Liverpool is rich in arts provision", says Gilbert. "There are many art educators in the city who understand that the arts are not the preserve of a talented few, nor of the middle classes. We should be employing the arts to address and reverse the alienation and underachievement rife in all our city schools."
A conference, Improvement Through the Arts, will be held at the Institute of Education, University of London, on March 21. For information, contact Jo Kerr on 0171 612 6347