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If it's art it must be venice

When a teacher in the north-east wanted to give her GCSE art class a treat, she decided to take them to Italy. For the day. Elaine Williams reports on how budget air travel and an inspired mind combined to give one group of girls an unforgettable experience before the exam season begins

Sixteen-year-old Vickie Handy looks more than usually pale in the stark lights of Teesside airport. "It feels," she says, "as if I've just been in a dream." A dream of light and water and colour; a dream of masked people walking the streets in baroque costume; a dream of faded palaces rising through the mists of the lagoon, a heady mix of Gothic and Byzantine; a dream of rainbow-coloured peace flags hanging from ornate, delicate windows. Venice. She has been there, just for the day.

The idea of a day trip to Venice appealed to Susan Coles, Vickie's art teacher, when she spotted it in a travel brochure. She noticed in the glossy blurb that a day-return ticket was becoming popular as a birthday or anniversary gift. Why not treat the devotees of her art club, the dedicated girls who had pursued art with a passion since they were in Year 8 and were now in their final year? Why not have a final hurrah before the start of their GCSEs? Why not give them a day out they'd never forget?

It was the craziness of being there and back in a twinkling that was most enticing. It was the vision of being able to take pupils from Biddick school, an 11-16 secondary in Washington, Sunderland, to a place as different from their home town as can be imagined, and within a single day.

In fact, Susan Coles worked out that if all went to timetable, it would take less time to get to Venice than it would to go to London.

So as we walk back through security and the night-time coolness of Teesside, from where we'd set off in fog and damp just 15 short hours earlier, it seems hardly credible that we have stood in sparkling sunshine on the Academie Bridge overlooking Venice's Grand Canal; that we have stood gaping before the Pala d'Oro, the 14th-century golden altarpiece in the Basilica di San Marco, its massive rubies and sapphires compared by one pupil to those "big 20p rings we used to get with comics". Difficult to believe they were the real thing.

Did we really stand on the balcony of Peggy Guggenheim's house, now home to a collection of modern art, and watch Venetian shipping ploughing up and down the waterways? Did we really walk among the Queen of Hearts and other exotically attired revellers, masked and trussed in a multitude of silks and wigs and gauze, in the fantastical parade of the Venice Carnival. Anna Young, 16, speaks for all when she says: "It's weird having been somewhere so different, like nowhere you've been before, but only for the day."

As the dream comes to an end at Marco Polo airport around 6.30pm, the girls are already planning their return trip. And that, says Susan Coles, is the purpose of the exercise. In the middle of a busy year, she wanted to give her students an unforgettable experience that would fire them through the taxing months ahead and on to college and sixth form.

Susan Coles, 50, has been head of art at Biddick for 23 years and is now an advanced skills teacher. Taking pupils out on museum and gallery visits, seeing art in the raw, has always been central to her teaching practice.

She and her pupils are regular visitors to local and regional galleries, and her art club travels to London, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where they draw and gather art memorabilia for projects back in school. She runs art clubs three nights a week for around 80 pupils, one for Year 8, one for Year 9 and a third for Years 10 and 11. "There are no bells, they don't have to be there and neither do I," she says. "We are there because we want to be and the atmosphere is great."

The five pupils she took to Venice are dedicated to the art club. Four of them took GCSE art and design a year early and gained A*s. Laura Bennett, 16, is taking a further GCSE this year in graphics, as is Katy Wood, 15.

Vickie, 16, is taking graphics as well as fine art, Charlotte Braunagel, 16 is taking graphics along with photography. Mrs Coles says: "Charlotte has never studied photography and I've never taught it, so we are writing the course between us." As Mrs Coles has never formally learned graphics herself, she is also taking that GCSE with her pupils. That is her style: let's do this together.

The idea of a trip to Venice came from her own experience a year ago, when she spent a week there as an artist on a scheme organised by the Association of Art Advisers and Inspectors of Art and Design to give busy art teachers a chance to reinvigorate their own practice (see Get a life, Friday magazine, January 17). She spent her time wandering the city, attracted by off-tourist areas such as the Jewish quarter, recording the anti-American graffiti everywhere, drawing and taking photos of buildings she chanced across, bewitched by the ornate but decaying masonry. "I kept saying to myself every time I discovered something else, 'I must bring my kids here'. I wanted those girls who have worked so hard to enjoy what I had enjoyed."

She secured a grant from the Excellence in Cities gifted and talented fund to subsidise the cost of the pound;160 tickets. The girls paid pound;110 each, about the same as a standard train ticket to King's Cross from Newcastle.

The trip lived up to everyone's expectations. When the girls had recovered from the shock of the sheer style and beauty of Italian policemen, security officers and boat attendants; when they had accustomed themselves to the rainbow-coloured peace flags with anti-war slogans hanging everywhere, and to the strapping men dressed in baroque female costume thronging St Mark's Square for the Venice carnival; after they had ogled all the designer shops and had their faces painted in a delicate silver laceI when they had taken all this in, they settled down to enjoy the exuberant work of art which is this city - every street, every corner, doorway, window a visual feast - "a tidal wave of beauty and culture", as Susan Coles describes it.

The sketchbooks and digital cameras were in constant use gathering material for projects back home. "I think I've photographed every street," says Laura. Tired as they were, the girls worked in their sketchbooks for the entire journey home. Vickie says: "There's just so much you can see in a place like this in a day. It overwhelms you. But you can come back. I would like to live here. Everybody is an artist in Venice."

Only a week before the trip the girls travelled to the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland football club, to receive City of Sunderland Young Achievers awards for their work in art. Susan Coles had applied for New Opportunities Funding for out-of-school activities to pay the greater cost of the Venice trip, but was told it did not constitute value for money. She disputes this vehemently. "It comes on top of all the other trips we do and is a sign of encouragement to other pupils of what can be achieved through art. I am confident that every one of these girls will come back to Venice."

Then why only for a day? "There are minimum health and safety checks, minimum bureaucracy around risk assessment, no luggage, no hotels. You can just get on with it and concentrate on the task in hand."

Susan Coles took her pupils away with Transun. For information, tel: 0870 4444 747;

Pizza, piazzas and palazzos

5.30am Leave Washington in two cars for Teesside airport.

6.30 Arrive at terminal having parked cars 100 yards from the entrance.

6.30-7.50 Everyone drinks coffee, discusses what they might do for the day, and soothes Vickie, who has never flown before. Girls spray themselves copiously with perfume from airport shop.

7.50 Take off. The aeroplane is full of awayday passengers, organised by Transun, mostly over 50. Although Transun offers a guided tour for part of the day, the girls make a mental note not to get stuck with the "Bettys".

11.05 (Italian time) Arrive at Marco Polo airport, Venice. Take a five-minute walk to the water bus to St Mark's Square. Girls overcome by the pose of a water bus attendant in shades and leathers.

11.30 Depart in water bus for 45-minute journey across the lido. On a sparkling day we journey past the island of Murano, home of the glassmakers, wonder at the peace flags flying from windows everywhere. We approach the Piazza San Marco with wonderful vistas of the city, its basilica and campanali coming slowly into focus.

12.15pm Arrive Piazza San Marco. Girls' eyes light upon knick-knack stalls on the waterfront. Susan Coles restrains them from buying jester's hats. We walk past the Palazzo Ducale, its exquisite Gothic facade hidden behind renovation screens, and the Bridge of Sighs. Susan Coles points out the sculptures high up on the buildings. Stop and gawp every time we see a carnival reveller. Girls particularly taken with a dog in trousers and a group of Italian policemen on standby.

12.45 Arrive at the Basilica. Take a unanimous vote to break away from the official Transun tour. Wander into the Basilica (no queues), gobsmacked by intricacy and structure of the mosaics and the size of gems on the Pala d'Oro altarpiece.

1.30 Anna, Vickie and Charlotte stop for face painting in the Piazza before heading off towards the Guggenheim museum. Pay homage at Gucci and other designer shops.

2.00 Stop for lunch by the Academie Bridge. Buy slices of pizza and sit on the steps of a tiny bridge over a narrow canal for a picnic. Girls discomfited by the disapproving stares of Italians at their eating on the street.

3.00 Stand looking over the Grand Canal from the bridge, which is teeming with people in carnival costume. Charlotte is particularly taken with a woman dressed as the Queen of Hearts and photographs her for a GCSE project on illusion.

3.15 Arrive at the Guggenheim and view the Klees and Kandinskys that pupils have been studying at school. Girls fascinated by Peggy Guggenheim's life and opulent Venetian lifestyle, and her many artist lovers.

4.30 Leave the Guggenheim and spend the remaining time wandering the streets making notes, sketching and taking photos. Anna pursues the theme of masks, Vickie is taken with a flower shop down one of the many tiny lanes. Girls buy mask souvenirs. On the return to the San Marco waterfront and the water bus stop, Susan Coles encounters an American on a lone peace demo dressed in clownish fatigues. They concur in their negative opinions of Tony Blair and George Bush. Running out of time and pupils are scattered around Piazza San Marco taking a final look at the gathering carnival crowds. Make a dash for the waterbus.

5.45 Waterbus back to Marco Polo airport, a glorious journey with sunset over Venice.

6.30 Arrive airport, hit the shops.

7.50 Depart for Teesside. Girls work in their sketchbooks on the plane and worry about having to get up for school the next day. But they've got art, so they'll have to be there.

9pm Arrive home.

10pm Anna manages to get her photographs on CD-Rom for the morning lesson.

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