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Learning is an art form

Mitchell Miller reports on a project for youngsters who drop out of education

A book recently published by the eminent critic John Carey asked What Good are the Arts? Professor Carey might have found some of his answers in Dennistoun in Glasgow.

Gallery 37 is an ambitious city-wide project that aims to reach the "lost leavers" who every year drop out from the education system, never to resurface. Its origins lie in Chicago's "Block 37", a scheme that has been successfully transplanted to other UK cities, and started this week in Scotland for the first time.

The project will involve 40 young people in four weeks of intensive arts programmes, funded by a range of interests in vocational training, local authority education departments, social work, Right Track (a west of Scotland training project for disadvantaged young people) and the Social Justice Forum. Gallery 37 prides itself on reaching young people who have previously defied all other attempts to engage them in education or training.

Impact Arts director Susan Aktemel says the arts (everything from visual arts to DJ-ing) offer a neutral, non-threatening and exciting means of inspiring many supposedly "difficult" groups of disaffected young people to seek alternatives.

"With Gallery 37 we are targeting that 19 per cent of school leavers who disappear," she says. "We don't see these young people as difficult - we regard the arts as a useful tool to help them refocus, and hopefully go on to something else."

Impact Arts is handling the Glasgow project, with Capital City Partnership heading up its Edinburgh counterpart. The hope is that this will become a successful annual programme along the lines of Birmingham and Greenwich, and will be extended to children in the difficult transition periods from S3-S4 and S4-S5.

At the end of the four weeks, Gallery 37 will take over Glasgow city centre and its young artists will perform, exhibit and even sell their creations.

This is an integral part of the project. "Being able to sell and exhibit their work, and to have people treat it seriously, really makes the young people feel valued and raises their self-esteem," Ms Aktemel says.

The pilot also aims for more easily measured outcomes. Based on successes elsewhere in the UK, it hopes that 80 per cent of its participants will move on to formal training or return to school after the four weeks. The young artists should leave with a heightened awareness of their capabilities and have taken steps to improve their skills in literacy and numeracy.

Innovative as Gallery 37 is, it is in many respects the culmination of years of work to bring the arts into the classroom, community centre or even the living-room. Since 1994 there has been a great demand for Impact Arts' expertise from schools, community groups and social work departments.

"They come up with some fantastic ideas, things that we might never have thought of," says Anne Wallace Glasgow Museums' education officer, who worked with Impact on an "Other Worlds" project. Working from the collection in St Mungo's Museum of Religious Life and Art, Impact's artists involved children in creating artworks that explored sectarianism and religious belief, based on the collection - often in entirely new and unexpected ways.

Other projects include FabPad, a pound;111,200 lottery-funded project that helps vulnerable and homeless young people adjust to their first tenancies.

It uses interior design to bring out hiddentalents and make grim flats homely and exciting.

Impact Arts has worked witha wide range of people, from Glasgow's Water Safety campaign to its Sense over Sectarianism scheme and a summer arts camp for 5-15. It runs its own artist mentoring programme to ensure that its bank of 40 or so artists are suitably qualified, trained and supported.

"The standard of the artists they employ is very high," says Anne Wallace. "You very much feel the children are in safe hands. Teachers too can develop their skills. Through the consultations with the artists, they could develop their own creative skills".

But the most profound effects are on the children and young people themselves. Susan Aktemel, herself a convert to the potential of arts education, can still recall instances where lives were transformed by a little creativity.

"There was this instance where a boy stopped being bullied because his classmates suddenly discovered he had this amazing talent - it really built his confidence," she says.

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