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Let's take in a club

From big nights out to days in the open air, creative approaches to learning are everywhere. Heather Neill reports on a multi-million-pound project that is teaming schools with some unlikely allies

Where did you learn about the absorption of light? Was it a) in a classroom, b) in a lab or c) in a nightclub? How did you acquire orienteering skills? Was it a) on a school journey, b) on a field trip or c) in a nightclub? If you answered c in both cases, you are probably a student at Deansfield high school, in Wolverhampton. And you will know all about Creative Partnerships.

Creative Partnerships is a pound;110 million Arts Council project that aims to encourage creativity across the curriculum by bringing together schools and cultural organisations. Sixteen regions have been taking part in the pilot scheme since 2002.

The national director of CP is Peter Jenkinson, an impish man in a Vivienne Westwood suit, with enormous energy and a prodigious capacity to inspire others. He was previously best known for overseeing the establishment in 2000 of the New Art Gallery Walsall, with its admirable emphasis on involving the whole community, especially the young.

It is typical that Peter Jenkinson's vision statement begins with a quotation from the German-American designer and Bauhaus professor, Josef Albers: "In science one plus one equals two, but in art it can be three."

With such an ambitious initiative there must be risks; there is always the possibility that sometimes one and one will turn out to be less than two.

But the risks are worth taking. The most successful schemes are breathtaking.

Deansfield, one of the 24 participating CP schools in the Black Country, is a shining example. Its project, for which it received pound;15,000 from the pound;750,000 Black Country CP pot, grew directly out of students' interests. When, last September, a group of Year 8s was asked how they would define creativity, they cited fashion, dancing and clubbing. They were amazed to be told that lessons in a local nightclub might be arranged.

The school is lucky to have film-maker Jeremy Brown as a "creative friend". Partnership areas vary in the way they make their links, but the Black Country method of appointing a "broker" as a go-between and imaginative supporter for each school seems to work, particularly if the person is as committed as Jeremy Brown. He already knew the school from a previous project and is paid a day rate from the local CP fund.

Soon the Atlantis nightclub in Wolverhampton - a dark, cavernous place that was once a cinema and is now embellished with sculpted creatures, some with underwater credentials, others elaborately Gothic - was getting day-time visits from Deansfield students.

Headteacher Helen Singh is so positive that the school crackles with excitement even on an ordinary day, so it wasn't long before CP co-ordinators Joanna Manson and Rachel Dickens, who teach science and music respectively, were holding CP meetings with staff from all disciplines.

Eventually the whole school was involved with the project and working towards an unforgettable day, May 21, when Deansfield would take over Atlantis, putting on shows, operating the sound and lighting systems, running the cafe (French only to be spoken) and managing the crowds for an alcohol-free evening.

Between 800 and 900 turned up, from Year 7s to parents and school governors. The Deansfield bouncers frisked everyone (including local councillors) and insisted on the same rules as the owners, First Leisure.

So - no trainers. Three young punters who had forgotten rushed for the bus to go home and find acceptable footwear. The dance shows (prepared with the help of professionals) were a great success. The geography department ran an orienteering competition and the "French bistro" coped with enormous queues for baguettes and frites.

Less obvious curriculum work went on for some time before the big night, with students producing creative writing stimulated by the club's strange imagery, learning about the properties of light and how to programme lighting on computers, and making statistical records of drink sales.

All this and Snog too. A group of Year 11 students worked with the local Community Safety Partnership, health advisers and Atlantis staff to produce a pocket Safe Night Out Guide, giving advice on health and safety, drugs awareness and the role of the police. The guide has been so successful that there is talk of wider distribution. It also met requirements in citizenship, creative writing, ICT and design.

The Deansfield project is exemplary: building relationships in the community, bringing students and artists together and raising aspirations.

After dance and DJ-ing, architecture, town planning and community development are next on the list; as part of a CP "bolt-on" project, Jeremy Brown wants to involve Deansfield in the development of a brownfield site near the school.

A few miles away, at Leighswood primary school, in Walsall, staff and pupils have been working with visiting artists on a project called Inside Out. The idea is to take what happens in school outside to the extensive grounds and into the local community. With the help of actorstoryteller Peter Wynne-Wilson, Year 4 children considered the story of Peter Pan and how it had begun with J M Barrie's experience of Kensington Gardens. They made maps of the school grounds and thought about how to make them fun to play in.

Headteacher Jan Taylor, deputy head Dawn King and CP co-ordinator Lyndsey Doige wanted the newly designed areas to be exciting enough to stimulate creative work, especially writing. A sleeping giant (for climbing on) has already appeared and a willow dome (where pupils can sit quietly and tell stories), a maze and a bridge are all taking shape.

Leighswood's creative friend is Alison Haynes, who, as well as Peter Wynne-Wilson, has brought in Claire Whitcomb, a sculptor and potter who has worked in ceramics and encouraged the design of the paving stones of the maze, and Andy Cook, who works in willow and has demonstrated the ancient craft of bending branches into beautiful shapes which will soon be covered in leaves.

CP projects elsewhere include everything from Chinese New Year celebrations in Cornwall to writing a song cycle with the Welsh National Opera in Bristol; from "Music and Murals" in Birmingham to east London schools organising an event in Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery and other nearby institutions, such as the British Council and St Martin-in-the-Fields church.

Kent CP was launched in spectacular manner in February, when secondary school students travelled to France via the Channel Tunnel while listening on earphones to a CD they had produced in collaboration with the composer and sound artist, Robert Jarvis. The atmospheric sound installation Europhonix, designed to last the length of the crossing to France, took the theme of "Home, Journeys and Away". Listening to it blindfold, travelling beneath the sea without obvious movement, was, for those of us there that day, an extraordinary experience. Robert Jarvis's detailed account of the growth of the piece should enable others to benefit too.

The very strengths of Creative Partnerships - being flexible enough to answer the needs of children in different geographical areas, a determination to go further than one-off projects and set up long-term relationships between schools and with artists, to stimulate debate about creativity across the curriculum - can make it difficult to get to grips with.

There are specific problems. What, for instance, about other regions that would like to be involved? Or the keen teacher or department without a supportive head? Or the artists who have something to offer but don't know how to make their skills available? Aren't those most in need going to be the ones who know least about the opportunities? And is it possible to assess such projects satisfactorily? Serious attempts are being made to answer these questions. The National Foundation for Educational Research has embarked on a monitoring project, while some CPs have a local university as a research partner. There is also a website that answers frequently asked questions about the initiative.

Professor Ken Robinson, newly knighted and a former professor of education at Warwick University, now travels the world advocating creativity in schools. He says he knows of no other scheme like Creative Partnerships.

Already 101 secondary and 220 primary schools are involved as well as special needs and specialist schools. At last the Government seems to be investing without over-prescribing - although the sums involved are small in comparison with the education budget.

Peter Jenkinson admits there is a long way to go and that "there will never be enough money to reach every school, even every school in existing partnership areas", but he is optimistic. "Increasingly schools are working in clusters, so I hope for a more collegiate, less competitive approach in future," he says.

He meets all the creative directors regularly as a group and will soon begin the process of appointing 20 more by 2004. It is crucial that they disseminate what is being achieved by outstandingly creative and innovative schools. As the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, says on the CP website: "Creativity isn't an add-on. It must form a vital and integral part of every child's experience."


* Creative Partnerships is a result of report produced four years ago by the national advisory committee on creative and cultural education - whose members included comedians Lenny Henry and Dawn French and chemist Harry Kroto as well as leading businessmen and was chaired by the ultimate innovator in arts education, Professor Ken Robinson. The document aimed to encourage creativity throughout the curriculum, rather than treating the arts as a bolt-on extra.

* The Arts Council has spent pound;40 million - with some money from the Department for Education and Skills - on the pilot scheme, which runs until 2004. And this month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport awarded the council another pound;70 million to create 20 more partnerships by 2006.

* Each region has a director, who may have a teaching background or come from a university or arts organisation - in the Black Country it is Nicky Boden, previously education officer at the New Art Gallery - and is responsible for 25 schools. The schools bid for cash by putting together plans that must show a willingness to forge relationships with other schools and the community. Each creative director has a pot of pound;750,000. Schools that win funding can spend it all on a major project or set up two or three smaller ones.

The 16 pilot areas

Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham, Birmingham, Bristol, Cornwall, DurhamSunderland, Inner London East, Inner London South, Kent, Kingston-upon-Hull, ManchesterSalford, Merseyside, Norfolk, Nottingham, Slough, Tees Valley, The Black Country.

There are 170,000 children in Creative Partnerships schools - covering primary, secondary, special needs, specialist and hospital schools.

Areas joining by 2006

Basildon, Derby, Enfield, Haringey and Waltham Forest, Northsouth Tyneside, Cumbria, Southampton Isle of Wight, Plymouth, Coventry, Bradford, Tendring and Haven Gateway, Thurrock, Ashfield, Bolsover, Mansfield, North and south Northumberland, East Lancashire, Hastings and East Sussex, Stoke on Trent, Sheffield and two areas yet to be confirmed.

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