Merseyside magic

Carolyn O'Grady

Liverpool is a city fizzing with bright ideas and schools are in the forefront. Carolyn O'Grady reports

The city is on a high. Last year, Liverpool was chosen as Capital of Culture for 2008; this year, its bid for World Heritage status - based on the waterfront and cultural buildings - was approved by Unesco, the United Nations' education arm. If the city were a person, it would be pinching itself.

After decades of decline, words such as regeneration and revitalisation are on everyone's lips. But what does it mean for education in Liverpool? Will schools see a difference?

The answer, according to Mike Storey, leader of the council and someone who played an important role in driving the Capital of Culture bid, is that many schools already have. "One of the points which won Capital of Culture status for us was our commitment to engage the community," says Mr Storey, who is also head of Plantation primary school in Halewood in neighbouring Knowsley. "If we don't engage our schoolchildren, it (Capital of Culture) will be no good". In particular, he sees the award as "an opportunity to inject creativity back into the current curriculum which has become too narrow and limiting".

Creativity is the buzz-word. This year, the city council announced that more than 80 groups are to benefit from a pound;420,000 creative communities programme which, it is hoped, will trigger a further pound;1.6 million in matched funding. Projects will range from art and photographic exhibitions to producing carnivals, concerts and CDs, and setting up a radio station.

At the end of June, the Friend Ship, Liverpool's Year of Faith flagship project, dropped anchor at St Malachy's Roman Catholic primary school in Toxteth. Year of Faith in One City is the second of eight themed years encapsulating Liverpool's culture; the Friend Ship is touring all primary and special schools.

In the middle of the hall the huge, brightly coloured ship has berthed.

Round it and inside it, Kathy Heywood, project co-ordinator, is leading the children in some exercises designed to give them insights into communication. They speak to each other via big telephone-like implements and practise greetings from other cultures.

The project, designed to promote tolerance and diversity through classroom activities, then moves into the classrooms, with each teacher bearing one of the many "treasure chests", donated by museums, galleries, theatres and other organisations.

A Year 3 class is using materials from Tate Liverpool on the theme of the heart. They are given laminated pictures of hearts with different patterns on them, cut in two in different ways. They have to find the matching halves, looking closely at the patterns and colours. A 3-D heart made of Perspex, another of stone, and a third of clay, are pulled from the chest, and the teacher initiates a discussion on how they are made, focusing on metaphors such as "a heavy heart" and "heart of stone". The children make hearts from mosaic and clay.

Elsewhere, foundation children are confronted by an array of extraordinary instruments supplied by the Liverpool Philharmonic. Indian bells, a lollipop drum, a motor horn, boomwhackers (a set of tubes producing different notes which can either whack or be whacked) and a duck whistle delight the class. Pupils are asked to demonstrate whether they shake, blow, scrape, beat or squeeze their instrument and to investigate ways of communication. Some imitate a rhythm while others communicate sounds backwards and forwards to each other in question and answer form.

Year 6 children have a box from the Liverpool Empire theatre which includes a specially written story about a friendless ghost haunting the theatre.

Using costumes and props, students develop a sequel to the story and act it out.

"The resources are well targeted and teachers have picked up lots of ideas," says deputy head Sue Kerwin. "It's nice to make contact on our home ground rather than to have to go to these organisations. Teachers are more aware of what these creative partners have to offer and will be in touch in the future."

Parallel with this, Creative Partnerships Merseyside is working with the five education authorities it covers, overseeing more than 85 projects involving more than 7,653 children and 125 creative organisations. In June, a four-day festival called Liverpool Creates brought together pupils from across Merseyside as a showcase for creative work in schools.

The approach is holistic. "We begin by looking at the issues that affect learning in a school - for example, is it boys' writing or children not appearing to like a particular subject? - and seek creative solutions," says consultant, Geoff White, sector director for Creative Industries in Merseyside.

One school is collaborating with creative partners to examine its culture and history - to redesign literacy hour. In another school close to special measures, a team of creative partners worked with children on a dramafilm project to engage them and their teachers in thinking about how to improve.

And elsewhere, music-makers are working with underachieving youngsters to raise their confidence and teachers' perceptions of their ability.

Courses on "using creativity to engage learners" are organised for the teachers and creative partners to dispel the idea that "it's about getting kids through the door, when it's really about the curriculum needs of the school," said Lisa McGorrin, creative and special initiatives programmer.

"The idea is to develop long-term, sustainable partnerships with organisations".

Creativity is also being used to confront difficult issues. At Campion high school, a challenging inner-city comprehensive, students working with a dramatist researched the impact of car crime on the local community and created plays around the subject. Funded by a government initiative administered by Capital of Culture, they have also worked with an artist to create a film expressing poetically their view of their neighbourhood. For the first time, the school has introduced an AS-level for which a group of boys are studying in their own time. "Such projects have given them experiences they'd never had before. It's had such a positive effect on them," says the school's advanced skills drama teacher Donna Jones.

Over at New Heys comprehensive in Allerton, Sue Steel, head of geography, knew that she wanted to raise the popularity of her subject. Like many schools, New Heys was experiencing a decline in the number of students choosing to take it. Physical geography raised particular concerns. How do you make topics such as plate tectonics, glaciation, and rock formation sexy? Her answer was a joint geographyscience field trip to Iceland, home of spectacular geological events, for 20 Years 9 and 10 students.

In June, the trip came off thanks to subsidies and support from Creative Partnerships. Pupils explored the volcanic landscape, geysers and glaciers of Iceland and investigated geothermal energy. The expedition was accompanied by a film crew from River Media, a small company specialising in digital media production. Its staff worked with the students to produce an interactive DVD as a resource for the school, and also as a template for other schools who want to make an interactive record of field trips, not only to Iceland.

The DVD uses an unusual mix of genres. Personal experience is placed alongside curriculum information (science and geography) and uses "a style that any PlayStation aficionado will recognise", says Jon Corner, River Media's creative director. In one sequence we see youngsters being thrown around in a four-wheel drive vehicle as they navigate the rocky, roadless terrain; and in another, a student describes how it feels to swim in the sticky geothermally heated water of the Blue Lagoon.

Apart from memorising aspects of geography and science which will stand them in good stead in their A-levels, students are practising drama, presentation, media and communication skills. The DVD raised the status of fieldwork - a crucial educational experience that Ms Steel feels is under threat - in the school, and provided a useful resource which will go on all the school's computers. "It can be a bit of a nightmare searching the web for this sort of information," she says.

Ms Steel recognises that not everyone can go to Iceland and have what one student describes "as the trip of a lifetime", but sees the DVD as enabling other students to experience to some degree an exciting field trip, which may well enthuse them for the work and other trips. The trip did the trick.

Next year she will be teaching two geography sets instead of one.

Further information: Lisa McGorrin, Creative Partnerships, Merseyside, tel: 0151 708 8009; email:

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Carolyn O'Grady

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