When Neil Hunter, head of Blatchington Mill school in Hove, Sussex, first floated the idea that the school might apply for performing arts status, he was not quite prepared for the response. "I had parents coming up to me saying 'I want my daughter to become a doctor. Does this mean we should change schools?'" That was a few years ago and he has not only assuaged fears of parents and staff alike but managed to create a school that other parents are clamouring to get their children into. He has also managed, with the help of two colleagues, to fill out more applications than most people get through in a lifetime and "find" pound;100,000 in private sponsorship, a figure matched by the Department for Education and Employment. This is the standard arrangement for the colleges, of which there are only 38 so far in the country.
These are still early days - its new status only came in September - but Blatchington Mill School, Performing Arts College and Sixth-Form Centre as it is now ponderously known, is determined to give artistic opportunities not only to its own 1,700 pupils but to local schools as well.
Along with the commitment to plough energy and resources into music, dance and drama, part of the package of getting specialist college status from the DFEE is sharing the wealth. At least a quarter of the funding raised and received over the four-year period of its first phase has to be earmarked for community projects. To this end, Blatchington Mill has established close links with eight feeder primaries, a Fresh Start comprehensive and a special school.
To help these links, Neil Hunter created the new post of community arts development manager and appointed Sara Samson to reach out to neighbouring schools and arts organisations. Part of her job is helping to conceive of and fund arts projects in other schools and offer advice and guidance on how to maximise those projects. One of three primary schools Blatchington Mill has worked with so far is Somerhill Juniors. After Sara Samson asked if they would like a theatre company to come in and work with them, several meeting were held with Somerhill's performing arts co-ordinator several meetings with Intrepid Theatre Company, which was commissioned by Blatchington Mill. Intrepid suggested some drama work on the theme of refugees. Year 6 teacher Katy Bullock says the experience was a breath of fresh air, bringing something into the school that her pupils ordinarily would not have experienced. "Children in my class had little understanding of refugees. But working on a project that drew on poetry and stories written by refugee children gave them new insights."
The work that took place over the three half-day sessions Intrepid spent with Somerhill children lived beyond the actual project. Katy bullock says:
"We linked that content into The Tempest, examining feelings of being the outsider. lso, the children wrote letters back to the refugee children whose stories and poems were used. We couldn't have done this without Blatchington Mill's funding and we certainly hope to work on projects with them and Intrepid Theatre Company in the future."
Sara Samson is involved in curricular planning at Blatchington Mill: "The arts can enhance and develop so many different skills." She is involved in developing another innovation for the school, its cross-curricular approach, with drama being used in French classes, music and dance in humanities and 3-D visual arts in maths.
In addition, a dance company in residence has been established that is bringing dance to the key stage 3 PE curriculum. "This is the first time our boys are doing dance," says Neil Hunter, "and they seem to be enjoying it." It has also meant that dance is now offered at GCSE, thanks to the introduction of an extended day that the extra funding has made possible. All performing arts options are available after school as well as during the day, so that pupils can choose three arts options if they want to. Although there is no compulsion for pupils to take arts subjects, the take-up at GCSE is 75 per cent.
Neil Hunter is at pains to make clear that Blatchington Mill is no "Fame school". His motivation in transforming the school into a performing arts college is not to produce the dancers, musicians and actors of tomorrow but "to play to our strengths". He explains: "We've always had a lot of pupils involved in extra-curricular music and drama as well as at GCSE and A-level. We wanted to build on that, giving every child the opportunity to perform."
Why is that so important? David Glasson, director of performing arts, says:
"These activities give children confidence, creativity and communication skills, all of which will enable them to do well when they go out into the world. The arts can be so flexible. They can enhance and develop so many skills."
Neil Hunter adds: "The students gain transferable skills that are useful whether they want to be a scientist, an engineer or a musician. But we also want them to become critical audiences and interact with the performing arts."
The children rushing along to do sound engineering sessions and prepare for their music classes seem to be aware of how lucky they are. Three Year 7 students enjoy getting stuck in to their flute lesson - a new instrument for each of them - and they know it is a rare opportunity to be taught in such small classes. Similarly, the children using Dance eJay software (www.ejay.com) to compose their own music appeared to be on cloud nine.
Neil Hunter knows that integrating the arts into the curriculum will require a lot of attitude-shifting and consciousness-raising among staff. "We've done whole-school performing arts in-service training and now we need to get groups of teachers involved across the curriculum," he says. "It's a big challenge, but we're trying to make something that we believe in happen."