Maggie Watling claps her hands in a rhythm. Her Year 4 children join in. She stops. They stop. Yesterday they went on an "Evacuation Day" to a village, cardboard suitcases containing teddy and packed lunch; their headteacher Jane Loder dressed up in 1940s skirt and sausage curls. Today they are working out a musical equivalent to the Blitz. "We can do it with our bodies, we can do it with our voices, but today we're going to do it with percussion," says Ms Watling.
Ashmead Combined School in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, has been transformed by its use of the creative arts in the classroom. In an area of high social deprivation, on an estate originally established for "London overspill" families with problems, yet marooned in one of the most affluent of the Home Counties, it offers its 450 pupils a vibrant, vital educational experience.
Watch the children in Year 1 working together on a collaborative painting of Smarties and then see the little boy carefully carry the plate back to the resource table, with many a yearning look but never a snitched sweet. See the Year 4 dance group align themselves into a wistful pose of evacuees saying goodbye, and shush the one chatterer. And notice the Year 6 boy still at level 1 proudly display his careful drawing of a pig's heart, to general admiration. As Jane Loder says, "they want to create something beautiful".
It has not always been like this at Ashmead School. Sometimes, says Ms Loder, "it seems a lifetime" since her first days there in September 1994. Facing a pound;14,000 bill resulting from vandalism over the summer, Ashmead had an estimated 50 per cent of pupils with special needs. It looked "awful". The children were "lovely, but so all over the place". In the great tradition of go-for-it headteachers, Jane Loder rolled up her sleeves and began painting and decorating, raising money from charities to fund a special needs classroom and learning support assistants, quite ruthlessly shaking-out staff who were not fully committed and beefing the staffing up to the equivalent of 17 full-timers. "Our children need to have fewer pupils per teacher," she says.
It was in the summer of 1995 that someone fired a shot through the window of a classroom she was painting. The police never found the culprit. Jane Loder was not discouraged. She saw the crime as part of the challenge the school faced.
"I believe that if you work in an untidy, dirty environment with tools and equipment that have seen better days it is reflected in the quality of the work," she says. "If you improve the environment, it improves expectation and behaviour."
The bad behaviour and vandalism were not passed over in silence. Whole-school assemblies focused on "our school" and the children began to feel it really was theirs. There has been no vandalism now for three years and in 1998 the Office for Standards in Education singled out the atmosphere and ethos of the school for praise.
Yet Ashmead can still be "a challenging place to work, exhausting", says Jane Loder. "There are children who are always emotionally and behaviourally in need. Special needs are still 30-35 per cent in every class. Before, behaviour masked problems, now it is not a problem but I know that when the staff are away and rules and procedures alter, then behaviour can still erupt." Faced with so many challenges, Ashmead has built all its efforts around the arts. "We needed the kinds of activities which could engage them, get them to work with each other and focus them, extend their attention span."
For the past five years, teachers have had in-service training days and workshops every year, with visiting artists looking at art techniques. The techniques have then been woven throughout the curriculum. The first year was drawing and handwriting, using calligraphy to make pictures (for example, a castle was drawn with the repeated word "castle"). Close observational work, describing and drawing objects, was tied in. Then collaborative drawing and painting, beginning with mark-making, ran through the school. Mark-making, where you learn such techniques as cross-hatching before you learn where to use it in drawing, is easier to master; collaborative and splatter paintings help the children to value each other's efforts. Next, printing and bookmaking produced work which could be mounted and displayed to greater effect.
The idea worked. The school became more and more popular. It was, Jane Loder says simply, that "the children began to feel loved and cared for. They weren't lost causes, they just had to find something to engage them".
Then, she says regretfully, "just as clay was coming in", the literacy hour struck. "When literacy came in, behaviour went out the window," she sighs. "That kind of imposed learning is not good for our children. If they come into school angry, they don't want to learn." Above all, such rigid timetabling goes against Ashmead's most central tenet.
"Many of our children are deprived in a very basic way. They are not listened to. When I came, I said, 'let's listen to them. Let's spend time giving them time'. We dealt with a lot of the bad behaviour by slowing them down, giving them time to put on their coats, to line up, not to run and push, to put away, to take care. The literacy hour and the numeracy hour, to a lesser extent, do not give children time, they take time."
This year, though, Ashmead has regained its focus. The arts are still changing learning patterns and making the children proud of themselves; that no longer takes a back seat to the numeracy and literacy hours, which are run formally on only three days a week.
"The great thing," says Jane Loder, "is that we now have a lot of skills to build on."
* Serena Newstead, a textile artist, former arts adviser and primary teacher at Ashmead, is leading Years 3 and 4, teaching a Year 4 class, running an after-school dance group and co-ordinating a whole-school initiative on stitching fabrics. Last term the theme was "The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch", with different colours and yarns and beadings sewn on roundels. The two Years put on a dance and drama production with lighting by a parent; it was, teachers agree, "stunning".
"We're just at the stage now where Serena can take us on," says Jane Loder. "You can get complacent because you think 'this is so much better than it used to be', but then a new person comes in and it is buzzing again." Now that the school has firmed up the foundations of behaviour, so that it is hard to imagine some of the tales of past misdeeds (people, tables and chairs being thrown out of windows, terrible fights), the arts can truly become "vehicles for extending children's learning". Children extend their vocabulary of drawing into still-life, and into making stitch pictures of their own drawings - both have a "very calming effect and help them to learn", says Serena.
In Serena's dance class, the theme is the Second World War. With the tremendous gleeful energy of the boys' marching rap, the mournful poetry of the girls' pose as evacuees, the children seem bursting with potential. Mark, who finds it hard to concentrate in class, is aglow with triumph as he lands back on his taped mark in time for the next step. These achievements, real and tangible but not measured in SATs are, Jane Loder feels, wrongly neglected. "We need some action from the Department for Education and Employment to support creativity," she says, citing the recent near-burial of the report on creativity in the classroom, All Our Futures, by the Government's advisory committee on culture, creativity and education.
Although Ashmead's SATs are below the national average, the school is full and has just begun a waiting list. Looking round the classrooms, each one full of pride and joy, looking at Year 1 children making a chocolate cake, reading a chocolate poem, making a Smartie painting and doing chocolate maths to integrate with their book of the moment, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it is easy to see how important it is to find ways in which children can succeed and can find different avenues to express themselves. Jane Loder says: "To hang on to what we believe in we have to be brave, because it feels that it's only things that can be measured that are of value nowadays."
It is not only the children who learn. "Teachers love to see success," Jane Loder says. "The best way is change by example."
Though the integrated day has lost favour of late, it works at Ashmead. Serena Newstead loves to integrate art and science: last term it was lighthouse keepers, pulleys and sea life in science, with stitching and story-telling. This term painter L S Lowry's figures and faces will link sewing on hessian and learning about history. But art is the key ingredient.
She says: "The detail with which I teach the art skills spills over into writing and the precision affects the science." Every approach to art is characterised by a careful breaking-down into tiny details of skill and mastery. Whether it be cleaning paintbrushes in water and on sponges before mixing, or learning how to thread a needle, measuring thread, knotting, choosing colour, untangling, the motto is "little steps to get somewhere". She explains: "So many people can be disappointed with their art because they try to get too far too fast. Building skills is important."
The children learn much more about how to succeed in life and how to work independently.
"You can't be free until you've learned the skills," Ms Newstead believes. "I've got one boy who is very disruptive but stitching calms him - as if it's turned on a switch."
Her classroom is cosy and bright with mounted pieces of work, sari fabric tented over baskets of yarn, each one a spectrum of tones within a colour range (blues, reds, greens), neatly ranged tambour frames and needles. It has order and harmony. It embodies Serena's emphasis on the painstaking grounding of learning: changing the culture of understanding. "You need to be very precise, very detailed, even to explaining what the HB on a pencil means," she says. A standard task with her Year 4s is an examination of the qualities and effects of different pencils.
"We all work much better if we know what everything means," says Jane Loder. "If the children understand why and how, they absorb it like sponges." As evidence, she cites her last year's Year 7, just before Buckinghamshire changed its secondary selection from 12-plus to 11-plus. Three-quarters felt a failure after the January selection, but "I gave them a challenge. Make the courtyard a millennium garden. And they did".
The children raised money from sponsors, their parents and the governors. They made models and talked with landscape gardeners. They raised about pound;6,000 and the governors bullied another pound;70,000 from local businesses; a group from locally based leisure giant Whitbread turned up on a team-building day to "do a Ground Force" on the courtyard.
In September there was a grand opening, with all the children coming back from their new secondary schools to see the wooden stage with grass amphitheatre, an outdoor log sculpture, a pond, a woodland walk, and a pavilion, an outdoor classroom and a sapling maze. "They did that," says Jane Loder. "Our Year 7, of whom OFSTED had said, and rightly, that they had achieved disappointing SATs. They made this."