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Staff gather for in-service Highland fling

Arts Express was the biggest ever gathering in the Highland region of teachers and educators from schools and cultural organisations.

The day of workshop sessions and debate in Inverness earlier this month was organised by Sonia Rose, Highland Council's education officer, who is based at Eden Court Theatre.

Ms Rose is aware that the Highlands pose unique problems in bringing together teachers from small and widely scattered schools and she has long nurtured an ambition to arrange an in-service event on this scale. She was rewarded with 390 delegates, representing 130 schools (mainly Highland primaries) and arts groups from across Scotland, attending the afternoon debate session. The morning workshops for 200 people were fully subscribed months beforehand.

The workshops covered a range of skills and subjects in the expressive arts. As well as dance and drama, there were craft sessions on making willow-frame sculptures (lanterns and fish were popular choices among the dozen teachers), masks and costumes, and musical explorations, including a session on inventing, a percussion workshop, one on creating a class opera and a Tiny Tunes session aimed at pre-school.

Informal canvassing suggested a generally high level of satisfaction with the workshops, which were instructive, entertaining and provided useful tips to take back to the classroom.

The conference addressed the issue of placing the arts, culture and creativity at the heart of learning, in accordance with the declaration of intent made by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, in his St Andrew's Day speech.

The broadcaster and journalist Ruth Wishart chaired the session, and introduced the four speakers.

Bruce Robertson, Highland's director of education, culture and sport, believed the expressive arts have been the Cinderella in the academic-dominated curriculum for too long and it was time for a shift in thinking in its role in the formal and informal curriculum.

New practice and delivery methods as well as more resources would be required if the expressive arts were to be a part of the core experience of every pupil, he said. However, curriculum reviews, and the Highland Year of Culture in 2007, offer opportunities to effect change. His own experiences as a teacher had convinced him of the value of arts in the classroom.

This theme was taken up by Isabella Lind, the ebullient headteacher of Ravenscraig Primary in Inverclyde. Her school has been commended by school inspectors for the way it has placed arts at the heart of the curriculum, and she presented an inspiring account of her experiences.

She made the point that what is needed is not expertise but enthusiasm and a belief in the power and importance of the arts. Her essential message was: "Just do it."

Sylvia Dow, the head of education and lifelong learning at the Scottish Arts Council, began from the premise that the arts are not an option in education but a necessity. She drew on the work of educational theorists Howard Gardner and Eric Jensen to illustrate her arguments.

If it was possible to upstage Ms Lind, then Bart McGettrick, professor of education at Glasgow University, was the man to do it. His concluding presentation attempted to erect a broader educational framework around the subject. He addressed issues of why we teach, what learning is, the importance of relationships in the classroom and more.

The representation in the audience of cultural co-ordinators, arts officers and others provided a further reminder that delivering the expressive arts to centres of learning is not solely down to classroom teachers.

The conference ended on the agreement that optimism and enthusiasm, supplemented by adequate resources, will be needed if efforts to place the arts, culture and creativity at the heart of learning are to succeed.

Kenny Mathieson

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