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Tate's clean slate;Subject of the week;Music and the arts

Aleks Sierz on the London gallery's latest educational development.

Anyone passing the former Bankside power station on London's South Bank over the summer will have been impressed by the colourful paintings around the building's exterior.

The artwork, by pupils at Southwark's Charles Dickens primary school, provided a bold facade covering the hoardings around the building while it was being transformed into the Tate Gallery's latest site, the Tate Modern. The gallery is due to open next May, but its educational arm is already in full swing, as the pictures that brightened up the days of passers-by testify.

The Tate Modern's education curator for young people, Caro Howell, had been working with Charles Dickens school,which is just around the corner from the unfinished gallery, last year. The school, which was on special measures, was looking for an artist-in-residence, so Ms Howell suggested Ademola Akintola, who ended up working with the children during literacy hour for a year.

The resulting work was displayed in the new gallery's visitor centre and, because it was linked to literacy hour, the children wrote their own captions. Later, they produced work which was used to decorate the hoardings.

The paintings have proved popular. "People have been ringing the school asking if the work is for sale," says Caro Howell.

The project was so successful that the school plans to continue working with Ms Akintola for another year. "The children's work was high quality; primary children produced a seven-foot tall percussive sculpture inspired by Ted Hughes's Iron Man," says Ms Howell.

Children visiting the gallery have been encouraged to develop their creativity and use visual paths to literacy. "The aim of the project," says Elizabeth Owens, headteacher at Charles Dickens, "was to help children find a voice to express what they feel." One pupil, Alfie Southion, says: "I did a snake and a cheetah. I just got on with it and made art of it all."

Caro Howell has a vision of lifelong learning. "A young visitor might be involved in a schools project, participate in a family programme, use an after-school club and then go into our new peer-led programme before visiting the gallery as an adult."

The Tate Modern, which expects more than 100,000 child visitors a year, offers a unique opportunity to develop innovative projects. "It's not every day a major national institution is given a clean slate," says Ms Howell. She claims educational needs have all too often "been confined to a nook or a cranny, usually in the basement". But educational needs have been integrated into the Tate Modern's design. "You will be able to come in the entrance and step into the education spaces," she says. These include a large reception area, studio space, auditorium, seminar room, and resources room, which will be open to teachers.

The resources will have multiple uses. For example, a sculpture which is suitable for handling and ideal for visually impaired people can be used by other pupils. Above all, says Ms Howell, "we have daylight. And having the educational presence in full view will encourage people to join in our activities." But, she says, "the most extraordinary innovation is that we are now not just an education department but an education and interpretation department."

Interpretation used to be the preserve of curators, but now Ms Howell and her colleagues are working "hand in hand with them". Education is no longer a worthy add-on. "Education is a term that often conjures up images of dull didacticism," says Ms Howell, "but we want to bring the visitor into a much closer relationship to the art."

Bearing in mind the needs of children, for example, she contributes to discussions about which sculptures to display, how paintings are shown or where to place a popular painting to avoid congestion. Exhibitions are scheduled to take account of school holidays.

The gallery is in discussion with North Southwark Action Zone to see how it can develop the model across the area. "We want to develop a new pedagogy for gallery and museum education," says Helen Charman, education curator for schools, with a move away from "chalk and talk" towards "intensive workshops that focus on smaller numbers for longer duration".

For school visits, the gallery will employ freelances, develop after-school learning through the New Opportunities Fund, set up interactive tours, talks and study days, and produce a teacher's workbook.

The resources centre will offer a variety of approaches, from a broad introduction to modern art to a focus on a single artist or theme. "We aim to be flexible and to fit in with what schools are doing," says Ms Charman. "Our strength is in critical and contextual studies - looking at text and images and, above all, learning to discuss modern art."

The Tate Modern is also helping teachers develop their professional skills, through an INSET centre and a project with the National Society for Education in Art and Design, which is piloting a national Artist Teacher scheme. Such initiatives will make learning about art more enjoyable for children, who, as Ms Charman points out, "are the visitors of the future".

Tate education: 0171 887 8000.

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