'Integration' is the key word in Warwickshire. Reva Klein reports on one LEA's commitment to incorporating the arts across the curriculum
You've heard of education action zones, nuclear free zones, demilitarised zones, The Twilight Zone. Well, now there's an arts zone.
As a county, Warwickshire knows a thing or two about the arts. As the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the birthplace of the Bard at Stratford-upon-Avon, it's a spiritual and artistic mecca for theatre lovers the world over. It also has one of the leading arts education departments in the country at the University of Warwick, where the professor of education, Dr Ken Robinson, is the chair of the government-appointed national advisory committee on creative and cultural education.
The catchily named arts zone is the current focus of Warwickshire's commitment to ensuring a high profile for the arts and to integrating them into the curriculum as much as possible.
Rex Pogson is director of the zone. A former headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff grammar school in Warwick, he now has a three-year contract with the county and a wide remit. One of his responsibilities is to forge partnerships between artists, arts organisations and schools.
Having the excellent education department of the RSC on his doorstep is an absolute gift, but Warwickshire isn't focusing exclusively on drama. Pogson is also concerned to bring visual artists and musicians into schools for residencies and workshops. He organises sessions for teachers to share approaches and methodologies on using the arts in the primary and secondary curriculum. Through this networking - documented in a schools newsletter - ideas and practices spread and cross-fertilise.
Yet another strand of the zone's brief is to encourage research into using the arts as a vehicle to deliver aspects of the curriculum, and as a result it is paying half the tuition fees of eight part-time post-graduate researchers at the University of Warwick. Among the topics they are researching are drama and special needs, and the visual arts and ICT.
"We hope this will help Warwickshire teachers in the classroom and contribute to the debate surrounding creativity in the classroom," says Pogson. "It wouldn't have happened without the high priority on the arts set by the LEA and symbolised in the creation of the arts zone."
There's already a lot of creative practice in classrooms around Warwickshire, reflecting the county's emphasis on creativity in its education development plan. It's Pogson's job to let others know, for instance, how one teacher last term spent a whole morning working with her Year 6 class on Tennyson's poem The Lady of Shalott, and then found it naturally led to a discussion in the afternoon on pre-Raphaelite art. And how a key stage 1 teacher at another school worked with her class on number through the medium of dance. Another teacher spent half a term using The Frog Prince in her Year 2 literacy hour - different examples of using art, drama and music to enhance teaching, stimulate understanding and make lessons enjoyable.
There was once a time when teacher training and in-service sessions might have explored some of these approaches. Instead, says Pogson, the LEA decided to commit pound;90,000 to the arts zone in its first year, because of squeezes on time in teacher training and the curriculum. "The arts could fade without such an initiative," he says, "just at the time when there's real interest in creativity, which may be one of the cross-curricular skills and which may need the vehicle of the arts to be expressed fully. So there was urgency as well as commitment on the part of Warwickshire."
Richard Grant, chair of the education committee, takes pride in the fact that the initiative has cross-party support in the authority and that creativity in education is taken very seriously, even if it appears to digress from current education reforms. "The political initiative behind the arts zone is ensuring that we create a broad canvas in which children have learning experiences, rather than a narrow curriculum based exclusively on literacy and numeracy.
"In this, we're promoting learning as a creative, exciting experience which continues throughout people's lives. And we hope to influence the national debate on education through our practice and philosophy."
For their part, teachers in Warwickshire need little influencing. They've seen for themselves how these methods can motivate the unmotivated and even boost attainment. Woodloes infants school in Warwick found that its pupils' writing scores improved significantly - from 26 per cent at Level 3 in 1998 to 42 per cent in 1999 - after teachers were trained by Joe Winston of Warwick University's arts education unit in using drama in literacy work.
Headteacher Jacky Lyon believes that drama creates "a more fertile context for writing" than other kinds of literacy work in which children are mentally active but physically passive. "It allows children more agility in both senses: giving them the freedom to play with words when they're speaking and articulate the stories physically, rather than just orally. They're able to use different intelligences."
It's because of this kind of work, says Rex Pogson, that the county councillors went for the zone. The measurable effects of the creative use of the arts in the classroom, as well as the immeasurable knock-on effects such as confidence building, motivation and excitement, are a winning combination as far as Warwickshire is concerned - and one that it would like to see taken up by local authorities around the country.
For more information on the Arts Zone, contact Rex Pogson on 01926 412387