A hymn to the blues

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Religion and the arts are intertwined at a Solihull junior school. Diane Hofkins went there

Rockin' at St Alphege, dancing the blues awaybop shawaddy waddy," is the opening of a 12-bar blues number made famous within the catchment area of a biggish Church of England junior school in Solihull, by an all-teacher combo called the Blue Apple Band.

It continues: "Just you do your bestForget about the restAnd smile, smile, smile!" - neatly summing up a key plank of the school's philosophy.

When Eleanor and Sophie, now 11, heard the "St Alphege Blues", which headteacher Brian Curran had written in collaboration with pupils, they decided to choreograph a dance to it. Modern, but bluesy, and performed with big smiles and in perfect synchronisation while Mr Curran plays the guitar and sings, it's a dance Steps would have been proud of.

Soon the whole school had learned the dance, and it was not unusual for 50 children aged seven and up to appear at Mr Curran's "sing something simple" after-school club to perform it, while the Boy Band (boys who sing, like Westlife, rather than those who play instruments) sang along: "Work, work, work, Rock and roll".

Then, perhaps surprisingly for a genre which emanated from the Mississippi Delta, it concludes: "Love, love, love, our church and schoolGod protect the Queen and familySalute, salute, salute in harmony."

Mr Curran, who has been head of St Alphege for 23 years, is an unapologetic monarchist. The royal family "is a representation of what so many people have done for us in the past", he says, and the Queen is the head of the Church of England.

Her picture has a prominent place on the wall, beneath the large cross and two mosaics with religious themes - one a black and a white hand praying - created with pupils by the school's enthusiastic art co-ordinator, Leon Chamberlain, who is currently working with children on fruit-shaped pots and Antonio Gaudi's architecture.

St Alphege is a school where the arts and religion intertwine.

"Art is used very well to support pupils' spiritual, social and cultural development," says the school's Office for Standards in Education report.

"It is clear from discussion with pupils and observation of them working, that their work in the subject has led them to recognise that valuing art enhances their enjoyment of life."

Mr Curran may be a monarchist, but he is no back-to-basics traditionalist.

The school, in a prosperous part of Solihull, near Birmingham, where less than one per cent are eligible for free school meals, is regularly at the top of the league tables, with 99 or 100 per cent at level 4 and above.

But Mr Curran opposes the tables, and has refused to appear in articles about them. He recognises that St Alphege is privileged, and that many schools work just as hard but cannot boast the same results or rely on parents who can be as involved, or as generous as those with children at St Alphege.

But he is proud of this winter's Ofsted report, which praised the school's strong Christian ethos, success with children who have special needs, and ability to promote an understanding of multicultural Britain, including different religions.

A separate report from the denominational inspector lauds St Alphege's relationship with the Church, and describes the school environment as "an eruption of vibrancy and creativity".

"We don't ram our faith down our children's throats," says Mr Curran. "We believe firmly that we show our faith by the way we live. If we can't laugh at ourselves then we can never have growth. And there's a lot of laughter here."

Mr Curran and his enthusiastic team don't rest on their academic laurels.

All children are publicly recognised for a range of talents in awards assemblies, and in daily school life. One way confidence is promoted is through a strong emphasis on performance. Teachers make their own artistic interests known, too, so that children can see that art is for life, and each teacher runs an out-of-school club.

Deputy head Will Roberts, who is English co-ordinator, runs a writers'

forum where children get up before a microphone and read their own stories and poetry.

Such activities have helped encourage boys in particular, because the bite-size words and structure inherent in poetry appeals to them, he says.

It is one of the reasons boys do as well as girls at St Alphege. "It's cool to write," he says.

Children happily dance or play the cello for a visitor; one stopped the head to ask if she could play the violin for him the next day. The school play is such an important event it is put on in a public hall. This year it's being written by 11-year-old Katy Dobson.

Music lessons, orchestra and choir all loom large, and the school has bucked the national trend and increased the number of boys (as well as girls) joining the church choir.

"We encourage pupils to stand up in front of the school," says Mr Curran.

"It increases confidence."

Last week's act of worship was led by a Year 3 class on the theme of humility. The seven and eight-year-olds' presentation was about apologising and giving forgiveness. They spoke their lines clearly, included little sketches (based on experiences they had discussed in class) about such incidents as having to own up to breaking a window during football and apologising, and performed a dance to the Elton John song "Sorry seems to be the hardest word".

"Remove the creativity from the school and you remove a large part of the heart," says Mr Curran. "You've got to have fun."

Wonder Years, 24-page supplement on the National Primary Strategy in this week's TES

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