Admission of artistic ambition

9th February 1996 at 00:00
More and more grant-maintained schools are selecting a percentage of their pupils. Timothy Ramsden visits an Essex school which chooses 10 per cent on the evidence of their interest and excellence in arts subjects.

It took a committed headteacher, a new senior manager of expressive arts and an opt-out ballot to bring a new arts development to a Chelmsford High School. The city's Rainsford High had just gone grant maintained when new expressive arts chief Ian Potter arrived in April 1994. With the arts already having a high status in the school, it seemed a logical step to use artistic excellence and interest as the basis for expanding the school's intake in selecting the permitted 10 per cent.

No pupil, says Ian Potter, has been refused a place at the school as a result; the arts places are all extra to conventional admission criteria such as siblings or proximity. Anyone selected on the basis of arts ability signs up to a daily pre-main school session, lasting half an hour from 8am. There is a choice of session, including dance, drama, singing and instrumental classes, the selection varying each day of the week. In addition there are lesson-release sessions with peripatetic teachers and post-school activities daily, ranging from twilight to evening sessions.

Numbers permitting, other Rainsford students can sign up for the extra sessions, but while they are free for the "10 per cent", others pay a subsidised fee. Unlike the selected students, these others are free to choose which elements they like.

All this needs space: enter the National Lottery, which has given Pounds 100,000 to build the Rainsford Theatre as an extension of the school buildings. This purpose-built area is used for school classes, productions and a programme of visiting professional events in public performances. It has its own part-time marketing manager and will, it is hoped, finance itself in due course.

The theatre opened in late October with a week's performances and workshops by the Wolsey Theatre in Education Company from Ipswich. Mike Kenny's play Bagdancing (plus a workshop) was offered over a week to pupils from potential feeder primary schools: a smart opening move, and a way to combine both the theatre's professional and educational potential. The new performing arts space also includes some extra rooms for music practice - there are now eight instead of three.

Ian Potter believes that the selection element will be an enrichment. Extra students bring more resources which in turn can act as a catalyst for activities for more students. A recent Showcase production at Rainsford involved a majority from outside the "10 per cent".

"We agonised a lot over how to ensure the selected students are not seen as different or special," says Ian Potter. "We are fundamentally committed to arts for all but selection allows us to work with excellence. We are a comprehensive school taking seriously the education of the whole child in all areas."

The comprehensive ideal is reflected in the words of the headteacher Tom Chadd, who describes his approach as a mix of philosophy and pragmatism. He came to Rainsford in 1982 from Rochdale, where his involvement in the development of personal and social education convinced him that the arts are central to the development of the whole child. "I became aware that the arts, above any other part of the curriculum, could enrich the school as a society. They could permeate all children, through assembly performances for example, and be a civilising influence." This educational philosophy merges neatly with the practicalities of the marketing culture introduced in the late Eighties.

Someone who speaks enthusiastically of the importance of the arts in confidence-building, in "giving an understanding of where other people come from", and in giving new self-worth to those with low esteem, is not setting out to establish a quick, cheap route to Fame-and-fortune. Do parents understand this? "You could ask the same question of any parent; not all children will become brain surgeons."

Yet, given the showbiz attractions that can link in with arts education, the school did hold special meetings with prospective parents. "We did everything we could to explain what it is we're about, what we offer, what sort of education their children would receive." Ultimately, the parents choose where their children go. "We can only work with parents who want to work with us. We're not going to become a Fame academy; we are a comprehensive school. "

Ian Potter agrees. "There has to be a synthesis of perceptions. We have to show anyone thinking that way that there is more to life than the star-struck world of showbiz," he says.

Both agree that arts work within a school like Rainsford has advantages over, for example, a stage school. Eleven-year-olds will come to mature understanding in a better context," claims Ian Potter, while Tom Chadd points out that many of today's famous artists did not emerge from specialised institution. "Narrowing children's educational activities is not necessarily the best way to get what parents want."

These are still early days for Rainsford's new programme. As yet only Year 7 is involved; by the millennium the whole school up to GCSE will have its "10 per cent" and that will mean a that lot more lessons will be missed for peripatetic sessions, and more pressure on rooms for early morning sessions.

The selected students come from Chelmsford itself but also throughout the region; one has a 64-mile round-trip. They are keen: "It's unbelievable how many clubs there are," says one. And while they are aware that others would like their access to arts expertise - Year 8, who missed out by a year can be particularly sore - they are making friends outside as much as within their own group. For some there are particular advantages: it can be tough for boys who enjoy dance but here they find sympathetic souls.

Many of the new pupils seem to have applied because news of Rainsford's new project reached their families through personal contacts. As Ian Potter says, "If at the end of the day what we've done has just served the '10 per cent', we will have failed."

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