Music, drama, science ... There are no barriers when developing talented pupils, says Andrew Johnson
It was a small ad in The TES, spotted by his father, that started Ahir Shah (right) on the way to a career on telly or the stage. A project called London Talent was running at King's College in the capital, it said, and auditions would be held at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada). Out of 700, Ahir was one of only 30 to be picked. .
So the 12-year-old, who lives in north Wembley and goes to Preston Manor school, joined a four-week residential course developed by the Bigfoot Theatre Company, specialists in drama workshops for schools and teachers.
Some of the UK's biggest theatre names - including the National Film Theatre, Improbable Theatre, Rada, The National Theatre, Frantic and Circus Space - gave the children a taste of puppetry, juggling, circus skills and film.
"We did clowning, mask-making and mime, all sorts of stuff," he explains.
"For three days we did filming. Some people from the NFT came over and we learned to operate cameras. That was really good."
London Talent was the brainchild of Bigfoot, which specialises in teaching in schools. The pound;300,000 cost was met by the Excellence in Cities programme through its gifted and talented strand. Ninety other children aged between 8 and 15 attended three other non-residential courses.
The children chosen for audition were identified with the help of the gifted and talented programme in their schools. "In the auditions we wanted to see their raw talent," says Karl Wozney, the artistic director of Bigfoot. "We weren't interested in kids who looked good in tutus. There is criticism that gifted and talented doesn't cater for working class kids.
But these kids weren't middle class."
Ahir's success is all the more remarkable as he was also offered a place on a residential mathematics course at Warwick University, run by the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, but the theatre won hands down.
While there is no specific provision under EiC for drama and the arts, the gifted and talented strand means that schools and pupils can find a way to be creative beyond drama lessons. Ahir has gone back to school and become involved in Blaze Radio at Preston Manor, which is also funded through the programme.
Blaze is an internet radio station based at the school's city learning centre which broadcasts to Preston Manor's partner schools in break times and lunchtimes. Ahir is creating a soap opera that will be used to help with the citizenship element of the curriculum.
But it's not the 10 per cent or so judged to be gifted and talented pupils who are benefiting from the investment in the creative arts. At Elliot Durham school in Nottingham you can't hear yourself think after 3.30pm because of the cacophony of drumming, says Sheila Jones, the manager of the area's education action zone. The school wanted to encourage children musically and chose drumming because it was something that everyone can do.
"You don't necessarily need to be able to read music," Ms Jones adds.
"It's something you can practice if you haven't got a drum, and it is an instrument that reflects the many different ethnic ranges we have in this part of Nottingham."
In a school where more than half its 530 pupils claim free school meals, it gives an opportunity to become involved in music that might otherwise not be available. And, Sheila Jones explains, parents who might never visit the school except for report evenings are now also returning to see their children perform. But drums do not come cheap, so the EiC support has been essential. "A full African kit, of 16 drums, is very expensive," she says.
"We've also bought some steel pans as well, which is a huge financial outlay."
The programme is also bringing pupils into the school. With their "partner" primaries under the EAZ, children are getting to know Elliot Durham and what it has to offer. This has boosted the annual role and helped with the transition of pupils.
"This year we've had our biggest intake for a long time," says Ms Jones.
"The music is a great leveller. You don't need any money and there are teachers learning with the children, so they are seen in a different role.
Mr So-and-So is learning just as you are, so that puts you in a different situation."
But creativity can work in other ways. Some of the work Bigfoot does involves going into schools to teach history, or other parts of the curriculum, through drama.
Sue Riddle-Harte, head of John Stainer primary school in Lewisham, south east London, recently praised by Ofsted as a fast-improving school, says:
"The problem with having been in special measures is that the teachers start getting really panicky. There's a temptation to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else. We do have a strong music curriculum. But it's one of the first things to go when the pressure's on.
"The one thing keeping our head above water with creativity is that we're involved in a mini-EAZ set up with Excellence in Cities to promote creative success. The children are working with a mosaic artist across the school, for example, and we have professional musicians doing a science and music project with them. Children learn well through these mediums. It's kept us going creatively. I don't know otherwise if we'd have been brave enough as a school in the situation we're in."
She adds with emphasis: "I do believe art and creativity are the way forward."