All aboard for the sea festival

28th July 1995 at 01:00
Michael Clarke joins a field trip which inspired a whole school. He is much older than I thought he would be." This surprised reaction voiced by one small boy to a chance meeting with Terry Frost outside the Newlyn Gallery, Cornwall, was shared by most of the children in the school group. Having just enjoyed the brilliantly-coloured, boldly-drawn, recent work of the artist inside the gallery, the children had clearly expected it to be by a much younger man.

When Frost enthusiastically engaged them in an impromptu conversation about his paintings, his age was quickly forgotten, his vivid explanation of how and why he had become so attached to the spiral form proved much more interesting. But what were the Northamptonshire schoolchildren doing in Cornwall?

Field trips, even ones centred on the arts, are not uncommon. Some, like the admirable journeys to France and Italy organised by Cheshire County schools, have been reported on these pages. All, however, have involved secondary pupils only.

What is so rare about the Cornish trip is that it was made by Years 5 and 6 pupils. But long-distance trips are not unusual at Nicholas Hawksmoor Primary School in Towcester. On previous occasions, pupils have spent several days in London's docklands and have even been as far as Rouen and Paris. Gallery visits are frequently made, particularly to London which is only an hour and a half away.

The arts play a major part in the school's life, coming to the fore several times in the year and taking on a unifying role for almost every aspect of the national curriculum during the final half of the summer term. This requires a united teaching team and a great deal of parental support. It also demands a sustained vision and much hard work. Yet when the prime mover in this programme, deputy-head Marilyn Barnes, goes off to make a survey of the chosen location for each year's trip, she is not only quickly followed by the equally enterprising head, Richard Edwards, but the entire staff.

Barnes emphasises the need for careful preparation. Nine and 10-year-olds are still very young to spend so long away from home so decisions on suitable accommodation, catering, coach journey times and even the terrain the children might have to cross on foot are every bit as important as liaising with galleries, museums, theatres and wildlife centres or booking a sightseeing tour of St Ives.

And because the whole school will eventually take up the overall theme, in this instance the sea, the needs of those not making the field trip must be met and each pupil's and teacher's contribution properly integrated into the completed programme. It is for these and many other reasons that the school has to choose and begin planning a programme at least a year ahead.

For those who travelled to Cornwall, the encounter with Frost and his work was one of the high points of the trip. The creative enthusiasm this generated was seen in the quality and quantity of drawings, paintings and pebble constructions made on Newlyn beach.

Another high point was the sculpture garden at Barbara Hepworth's studio. Many children found this as rewarding as the guided tour of the Tate Gallery in St Ives. Drawings in the reception area of their school express this deeply-felt experience and focus attention on the children's own sculptures in their lovingly tended garden.

Sketchbooks were kept throughout the five-day excursion, recording the beaches at Newlyn and Porthmeor, the Sea Life Centre at Newquay, the boat trip from Truro to Falmouth and the open-air theatre at Minnack, cut out of the precipitous cliff side.

The whole trip was recorded on video by the children. Pebbles, sand, sea-water, seaweed and bag-loads of flotsam and jetsam were brought back. Written and spoken accounts were added to this material and everything made available to the rest of the school.

Pupils surprised gallery staff with their awareness of the particular light in St Ives and the balancing and pegging devices used in the pebble pieces which owed as much to their knowledge of Andy Goldsworthy's sculpture as Barbara Hepworth's.

Back in Towcester, the pupils who had not been to Cornwall readily responded to the resource material. Some additional well-chosen texts, paintings and music, and personal recollections of the sea presented the creative opportunities to explore the theme and its historical, geographical and scientific aspects. While nursery children compared different kinds of sand and found ways to construct boats, Year 5 retold the past in newspaper form and investigated the properties of salt.

The outcome of all this was a week-long Sea Festival that transformed every area of the school - floors, walls, ceilings and grounds - into a multi-media feast of maritime images and culminated in an evening of poems, songs, music and dance performed in a variety of settings including a lavishly embellished, 60 foot long cave with mermaid, pirate, treasure chest, submarine and underwater flora and fauna, and a pier on the school playing field.

Every set was studded with pictures, texts, textiles and ceramics but the centre piece, perhaps inevitably, was the assembly hall, now metamorphosed into a carefully-lit, very theatrical and highly accomplished synthesis of the Cornish experience.

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