All dancing, all singing, all go

30th March 2001 at 01:00
On Wednesday evenings South Lanarkshire schools are filled with the sound of music and the arts. Brian Hayward visits two schemes that have attracted huge funding

It is after-school hours on Wednesday and Hamilton Grammar school is alive with the sounds of music and performance. Some children are rehearsing songs for a gala concert, some are practising jazz arrangements, and drama and dance groups are getting into the swing of their performances.

Brian McGeoch, the arts links officer for South Lanarkshire, has an understandably proprietorial air as he breezes through the building, greeting and being greeted on all sides, bluffly haranguing the arts workers and the young dancers, singers and actors in the way that a bustling 18th-century squire, overflowing with spikey benevolence, might have reviewed his estate workers. He pays for their Artsnet activities with pound;100,000 from ring-fenced Excellence Fund money.

Artsnet is a programme of arts activities which this year caters for 365 pupils from Hamilton Grammar, Trinity High, Duncanrig, Lanark Grammar, all their associate primary schools and three special educational needs schools. In succeeding years the scheme will spread to every school in the local authority.

Mr McGeoch, a former art teacher and Glasgow Museums' education officer, is a trailblazer for the Scottish Arts Council's Links scheme, which is a partnership between the SAC and education authorities to encourage arts education projects. He has brought more than pound;500,000 of National Lottery and other money to South Lanarkshire over the past three years, employing hundreds of artists and arts organisations and affecting every school in the authority. Next year he plans to raise the total to pound;1 million.

It is fundamental to Mr McGeoch that Artsnet is socially inclusive: admission is by interest and enthusiasm, not ability, technique or talent. Pupils commit themselves to turning up 28 times.

In Hamilton Grammar everyone was working towards the gala performance of World, about the seasons, our environment and the future of the planet, which drew an audience of 1,200 friends and relations to Hamilton town hall over three nights this week.

The chorus is tuning up to the arpeggios of Aileen Marshall, a former music teacher and now the co-ordinator of the project. Satisfied that everyone is "on song", she sallies out of the room on other business, leaving artistic director Chris Annets to rehearse the chorus in the theme song they have written for the concert. Both the lyrics and melody are the pupils' work: Mr Annets emphasises to his colleagues that "they must listen to the children".

Everything in the concert is, in Mr McGeoch's words, child-sourced: "new arts by new young people in the world of the arts".

Dance and drama groups are going about their business in the school entrance hall and gymnasium and, necessarily behind several closed doors, the jazz orchestra is holding its weekly rehearsal, working on pieces written by the three instrumental tutors.

Within a socially inclusive arts scheme, the professional-sounding jazz orchestra might sem to be the odd group out. Led by instrumental instructor Eliot Murray, it features 25 senior pupils, mostly wind instrumentalists, who blow a good enough big band sound to have been invited to play at an education conference at St Andrews.

South Lanarkshire takes some pride in its music. Colin Bone co-ordinates the work of 43 instrumental instructors, who are extra to the authority's music teachers.

The jazz orchestra has residential weekends in New Lanark, where art and design courses are also held as part of the Artsnet scheme. These are offered to upper primary and lower secondary children, with the intention of bridging this educational divide. The tutors on these courses are the secondary art teachers to whom the primary children will transfer, and both groups are enthusiastic about the value of this contact. The course is a taster, with as much emphasis on life skills as arts techniques. If the children want more, they are to be encouraged to join public drama, dance and art groups.

At John Ogilvie High school in Hamilton, pupils from a range of schools in the area are attending the Screen School, a quite separate programme from Artsnet. Some children are story-boarding and designing their video-short; others are excitedly waiting for their audition in front of the cameras in the studio.

"State of the art, they tell me," Mr McGeoch comments.

He asks a young boy whether he is auditioning to be an actor. "No," he replies, "a director."

Three groups of children will attend the school for 10 weeks and then a four-day holiday film school follows. The resultant three films will be screened at a youth film festival to be held at the Glasgow Film Theatre in August.

There are plans to hold a film award ceremony for these productions, where the prizes will be called Petes and Joeys, in recognition of the contribution to the Screen School made by the two tutors, Peter Waddell, the head of the Lanarkshire Film Unit, and Joseph Margiotti, a director of Windswept, a local multimedia company.

There is pound;21,000 of Excellence Fund money to pay for putting the video gear in a van and driving off to a school where the pupils can work for four evenings preparing for filming all day Saturday.

Mr McGeoch has tapped into the New Opportunities Fund to pay for the Screen School, and there is no better description than new opportunities for the attitude that drives his enterprise. When the Royal Scottish National Orchestra asked how it could be involved in South Lanarkshire arts education, his response was to ask it to collaborate with the Screen School and help work on the creation of musical scores. It is characteristic of Mr McGeoch's social inclusion policy that this contact with the leading Scottish orchestra is not offered to young music specialists, but to the video film students.

The credo as ever is of the exposure of children to new arts experiences and a belief in the value of arts experience for its own sake, as well as for its transferable skills across the curriculum and to life.

Further information from Brian McGeoch, tel 01698 427373

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