Diane Hofkins surveys the art scene in Kirklees schools and finds a rich tapestry of aesthetic and creative skills, which are interwoven through a broad range of disciplines. From noble Greek statues to the abstractions of Picasso, the human figure has been at the heart of Western art. This tradition is alive and well at Linthwaite junior, infant and nursery school in the West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees. A study of portraits is helping children to develop a sense of history and a deeper understanding of relationships and human nature, as well as their own skills as artists.
An examination of works as diverse as a Van Gogh self-portrait, a Henry Moore sculpture and a Holbein painting shows different ways of looking at people. The children consider what Holbein was saying about wealth and power, and ponder what was in Van Gogh's head when he set out to portray himself.
In another classroom, portraiture is helping children think about friendship. Working in threes, pupils have painted the heads of pairs of friends, facing nose to nose and looking eye to eye. The portraits cover a whole wall, a reflection of the value placed on such personal and social education work. In one, the facial features of the two heads almost slot together like a jigsaw puzzle, one nose tip nearly touching the bridge of the other.
Art in primary schools leads very effectively into all sorts of other areas. Work on colour ties in with science, pattern connects with maths. But it would be wrong to think that that is all it is for. Art for art's sake is part of many schools' philosophies. A solid grounding in skills provides a platform for creativity, and observation is the most crucial. Children are taught to look, and re-look. They are not expected to complete work in one session, but return to their paintings over time - adjusting, changing their minds, finalising with care. They will have the satisfaction of mastery, of a job well done.
Kirklees primary inspector Sue Mulvany, noting the detail in a series of still lifes at Linthwaite, says: "You can see the layers of work. They haven't given up after one statement." The work, based on a tableau of sewing items, showed not only careful study of the proportions of scissors and the drape of a tape measure, but sophisticated design skills.
Schools such as Linthwaite have preserved what they feel is the spirit of primary education, despite the upheavals of recent years. "Some of us keep doing what we are doing because we believe in it," says its head, Gill Ransby, who decorates her school with floral and other natural arrangements and plays music in the hall as the children arrive.
Dorothy Smith, head of Hyrstmount junior school in urban Batley, says: "We haven't allowed the national curriculum to take away from the school some of the aesthetic and creative work that we feel is really important for the children." They have made sure the national curriculum has added, and not subtracted. "If you're not careful, children don't have enough time to explore in depth."
Work on the human figure must be treated with caution at Hyrstmount, as most of the children are from Muslim backgrounds, but art work is no less rich for that. Here, year 3 and Y4 pupils are designing colourful banners characterising their school for a Batley City Challenge competition. "We thought we wanted an Islamic flavour. We decided patterns would be great," said art co-ordinator Hilary Towers. "A lot of schools would be putting faces and people on their banners, but that wouldn't be appropriate for us." The children researched Islamic and Hindu designs, which also fit into a project on Pakistan.
Western art also provides inspiration. In one classroom, the results of children's careful scrutiny of small areas of a Monet waterlillies painting are fitted together and displayed below a print of the original on a huge banner hanging from the school's cathedral ceiling. "A lot of the artists we introduce them to, like Klee and Kandinsky, make little use of the human form," says Ms Smith. And the children "bring a lot of ideas from their own culture into the artwork as well".
The arts, she says, are "a very good vehicle for developing language and communication skills". Observation, colour-mixing, choosing the medium for the job not only develop vocabulary, but problem-solving and decision-making, say teachers. Many of the skills relate to maths and science investigation work. "There's the same principle of 'what does it look like? What can I do with it?'," says Sue King, joint acting head of curriculum, support and development services in Kirklees.
But she stresses that art is an intellectual activity in its own right, helping children gain a sense of order and control.
Kirklees' school library service, Books+, supports art in schools with its Artboxes scheme, which costs Pounds 250 a year for a school or pair of small schools. Each box contains an original work by a local artist, with supporting materials, often including notes showing the artist's thinking or a video. "It teaches children that artists aren't dead," says projects officer Louise Hazell. "When schools have had the box they ring the artist and get them in."
Hyrstmount is an enthusiastic subscriber, with what seems to be an endless stream of local artists coming in to work with the children. Fanciful and colourful sculpture, inspired by artist Mick Kirkby-Geddes, is displayed in the corridor. There are coke-bottle dolphins leaping above egg-crate waves, and a rain forest is symbolised by a cloud with drops falling from it above trees, all made of old card and bits of paper. He "showed them about stuffing gloves and all sorts of things", says Ms Smith.
There is a great deal of three-dimensional work at Hyrstmount, with inspiration often taken from one art-form to another and much use of found materials. Scraps of fabric are brought from home, and jewellery has been made from bits of aluminium, material and sequins. Fabric painting and applique have been inspired by poetry; batiks by a local artist's jewellery.
In these Kirklees schools, says Sue Mulvany, the artwork reflects "the richness of the primary curriculum".