Art and mind

4th April 2003 at 01:00
An emphasis on art can bring out children's potential, says Harvey McGavin

Everyone at Fairley House School has a hand in its decoration.

Corridors and classrooms are festooned with art work and the 95 primary-sized palms that made it all happen are each represented in a six-foot tree collage of bright green handprints. This independent day school for dyslexic and dyspraxic children in Pimlico, central London, is in a great location for aesthetes such as art teacher Ann Osborn. She regularly takes her classes round the corner to the Tate Gallery for a quick burst of inspiration.

One such trip resulted in the huge pastiche of Monet's "Water Lilies" that hangs next to a stairwell and was made by a class of 12 pupils. "We are fortunate," says Ann. "We have everything on our doorstep."

Elsewhere in the school can be found starkly impressive pen-and-ink drawings of Lambeth Bridge, collages of leaves from London plane trees, and a "Starry night" in the style of Van Gogh. Ann's next big project will be a recreation of Turner's atmospheric Thames waterscapes.

Large-scale collaborative artworks like this - and the tiled series on "Civilisations through the Ages" that runs up the stairs - are a sign of the emphasis Fairley House puts on art as a way of raising pupils' confidence and skills. The Year 5 class is concentrating hard on detailed individual drawings of something from much further afield - a collection of exotic warm-water shells.

"Really think about the shape, the size and the texture," she says. "Look at it from all angles. Feel it through your fingertips. Remember the golden rules - look, think, and look again. Remember to look at things from different angles because that's what artists do."

Encouragement is a big part of her teaching technique. The gentle instructions to the 10 boys in her class (boys outnumber girls at Fairley House as they do among all children diagnosed as dyslexic) are punctuated with cries of "good" and "well done" and a generous reward system.

"Everybody knows how to draw," she tells them. "Before you learn to write you learn to draw. Whatever way you want to do it is okay. There's no wrong way - it's up to you." After a few minutes, impressively meticulous pencil drawings are beginning to take shape on their pages.

Ann, a former special educational needs co-ordinator in the state sector who has always been interested in special needs is enjoying working with dyslexic children full-time since moving to the independent sector six years ago. Fairley House - which children usually attend for a couple of years before going back into mainstream education - is a small school but it has a well equipped art room where all children study for an hour each week.

"They can see there's a great emphasis on art. I tell them this lesson is just as important as all their other lessons. It's not a soft option - we make sure they put in as much effort as they would expect to do in maths or English."

Ann asks her pupils to describe the shells ("It looks like a tornado inside," offers Ben) and makes a note of the responses so that language coming out of art lessons can be followed up in English classes. Sequential thinking, which is difficult for dyslexic children, is improved by preparing comic-strip-style storyboards ("I tell them to think in terms of a video running in their heads").

And all of this fine motor work has knock-on benefits for the children's writing skills. "You hear about art being marginalised in schools because of the emphasis on core subjects, but it's important, it matters."

Especially, says Ann, for children with special needs like these. "It opens up the world for them. It's a great way of bringing out their potential. I could happily do art all day." And, as they silently concentrate on their observational drawings so, it seems, could her pupils.

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