The Royal Academy is bringing naked life to the classroom. Dorothy Stiven joined a lesson
PICTURE the scene. The assembly hall of a large inner-city comprehensive on a dull autumn morning where a petite woman commands the full attention of a mixed group of 30 adolescents. Nothing unusual in that - except she is naked.
This is not a radical new teaching method to motivate 14-year-old boys, nor is it a liberal way of teaching sex education, but a workshop on life drawing held by Outreach, the education arm of London's prestigious Royal Academy of Art.
Today, accompanied by tutor Paul Brandford, life model Niki Baldwin is working with an A-level art class at Acland Burghley school, a north London comprehensive.
The day workshop is about A-level life drawing, but the academy's education department has a varied programme for schools - there is even a workshop in life drawing for primary schools, though the models are clothed.
Given that the Royal Academy sits firmly at the centre of the art establishment it is perhaps surprising to find that the sponsor of the life-drawing programme is Yakult, the Japanese company which manufactures "live" milk and believes "that a healthy body and mind forms the basis of a healthy society".
But as the workshop at Acland Burghley progresses, it soon becomes apparent that this is no conventional approach to life drawing. The workshop concentrates less on technique than on helping students to develop an individual style. Mr Brandford says the aim of the day is "helping them see beyond the obvious".
Ms Baldwin, who trained as a dancer, works with Mr Brandford to create a series of pictures - both visually and using the spoken word - to challenge students to bring something deeper to their work.
Although different teams of tutors and life models work on the life-drawing programme, the purpose remains the same - not to teach students to become artists, but to develop their curiosity and encourage them to experiment. This is Outreach's second visit to Acland Burghley, a school already renowned for its achievements in art. According to teacher Lennox Barton, head of key stage 3 art, the workshop really gives the students something extra.
"The whole day is very exciting for the students and we see a big difference in the development of their work. We still have them coming to us later saying 'are we really allowed to do it this way?'" On the surface it may seem that these workshops are only aimed at the more privileged schools - looking at the list of forthcoming workshops, a high proportion are in the private sector.
However, Mr Brandford is emphatic that the schools they visit cover the whole social spectrum and no one should be put off. "The schools where we see the best immediate results are not perhaps the obvious ones. It's down to the teaching and stimulation they've already had."
As the day draws to a close and Ms Baldwin puts her clothes back on, the students evaluate their work.
There is a general feeling that the workshop has given them a different perspective on life drawing and the confidence to be more daring. And, as student Ann Tillinghast, 17, puts it: "It's much more interesting than drawing apples."
For details of the Outreach programme contact: The Education Office, Royal Academy of Art, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1VS 0DS. Tel: 0171 300 8000