Art beat

8th January 1999 at 00:00
The great thing aboutteaching is that there are two beginnings every year. If the resolutions made in September have proved unsatisfactory or impossible, now is the time to change tack or come up with some sparkling new ideas. Or just to recognise the brilliance of someone else's. A visit to Leeds at the end of last term proved inspirational for me.

The West Yorkshire Playhouse is awash with imaginative projects and keen to involve the whole community, including teachers - and not just those in arts departments. As Education Secretary David Blunkett said in launching Word Play, the Playhouse's literacy scheme: "I am deeply impressed with what is happening in Leeds, because it is bringing together the strands of basic learning and creativity". Other projects involve arts and crafts and material suitable for personal and social education. Lucky the schools in and around Leeds, but it is always worth asking about education plans at your local theatre and art gallery. If nothing much is happening, you may be able to make some useful suggestions.

Lunch-time on Wednesdays at the Playhouse is a bit of a free-for-all. The cafe area of the foyer is spacious enough on most days but on Wednesdays there's a crush. This is "Hey-days" day. More than 400 people aged between 55 and 92 crowd in to take classes in painting or book-binding, to dance, do drama or sing. It costs them pound;8 a year. This is life-long learning in action.

Barbara Malthouse is an enthusiastic Heydays member and something of a musicals buff; she usually sees the big WYP productions twice, taking a bus across Leeds to the theatre. But I met her at Blenheim Primary. At the other end of the age range, WYP education staff contribute to after-school clubs in a programme called SPARK (Sport amp; Arts Towards Knowledge), a partnership involving, among others, Leeds United Football Club and Leeds Rhinos Rugby League.

At Blenheim, Barbara was helping with an after-school storytelling session in which Sam Perkins, WYP community development officer, was using a story sack to entertain a group of seven-year-olds. A story sack is a brightly-coloured fabric bag with the name of a book embroidered on it. Inside are hand-made toys dressed as characters in the story, puppets, an audio tape and the book. Story sacks are made by Heydays members, but Barbara wanted to be more directly involved. So here she was on the floor, encouraging writing and drawing about a lazy farmer.

Also on hand was Dave Burt, a primary adviser assigned to the Playhouse for a couple of days each week. His experience and enthusiasm are invaluable to WYP education, but he also has another advantage: he knows where to get a store of sturdy cardboard boxes with lids, for free. These are for another storytelling scheme, Story Makers, for nursery schools, under which schools receive a mystery parcel from the Playhouse. So far children have unwrapped a star and a hat with their teachers and then invented stories. The latest surprise is a boot. The objects come from the props department and so can be very strange indeed. Maureen Rooksby, head of education at the Playhouse, says the idea suddenly took off, the requests to participate going from four to 72 in October alone.

Meanwhile, secondary schools have been taking part in a drugs education project, Head On, presented by the West Yorkshire Playhouse Schools Touring Company in association with Base 10, a drugs support and information agency. Base 10 specialises in preparing young people aged 14 to 22 to work in peer education. At Farnley Park High School in Leeds, Sarah Galvin and Simon Latham made an admirable contribution to a powerful presentation by the professional actors. Sarah, who wants to be a social worker, is frequently out of school for a day a week taking part in Head On. This, she says, is a good group. Six monologues are offered from which the teacher chooses the three most suitable. Actors perform these - the mother whose child is in care, the boy in danger of dropping out of education - and then answer questions in role and involve the class in problem-solving. It is informative, non-judgmental - and riveting drama. Teacher Stephanie Coyle, who attended an in-service training day at the Playhouse, says, "I can't tell you how much I'm loving it".

And I haven't even mentioned the more usual things that theatres do: the INSET days, the backstage visits, the support for exam students. Long may West Yorkshire Playhouse flourish. Inquiries: 0113 213 7800.

Heather Neill

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