A pioneering initiative to inspire personal creativity may be just what's needed to keep stressed-out teachers in the job, writes Phil Wisdom.
It's five o'clock on Friday evening. School's over for another week. You've worked 67 hours, your feet are killing you, you're losing your voice, you've got a pile of marking two feet high and you could do with some time off. So why would you want to spend your precious weekend learning batik? Because it might just save your sanity and kick-start your career, that's why.
The Tandem Project, a pioneering initiative in south-west England which has just received almost pound;25,000 in National Lottery arts funding, is designed for teachers, trainees and classroom assistants. But, for once, it isn't about the job. It aims simply to reawaken teachers' creativity and unleash the potential they no longer find scope for at school. And it works. "It's been an inspiration," says Chris Owen from Boskenwyn primary school near Helston, Cornwall, who joined a course at the Tate Gallery in St Ives, exploring ideas about landscape through the work of artist Peter Lanyon. "I feel rejuvenated. I'm just hoping it doesn't wear off too quickly.
"These days, we don't do enough for ourselves. It was a real treat. I saw the leaflet and thought, 'Ooh, something to refresh the parts other things don't reach'. I thought it would give my brain a rest. It cost pound;40, but the head was happy to fund it because we're so busy doing Inset for maths and English, and this was something just for me. I came back inspired, and determined to do some painting at home - I haven't done that for years."
Is there a pay-off in the classroom? Ms Owen has no doubts. "I did it for my benefit, but if you're feeling enlivened you're a better teacher. There really is a place for teachers who are novices at something, to get together and have an enjoyable time gaining knowledge, without having to write it all up. After all, we're always on about learning being a wonderful thing.
"Primary teachers are expected to be experts at everything, which can make you feel overwhelmed. We feel used and abused because we're having one thing after another thrown at us. We're so physically and mentally drained that half the time all we want to do is slob out. On a course like this you're working hard, but it's uplifting. Everybody's quietly getting on with their work. It isn't relaxing, it's absorbing."
Chris Owen's one-off experience throws into sharp relief the shortcomings in a teacher's normal routine. "This was a weekend course, but I think teachers would like to have this sort of stimulation in school time."
Those behind the Tandem Project have ambitions to extend it nationwide. Like most good ideas, it originated from one person - John Moat of arts education charity the Arvon Foundation. In 1998, he organised two courses exclusively for teachers at Totleigh Barton in Devon, covering creative writing and sculpture. Special needs teacher Sali Mustafic, from Exeter's Southbrook school, was one of those who signed up. It cost her around pound;300 - and was worth every penny. "It got the juices flowing again and turned me back into a whole person, with a more creative approach to life," she says.
"For the rest of the following year I was inspired. I came back and immediately wrote a programme of study on Macbeth for Year 6. I was unstoppable. I'd started writing poetry on the course and got three poems published immediately - it was incredible. I started a novel, joined a writing course, was asked to present my Macbeth programme as Inset training for all the special schools in Devon, and went on to get advanced skills status."
The success of these first courses - and the obvious need for them - inspired John Moat to bring his idea to South West Arts, the region's official public body for the arts. A study was carried out to establish whethr courses specifically for teachers would be viable on a larger scale, and this led to the pilot scheme now under way in South West Arts' home region (covering the county councils of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire and Somerset, and the unitary authorities of Bristol, Bath and North-east Somerset, North Somerset, South Gloucestershire, Plymouth and Torbay).
"Teachers seem to be getting more and more pressured and having less time to teach," explains project co-ordinator Joanna Morland, a practising artist. "They're the resource that drives education but they're being used up and leaving the profession. John Moat believes the arts provide a way for them to re-energise themselves spiritually - to find their creative core again - and put that energy back into their teaching. At school, he had a great art teacher, an experience he says stays with you. Some of the teachers who did the initial Arvon courses are now on the project committee, and remain fired-up."
As its name implies, Tandem is a partnership - South West Arts describes it as "a teacher-artist alliance" in which the artists benefit from learning about teaching, and vice versa. Events over the coming season range from dance, circus skills and writing for performance to DJ-ing and improvising an opera.
"We've put together 30 activities across a range of art forms," says Joanna Morland. "Some are in term-time, some in the evenings, others at weekends or during the holidays so we can see what people want. The bookings are organised with the artists and the courses are costed realistically so they get properly paid. Tandem's role is to provide the philosophical umbrella, and the marketing.
"We're asking teachers, 'Should this be part of your professional development programme?', but they say this is something they need for themselves."
Financial support from the Regional Arts Lottery Programme, the Arts Council of England and the Extension Trust also helps with course costs, which range from pound;15 to pound;400. "It's important that heads recognise the value of this project, so we ask for a minimum of pound;25 from the school," says Ms Morland. "They can then ask for money from the project's own incentive fund up to a further pound;100 including, for example, the cost of supply cover. Releasing teachers is a problem, so fewer than one in four of these courses is in term-time."
The Tandem Project is one of several initiatives focusing on arts education, including South West Arts' own Better Arts, Better Schools scheme, under which local partnership agencies develop and co-ordinate projects with artistsin schools.
The Government has begun to acknowledge the importance of the arts in education through initiatives such as Artsmark, which encourages schools to invest in teachers' creativity, and Creative Sponsorship for Teachers.
But Joanna Morland would like to see that commitment extended, with the Tandem Project as part of the process. "Once we have a large enough evaluation group we will be able to gather a body of evidence to take to the Department for Education and Employment and the Arts Council to try to influence national policy," she says. "If it's accepted, it would make the profession sustainable. It's definitely lacking at the moment."
So why this sudden interest in the arts? "The report All Our Futures (Professor Ken Robinson's 1999 report on creative and cultural education) seemed to sink without trace, but I have a feeling it made more of an impact than was visible at the time," says Ms Morland. "The climate has changed just since I've been working on this project, especially in the past three months. It feels like a positive time to be doing this."
More information on the Tandem Project is available at www.tandemproject.org.uk, from South West Arts on 01392 218188 or from Joanna Morland at 18 Cove Cottages, Portland, Dorset DT5 1J