Artful steps to learning

22nd December 2006 at 00:00
From pottery to painting and poetry to opera, the Scottish Arts Council makes a strong case for the educational benefits that arts and crafts projects bring to teachers as well as pupils in subjects across the curriculum. Douglas Blane reports

a rich ruby dye, an operatic aria, a war play and a poem about an ancient Scottish building. It would be a tough task to find a common thread running through all these - without the benefit of Firing the Imagination from the Scottish Arts Council.

Currently being distributed to every school in Scotland, the vividly illustrated 30-page booklet celebrates the contribution the arts are making across schools and sectors. It provides a selection of case studies of cross-disciplinary projects that will be a key component of the new curriculum.

"We were keen to show the variety of ways schools can work with arts organisations to help deliver A Curriculum for Excellence," says Chrissie Ruckley, education officer at the Scottish Arts Council.

One of the common models is a residency, she explains, in which artists develop their own work, at the same time as teaching and working in schools: "A good example is Develop Craft Ayrshire, which had craftspeople going into different schools over a three-year period at no cost to the schools.

"At the other end of the spectrum you can have a project centred on the young people themselves, with different arts organisations pulled in to help with specific tasks."

Activities that straddle traditional subject boundaries motivate pupils and teachers. West Dunbartonshire schools have been studying their local industrial heritage, through printmaking and the story of a vibrant dye called Turkey Red, once used on fabrics exported from the Vale of Leven:

"That got the kids involved with so many aspects - making prints and dyes and exploring their local heritage. What caught my interest was that Gandhi, apparently, used to have his clothes dyed with Turkey Red. So it went out all around the world.

"Then there is the all-singing, all-dancing Scottish Opera model." Working with teachers, artists and animateurs with expertise in visual arts, film-making, music, dance and drama, North Ayrshire pupils have been creating and performing operas, developed from their own ideas: "It's a huge event and they're linking strongly to the curriculum, with environment and citizenship as well as music, English and drama."

The Scottish Poetry Library project was a different model again. This took the form of a competition that encouraged youngsters to rediscover the built environment through their own observations and experimenting with language: "In the arts organisations we might have thought a competition didn't have enough depth to be included," says Ms Ruckley. "But our steering group had a teacher and a headteacher on it, and they told us that that kind of project could be very useful.

"They said it motivates the kids, enhances what teachers are doing in class, and provides them with valuable resources."

A key component of all the case studies in Firing the Imagination is professional development for teachers. This aims to ensure that something more than a few works of art and a fading memory remains, after the artists have packed up and moved on.

"The CPD often goes well beyond the art and design departments," says Ms Ruckley. "Teachers from every subject can gain something valuable from an arts project."

The first point of contact for schools wanting to access the arts is their local cultural co-ordinator or creative links officer. There are 76 of the former and 24 of the latter around Scotland, mainly within education authorities. Creative links officers work at a strategic level - forging links between arts and education and developing arts education strategies.

Cultural co-ordinators are more closely involved with schools, helping them develop creative learning and arts opportunities: "They source funding and facilitate a range of activities in partnership with arts organisations,"

says Ms Ruckley.

"They encourage young people and teachers to engage with the arts. There are so many exciting ways of working in partnership with arts organisations to meet the aspirations of A Curriculum for Excellence. The potential is huge."

Scottish Arts Council T 0131 226 6051. E W


Mae Murray, principal teacher of music, Garnock Academy, and director of school choirs, North Ayrshire:

"We have worked with Scottish Opera on a number of occasions over the years. What happens is they send teams of people into schools, and take the kids through right from the start, getting them to create an opera, rehearse it and then perform it.

What is different about the one we are working on now is that it is with Primary 3 kids. We've done it with the secondary and upper primary, but never before with kids so young.

It has been going really well, though. Close to 500 pupils from 19 different primary schools have been involved, starting in February this year, when they began to create the opera.

After three months of working with the pupils in school, Scottish Opera went away and put it together. They came back in October and started working on the performances with the kids.

Everybody gets a taster of dance, drama, singing and visual arts, but for the perform-ances each school focuses on just one of these. There is also animation, which the kids have been working on. That will be running at the back of the stage during the performance.

The opera has a strong environmental theme, with Mr Tip-Top taking the kids on journeys and adventures. He is a Scottish Opera singer but the rest of the cast are kids. Everybody has a part to play and a job to do.

The opera has a strong environmental theme. But I can't tell you any more.

I've been sworn to secrecy. Even the parents don't know the story. If you want to know more, you'll have to come to the performances - Thursday to Saturday at Vikingar in Largs (December 20-22)."


David Flannery, headteacher, Abington Primary, South Lanarkshire:

"'Out of the Ordinary' was a painting, sculpture and photography exhibition on the theme of still life that travelled all around Scotland. Our local co-ordinator managed to get it to come to schools in the Biggar area. She also got some of the gallery staff to come down and run workshops with our pupils.

Arising from that, art teachers at the local secondary came into the primaries and ran a series of workshops, initially for staff, on the art approaches that were used in the exhibition. Then they came in and worked with our pupils. Finally we put together an exhibition of the pupils' work in the local arts centre.

It was the first time the kids had been involved with anything like that - and it was the first time we had taken the work the kids did in school out to the wider community. It was great to see the enthusiasm of pupils and parents.

A lot of primary teachers are hesitant about doing things with art because they feel they're not experts. These workshops gave them a lot of confidence.

Since then, the different schools have taken their own approaches to keeping the interest alive. A couple of them have brought in sculptors to work with the kids, and produce artwork for the schools.

At Abington Primary we have recently been tying the arts together with enterprise. We've been working with an artist and a poet, getting the kids to produce works on the theme of Spring: first light. They then hung them in a selling exhibition at the local gallery.

What has changed since working with the travelling exhibition is that there is now a far greater willingness on the part of teachers and pupils to try things out. The whole thing has been spectacularly successful."


John MacKenzie, depute head, Doon Academy, East Ayrshire:

"We had a potter in residence for 10 months. He was a real expert, a nice guy and a natural teacher who put in a lot of additional time with the kids. One of the reasons our bid to get him was successful, I think, was that we got our associated primary schools involved.

Teachers and pupils from the primaries came up on Friday mornings to work with him for a period, and then we got him for the rest of the day.

The pupils had a great time and the teachers learned a lot. He showed us a technique for mixing red and white clays to get a lovely layered effect in sculptures. Another technique I'd never seen before was throwing a ball of clay at a surface, so that it stretched and created interesting textural effects you could build upon.

He made tiles with coloured slips - very watery clay - and showed us how to cut through the layers to create a decorative effect on sculptures which he would then put together from the separate tiles. They looked fantastic.

We are quite isolated in Dalmellington, so it's difficult to get our kids to art galleries and museums. Bringing that practical expertise to the school was great for us. The other big benefit was staff development.

The potter showed us just what we could do working with clay. He had a big influence while he was here, and that has continued now that he has gone because of the skills and confidence he gave the teachers."

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