Frances Farrer introduces an international project aimed at bringing creativity back into Europe's schools
"I show them something of the process of making a book," says Jackie Morris (right). "I think it's good to know that it's work done by normal people. I also like them to give free rein to their imagination. It can be revealing; when I asked them to draw their own dragons, one little girl drew the dragon wrapped around her family, to protect it."
At Buckland primary, near Faringdon, Oxfordshire, pupils were looking at the work of illustrator Jackie Morris, especially her folk tale called Mariana and the Merchild. Jackie Morris visited the school to run technical workshops, drawing the shapes, making colour washes, overlaying paint. In one morning session during April the children made a mural featuring some superb dolphins and starfish, like the ones in the book, then settled down for an afternoon watching the artist make a painting.
Their questions were practical: "Why would you ever make pictures without colour?" "What do you do when you don't know how to draw something?" "How old do you have to be to be an artist?" The children say the artistic exercises are "cool".
"They see books but they don't normally see the work that goes into it," says early years teacher Mary Schofield. "If you give children a creative curriculum and inspire them to want to learn," says headteacher Cara Lynch-Blosse "you will have a good outcome. We've had lots of strategies, now we're confident enough to think how best to use them. There's a move to make schoolwork more exciting, towards more co-operation between schools.
There was concern that our diet of education had become too dull. Now, we're opening our doors."
Buckland is linked with schools from six European countries, all studying home-based artists, then making works in similar style to put into an exhibition. They are also exchanging their own original works and forming pen-pal links, all under the umbrella of the British Council's Comenius Project. It's art, ICT, global citizenship and, as Cara Lynch-Blosse says, "such good fun. My class are keen to write to their pen pals, they appreciate they'll get something back."
The Oxfordshire children have created beautifully illustrated exercise books about their school; children in Breno, Italy, sent a huge illustrated book about their farming community, in which each page had a batten frame; others have sent scrapbooks with meticulous descriptions of local life.
The project began with the collection of local information and the recording of aspects of school life. "We've sent work on history - one class did a book with pictures of the village. We've also done work on playground games." In Buckland, they looked at Turner - in Spain, at Goya and Dali.
Several British teachers visited participating schools in Italy and Belgium, and future visits will include Spain, Finland and Cyprus. "In all of the countries, there's a feeling that the arts have been pushed out," says Mrs Lynch-Blosse. "The Spanish teacher, especially, thought that in recent years academic work had become too time-consuming."
This way art history comes to life for pupils and teachers share experience.
* Information about the Comenius project, grants, links to partner schools, and applications for joint projects: www.BritishCouncil.org.uk