Scottish teachers involved in the arts could soon be improving their expertise in the shadow of the White House in Washington after an invitation to a five-day study programme from the founder of an arts-based school there.
Lawrence Riccio's School for Arts In Learning (SAIL) is only four blocks from the President's residence and is easily distinguishable from its more functional neighbours by its bold signs and brightly coloured banners.
The "school where the arts connect with real learning" was established in 1998, and is one of an increasing number of "public charter schools" in the District of Columbia set up as a result of widespread disillusionment with traditional city public schools. Charter schools are defined as "autonomously governed public schools designed to educate students in non-traditional ways and obligated by charter to monitor and record their performance".
The school's 86 pupils are aged from five to 12 and the pupil-teacher ratio is one to seven. The children, often from poor neighbourhoods, have found traditional education unsupportive and at times alienating, and have generally been considered "failures" in other schools.
Professor Riccio, the school's head, is president and chief executive of Washington Very Special Arts, which was set up in 1981 to provide arts programmes for young people with special needs, and no stranger to the arts and education scene in Scotland.
He has been a visiting professor at the former St Andrew's College and chief executive of the Arts is Magic project in the early nineties, which produced a series of festivals in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland. Last year he was a keynote speaker at "The Hundred Languages of Children" conference at Strathclyde University and last month he gave a presentation on the work of his school to the Scottish Arts Council. He is an honorary lecturer at Glasgow University.
He says: "Scotland and Britain could learn from what we are doing here by looking at alternative and innovative ways of dealing with kids. Education today is relly about supporting families and communities and as such, education is the core. If we change attitudes, we change the way people actually do things."
He rejects any dichotomy between "special" and "mainstream" education. "Changing the model of instruction, whether you do what we do here in SAIL, or whether you do it in Scotland, is not an issue of special education versus regular education. It is an issue of education in general - child-centred education to be more specific.
"Many kids are misidentified in the mild area, and these are generally kids that are disadvantaged, have special problems or are otherwise at risk. Just because they portray the needs of the special education student doesn't mean that they are really positively 'special ed'. Even if they were, does the diagnosis, the description of special ed, make the education different? My theory is that more often than not it does not. You need to change and have specially designed instruction for these kids but more than that, you have to have an attitude that everyone can learn or you have to change your perception to meet the needs of that child."
The arts as a learning tool help pupils to express their emotions, learn to respect those of other people and be proud of their work, thus enhancing self-esteem. They also encourage independent learning.
Mr Riccio reckons that in five to 10 years Scotland will have its own version of charter schools, which he sees as an extension of devolved budgets. His plan as a follow-up to the "Hundred Languages" conference to invite Scottish teachers to Washington might even speed up the process. "We found that there is a great interest in Scotland in using the arts in a non-traditional way in the classroom, so we are going to invite people over for short periods of time to work with our teachers and to learn our style. Hopefully they might even get a module or an accreditation out of it to take back to Scotland."
SAIL can be contacted at www. wvsarts.org. Lawrence Riccio's email address is: email@example.com.