On the eve of Burns' Night, pupils in West Dunbartonshire will present the finale of a project exploring the work of the Bard, Brian Hayward writes
If once in your life you recited, chorused or took your clarsach to a party, you most likely did so at school in honour of Burns. So it remains still. Even now, despite the constraints of the 5-14 guidelines and the shifting sands of curricular topics, Tam o' Shanter, the louse and the mouse, are still as sure as January.
Tam, always a trusty friend to teachers, is also a sure steed for arts companies. Now West Dunbartonshire Council is making the poem the cornerstone of its first arts and education links programme.
Beginning as a pilot for 30 pupils this month, the project will treble in size over the next two years to 90 pupils a year, with costs rising proportionately, to allow it to be offered to all seven secondary and 35 primary schools in the authority.
The near pound;30,000 project had over-ambitious aims initially. Not only were the pupils to explore and celebrate the life and work of the poet "in a contemporary and fun way", using modern technologies as well as music, drama and visual arts, but also the project would specially target at risk and disaffected pupils as it went about its general purpose of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school.
The latter clause was dropped after the first meeting with the drama leader, who pointed out that habitual truants were unlikely to be persuaded to volunteer for two hours of arts work after school, nor unruly pupils become disciplined performers after 22 hours of preparation.
Instead, for the pilot scheme, teachers in Dumbarton Academy and four feeder primaries selected talented volunteers from P6, P7 and S1 classes.
To deliver the project, West Dunbartonshire called on GMG Productions, which was formed from two Glasgow-based arts facilitators. They field a strong team, including drama director Shona McKee, choreographer Jane Simpson and Inigo Garrido, a Basque video animateur who delights children by putting their work on the silver screen. It measures 25ft x 20ft, covers the back wall of the stage and, in this project, serves as a virtual set for the Tam o' Shanter drama with location photographs of the Ayrshire landmarks.
Mr Garrido's finest hour comes with the chase, when he animates the children's drawings of the witches and their quarry. Moreover, he morphs photographs of the children's faces on to the characters and can age or diabolise them as the roles demand.
Producer Julie Gilchrist says: "The primary children have enjoyed coming to the big school on Wednesday evenings and feel they have gained control of the building that they will be coming to in September." However, the stage at Dumbarton Academy is not being used for the finale.
The only performance will be for invited family and friends in the Denny Civic Theatre today. The public theatre gives a high profile to the work.
No doubt there will be improvements to the project over the next two years.
It was instigated by Eona Craig, who is completing her first year as arts and education links officer for West Dunbartonshire, as part of the links scheme pioneered by Scottish Arts Council education officer Sylvia Dow.
The scheme has been so successful that it now has been taken up by every authority. Ian McMurdo, the local director for education and cultural services, sees this adoption as "testament to the belief the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Arts Council and the Association of Directors of Education have in the power of creative learning and arts participation".
Other activities Ms Craig has lined up include visits from Oily Cart and Scottish Youth Dance, writer in residence Catherine MacPhail and poets in residence Franzeska Ewart and Brian Whittingham, who will be in the area for up to three months.
She also has booked the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (where she began her career in arts administration after teaching music) for two concerts in Clydebank Town Hall on Tuesday next week, the first for West Dunbartonshire's S1 and S2 pupils and an afternoon session for the senior secondary pupils. Both will feature Stravinsky's The Firebird, but while the juniors' programme also includes Beethoven and Danny Elfman's theme from The Simpsons, the seniors will be given an exposition of the curriculum concepts and other secrets of Stravinsky's ballet score before an uninterrupted performance.