Brush off that threat to the arts;Briefing;School Management

29th January 1999 at 00:00
Subject audits can lead to a pat on the back for teachers tackling an overloaded curriculum. Diana Hinds reports.

Few teachers involved with the arts would deny that their subjects are under threat. Since the Government's announcement last January that schools were no longer obliged to follow the programmes of study for non-core subjects - including art, music and dance (in physical education) - many have expressed concerns that their subjects could be badly squeezed.

This is particularly so in schools where confidence in teaching the arts is lacking. The additional timetable pressures of fitting in a daily literacy and numeracy hour have exacerbated the problem.

But the arts are fighting back. The Government also suggested last year that school prospectuses and governors' annual reports should include a statement on arts policy and provision. Last November, the Royal Society for the Arts launched a new project to help schools do exactly this bycarrying out a school arts audit.

Such exercises may, at first, sound little more than another bureaucratic burden. But the RSA has something infinitely more positive in mind: an audit which shows schools how much work they are already putting into the arts. One bonus is that it enables them to give themselves a pat on the back.

"Our main purpose is to support schools at a time when arts education is threatened," says Sue Harries, the RSA's project co-ordinator. "We want schools to identify what arts work is being done and how much time is being spent in the hope that it will reveal that more is being done than they realised, in different ways, across the whole curriculum. This should make teachers feel less anxious, and also help them to work together."

Six schools across the country - primary, secondary and special, each with varying strengths in the arts - took part in the first stage of the project. Members of the society's team helped them compile the audit: each school received a pound;700 grant, sent staff on a training day, and set up practical work with a local artist.

"In each school, teachers were happily surprised to find how much arts work was being done," says Sue Harries. "They found that colleagues were doing things they had not been aware of and that they were not on their own."

As well as identifying strengths, an arts audit can also be helpful in revealing gaps, enabling a school to plan more effectively. The RSA's hope is that more schools will now follow suit.

In the second phase of the project, which started this month, 36 schools will work on audits with local arts organisations to foster better links between the two. The RSA will develop guidelines for good practice, and will be encouraging local authorities to put some time and money into school audits. The possibility of an award as an incentive to schools to carry out an audit has also been raised with the Department for Education and Employment.

Bishop Road primary school in Bishopston, Bristol, took part in the RSA project, with a well-established commitment to the arts already in place.

"We wanted to raise the profile of the arts in the light of the onslaught from literacy and numeracy studies," explains John Waldren, the head, an English and drama graduate who enthusiastically trains the school choir for public performances around Bristol. "The audit has been very good for staff morale, and it is also useful to have a written record of all that we've achieved."

The school, the largest primary in Bristol, has what Mr Waldren describes as a "bright, articulate intake". Last year's national test results were the highest in the county. But Mr Waldren is adamant that part of the reason for the school's academic success is its work in the arts.

Art, music, dance and drama all help to give children confidence, self-respect and motivation, he says - "not just for the stars, but the rascals too, who can be very sparky children, needing an outlet for their energy".

A strong arts programme is also a good way of involving parents who come to school to watch performances. They can be encouraged to share their own skills.

The quality and vibrancy, not to mention the sheer volume, of art work displayed around the school is enough to convince the visitor that this is a place that takes the arts seriously whatever the pressures. Pupils, too, are enthusiastic.

Luke Reed, 10, says he particularly enjoys acting, and pencil-drawing. "It's good to have some things at school which don't make people think it's all boring. It's good to have some fun things - and art is usually fun."

Hannah Bossward, age 11, likes art, drama and dance. "You can learn a lot from them, but they are fun at the same time, more fun than other things, because you don't have to do any writing."

Valerie Woods, who is bothgovernor and school secretary at Bishop Road - she also runs popular art and sculpture clubs in the lunch hour - was one of the audit team, with John Waldren, and Anne McGrath, a teacher and parent. The audit was squeezed into two weeks that included a survey of staff skills in the arts and the drafting of a statement. Ideally, they could have done with a bit longer, says Valerie Woods.

Overall, the picture the Bishop Road audit paints is a positive one, but some gaps have been usefully exposed. Ms Woods would, for instance, like to see stronger links with local secondary schools and more collaborations with arts organisations that involve more than just a one-off workshop or performance. The school could also benefit, she believes, from visiting artists working with staff as well as with children.

Jan Foale, headteacher of Newtown first school in Exeter, another school involved in the project, says staff have welcomed the opportunity to compare practice with colleagues and other schools' arts co-ordinators.Newtown has used the RSAgrant to buy itself a kiln.

"The audit has focused our minds on the kinds of things we were doing, and what we might do in future. It has just given us that extra fillip to go forward."

Steve Taylor, head of community education at Danesfield community middle school, near Taunton in Somerset, says the audit has been valuable in enabling staff to "cross-fertilise" - for instance, the art teacher and music teacher have furthered their understanding of Impressionism in each other's specialism.

"The audit has offered the opportunity to regroup and strengthen, to consolidate and celebrate. But it would have been difficult for us to do without the extra help and money we've received."

EIGHT STEPS TO CONDUCTING AN AUDIT

Gather together a small team of auditors - for example, a teacher, governor and parent - and meet to decide on aims, objectives and ways of working. Try to keep every group (staff, governors,parents, pupils) informed of progress, and invite their comments.

* Set a timetable for doing the audit. (An audit prepared in advance of an OFSTED inspection can provide valuable material for the inspectors.) Publicise the audit, with notices and special displays of pupils' performance and art work around the school.

* Compile an arts calendar, or scrapbook. Include all arts events and activities over the past year or two involving the school and its pupils.

* Collect together all written material showing how far the school's thinking, policy and practice include the arts: for example timetable, development plan, targets for improvement, school prospectus, governors' annual report, press cuttings, newsletters.

* Identity arts resources which are available both in school and outside. (Be realistic here: this does not mean counting every paint pot.) * Spread the load by dividing the audit into a series of mini-audits, for example, staff skills, pupil involvement, funding, cross-curricular links, liaison with the community.

* Publicise the findings - for instance, by publishing a short report or setting up a display in school using pupils' work.

* Use the audit to write, or rewrite, the school's arts statement. Consider what you want to happen with the school's arts provision, how you can make it happen, and what is needed to make it happen. Then set priorities for action to meet these targets.

Investing in the Arts: How to carry out a school arts audit and compile an arts statement, is available from the Royal Society for the Arts, tel 0171 930 5115.

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