Carolyn Grady visits three Colchester schools where children are using their creativity to develop their understanding of how society works
"Most children can name a footballer," says Laura Davison, "but very few could name an artist." Education and access officer for ArC (Art Research and Citizenship), she says the project aims to measure the effects art can have on the citizenship skills of young children, while at the same time establishing artists as positive role-models. Organised by Firstsite, a charity which promotes visual arts, and the Colchester Schools consortium, the ArC project will eventually result in artworks for display in the 15 participating schools, and an assessment of how art can be used to develop intelligent citizenship. Each school works with a visiting artist for 10 full days over six weeks.
I visited three of the schools involved: Old Heath Community Primary School, where children in Years 4 and 5 are looking at a redevelopment in the port area; Monkwick Infant School, where pupils are using cottonbuds to represent their relationships with family members, friends, teachers and other school staff; and Cherry Tree Primary School, where Years 1 and 2 are finding out about the importance of protecting the environment.
Area in transition
The Hythe, an area of wharfs and warehouses in the once vibrant port of Colchester, is being redeveloped. During the transition, it is providing a fruitful subject for a Year 45 project at Old Heath Community Primary School. Artist Clare Iles and teacher Marianne Kiff begin with an exercise to encourage the children to focus on their community. Pupils place dots on maps to show where they live, and then write on notes what they feel is special in their area and what they give to their community - "I like the field because I can play sports on the field"; "I like living in this road because all my friends live near me"; "I look after my neighbour's cat".
These are stuck on to a piece of paper that has been divided into sections for different roads.
The children look at old photos of the area, which prime them on how to look at the development and to think about the people who once lived there and those who live there now. During their visit to the Hythe, the children take photos, make sketches and collect objects: pieces of plastic, wood, or building materials.
Back in school, they find inspiration from the photos and sketches for making sculptures using the collected objects - some make three-dimensional abstract pieces using plastic, string and wood; others more map-like works.
They have a visit from a representative of the regeneration office to tell them about the area's past and future. They then write about the site, making a map to illustrate how they found it, and how they might like to see it.
If you visit Monkwick Infants School, it is likely that a pupil will take you to look at a group of cottonbuds that have been stuck vertically on to a table, and will explain that one cottonbud is your host's aunt and another, perhaps, their dog. Husband and wife team, dance artist Debbie Watkins Jones and visual artist Jevan, have been working with the reception class, focusing on tolerance, understanding, acceptance, compassion and integration as aspects of intelligent citizenship.
Says teacher Juliet Evans: "At foundation stage we wanted to keep to what's important to small children - families, class groups, friends. We gradually work outwards - for example to include teachers, dinner ladies and lollipop people."
Having talked about their family, each child uses cottonbuds, drawing pins and white tacks to represent them, cutting down the stalks for shorter relatives and indicating other characteristics by dipping the cottonbuds in paints. With their family grouped on a table, each child drew a circle around them and wrote their names nearby. They discussed how it was no longer just them in the room but their families, too; how the table could represent Colchester, or just the estate around the school, and if anyone's family knew other families.
They are now creating families with plastic bottles. Different bottle shapes and colours give children more scope for expression. "The idea,"
says Jevan, "is that this strengthens their sense of personal identity and increases their awareness of their peers' identities."
Family trees and recycling
At Cherry Tree Primary School, Colchester, Years 12 teacher Heather Jones admits that initially she found it hard to see how they would link family trees and recycling, but gradually she saw that there was a link - "it was in the importance of them protecting the environment for their own children and grandchildren."
In a project that ranges across the curriculum, the children began by creating a family tree using drawings and old photos sent in by parents, and then moved on to recycling - collecting rubbish and sorting it, saving water and caring for plants - and arranged an afternoon for grandparents to visit, giving them tea and biscuits made by the children.
Pupils worked with printmaker Jacqueline Davis, screenprinting and blockprinting on fabric and paper on the project themes, and creating textile collages using the school motto, Respect (standing for concepts such as responsibility; enjoying our work; smile and keep safe). The final piece is a textile collage on the theme of family and recycling.
"It's really stimulated them to think about where they fit into their community and what they can do to help improve their own environment," says teacher Heather Jones. "The large collage has several mirrors on it, so that when pupils look at it they see themselves as part of it, and, by implication, part of their community."
Managing a collaboration
* With a long project, outcomes are uncertain and the final work could change radically as the work develops. Go with it!
* The artist may not be a teacher - they will think differently to you.
* Communicate with the artist before the project. Discuss expectations and planning.
* Decide the level of support that will be offered, for example the number of teaching assistants needed for activities out of the classroom.
* Allow the artist to do their job. They will adapt their ideas to incorporate and take note of what children are suggesting.
* Allow time after each visit and workshop for evaluation and discussion of what will happen on the next visit.
* Record the responses of children and adults to the activities as a positive record of the events and to ensure an ongoing evaluation of the project.
* Decide with the artist any key words that you hope will emerge from children's discussion.
* Follow through any important or interesting points with the children between visits. Make it obvious that the artist's contribution is seen as valuable and has impact when they are not there.
* Develop cross-curricular activities to continue the pace of the project between visits.
* Keep other members of staff informed about what you are doing.
* Encourage children's families and friends to become involved.