Hilary Wilce traces the chain of supportive links for school arts education across London
When parents turned up at Oakdale junior school in Redbridge, north-east London, at the end of last term to watch their children demonstrate through song, dance and acting some of what they had learned that year, they were seeing not only the sparkling Arts Afternoon billed in the programme, but also just how lively education can be when the arts are constructively supported in schools.
In today's educational climate, with so many arts advisers lost and creativity having to play second fiddle to the basics, only the determined intervention of those passionately committed to arts in education ensures that they continue to flourish in hard-pressed schools.
Oakdale's pupils dramatised the witches' scene from Macbeth. They presented sketches they had written about everyday life in the Second World War, and created sound pictures of life in the rain forest. They sang like angels and danced with enthusiasm, all thanks to the commitment of headteacher Gareth Brooke-Williams, who is in no doubt that creativity anchors and extends children's learning. "It addresses the whole child. It reinforces the curriculum. It gives a purpose to what they're learning. They're not just sitting behind slabs of wood being told things - and when children connect emotionally with what they're doing, they remember it."
Oakdale is a successful school that has doubled in size in the past three years, assisted by Mr Brooke-Williams's determination to build a staff team strong in music and drama, who deliver a vibrant, integrated arts policy that includes hosting a variety of visiting artists and theatre groups. Recently Oakdale undertook a whole-school arts audit. "It was the first time we'd sat down - governors, teachers and parents together - and thought about what we are doing, and why," says Mr Brooke-Williams. "I'm essentially an intuitive kind of guy, but you need a logical justification for what you do, otherwise I'd be just one of those arty-farty heads, prancing round the school saying 'Isn't it wonderful?' and not knowing why."
Yet logical justification takes time and money and the audit only came about through the next link in the arts support chain, the borough's Drama Centre, which asked local schools if they would like to undertake such an exercise, and offered advice and money for supply cover - in Oakdale's case about pound;400.
Redbridge has always maintained strong arts support, and the Drama Centre - a former infants' school converted into theatre, workshop and television studio and recently extended with a pound;250,000 Lottery grant - is the engine room for that support. It provides drama, theatre and media services to the borough's schools, runs a community theatre programme (recently touring local schools with a fast-and-funny play about conservation, The Last Days of Lorraine Forest) organises artists-in-schools projects, offers in-service training, and helps schools evaluate arts projects.
"Schools buy into us because they know they get good quality," says the Centre's leader Josanne Balcombe. "That's the key to everything."
Mr Brooke-Williams agrees: "Without the role the Drama Centre plays, this borough would be a much poorer place." Redbridge was one of the first London broughs to take advantage of a new city-wide initiative to offer longer-term funding for arts projects, and this forms the next link in the chain. A three-year grant in 1996 from the new London Education Arts Partnership (LEAP) allowed it to embark on a number of initiatives to strengthen arts in the borough, and put long-term policy and strategy in place. The money was used to fund a photography project recording arts work in the area, a borough-wide arts audit, external reports on arts in the borough, and the production of a leaflet that developed and confirmed policy. "The important thing was that with three-year funding we could think strategically. An awful lot of things were done," says Josanne Balcombe. "Our whole focus was on developing strategies and networks."
LEAP, which now involves 14 London boroughs, exists to promote a creative learning environment through the arts, and works with boroughs, young people, arts organisations, schools, universities and business. This only one link in the chain is now an independent agency, but was originally launched by the London Arts Board (LAB), which spends pound;300,000 a year directly funding arts initiatives for young people through its Access Unit, as well as supporting them through a variety of other channels.
LAB covers the whole of the capital, brokering partnerships between schools and outside agencies, and furthering the debate about creativity in teaching and learning. It runs training courses, puts out policy papers, and backs websites, directories, networks and projects across the artistic board. Through its support, sculptors and storytellers work in schools, mosaics are created, plays written, films made, and young actors encouraged. The work spreads to all corners of the capital and into all communities, many of which were brought together in its major conference, Arts Ed 2000, last summer.
"There is a move to work more closely with LEAP and the London Youth Arts Network on a number of new initiatives," says Abigail Moss, education and development officer. "We want to get other agencies involved, and get beyond the whole idea of education as just being something that is delivered in schools." A series of breakfast seminars, on topics such as "skills and employment" and "the standards debate" are planned.
"We're also offering some new short training courses for artists working in schools, and we want to help carry forward the whole debate about whether artists working with young people should be accredited in some way, or not," says Abigail Moss.
"Having a bird's eye-view, we are able to identify what people's needs are and try and find a way to bring the right people together in the right place. A lot of this we do by helping to set up local agencies and forums. In boroughs such as Barnet, for example, there's an arts education forum which brings together teachers and the artists who might work with them in schools. In fact about half the London borough's now have a dedicated arts forum of some sort, and new ones are being set up all the time."
Further information on the London Arts Board from Abigail Moss, arts and development officer, tel: 020 7670 2446. www.arts.org.uklabFor artists and arts organisations working in London schools and youth groups tel: 020 7240 4584www.artscape.org.uk