Curriculum: Arts - Hands up for talent

10th April 2009 at 01:00
Devoting five hours a week to cultural activities is a challenge, but schools that come close reap rewards

Pupils at Charlton School have taken over Wellington Market in Shropshire. But instead of selling fresh fruit and veg, their stalls are peddling the arts. Some teenagers are reading out semi-autobiographical stories; others are performing circus tricks or treating the heaving crowd to a rock concert, street dancing, pantomimes or plays.

"We had about 250 people mingling round the stalls, including ex-pupils and parents who would never normally get involved in school activities," says Wayne Denfhy, assistant head of the Telford school, which specialises in science and maths. "It brought culture to the masses."

The "creative marketplace" was the culmination of an intensive arts project that saw 100 pupils working with a range of external organisations and professionals. Five days were put aside to explore drama and dance with The PlayHouse theatre and DanceXchange in Birmingham, while the Mythstories Museum and Birmingham Museum amp; Art Gallery helped the pupils source and develop poignant stories from their own lives.

"The arts shouldn't just be for those with middle-class parents," says Mr Denfhy. "This project shows it can be a transforming experience for all pupils."

The school's unique market was made possible through the Government's pound;25 million Find Your Talent initiative, which is currently being trialled in 10 pathfinder areas. Launched last year, it aims to give all children five hours of high-quality cultural activities each week, be it hands-on acting, playing a musical instrument or creating digital art.

Although teachers welcomed the concept of giving pupils the opportunity to visit and work with more external professionals, museums, art galleries and theatres, they feared the five-hour target was unrealistic. It is "admirable but naive", according to Geraldine Everett, the immediate past chairman of Voice.

"It is fine-sounding rhetoric, but demonstrates little understanding of the practical issues," she adds. One of the key concerns is that the Government is squashing creativity with one test-heavy hand while encouraging it with the other.

Although Mr Denfhy welcomes the Find Your Talent scheme, which will help fund opportunities at Charlton School over the next three years, he is keen to ensure it is a sustainable project. "The pupils and teachers have got so much out of this. It allows them to express themselves in a way that they can't elsewhere," he says. There's so much out there - it'd be a tragedy not to be able to take advantage of it."

Developing sustainability may turn out to be a better idea than the five- hour target, concedes Joe Hallgarten, director of learning at Creativity, Culture amp; Education (CCE) and leader of the Find Your Talent programme. But the Government should be commended on its commitment to the arts, he adds, while the pathfinder project will shed light on the best way forward.

"A five-hour target is still a possibility, but the Government has also given us permission to look beyond that to ensure sustained engagement. Participation can't be reduced to a simple tick-box of cultural opportunities. We want pupils to really engage in experiences."

Listening to what pupils want should foster enthusiasm and participation, says Mr Hallgarten. It is also worth finding out where the gaps in provision are and improving co-ordination between local agencies. High- quality preparatory work can also excite pupils before their visit, as well as follow-up workshops to digest what they have just seen or heard.

"One-off experiences can be successful, but where possible, schools should aim for more sustained access to the arts," says Mr Hallgarten. "Teachers need to spot where their pupils' interests and talents lie, before using that to shape what they do next."

Tonge Moor Primary School in Bolton puts its pupils' needs, rather than targets, at the centre of its Find Your Talent programme. In the five months the scheme has been running, it has created a Culture Vulture Club, which sees staff help pupils choose and organise visits to museums, the local library, cinemas and events that interest them. Most outings have a curriculum link. It has also taken part in Ten Sing, a singing, dancing and acting partnership with YMCA.

"We're not yet hitting five hours a week," says Anne Reade, headteacher, "but I'm more interested in quality than quantity. The arts aren't just an add-on here - they are carefully matched to the needs of the children. I'm convinced they're raising aspirations, standards and horizons."

Communication has already improved, adds Ms Reade. The arts have also opened the pupils' minds to new ways of thinking and narrowed the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The majority of pupils at Lowfield Primary School in Sheffield would not have access to cultural activities if it was not for the school. The inner-city, multi-cultural school does not benefit from the Find Your Talent programme, but it still finds the funds and time for pupils to visit museums and art galleries.

It also has a sharp eye for opportunities that come its way, such as The Great Art Quest, a national arts project from The Prince's Foundation for Children amp; the Arts. The quest links art galleries, storytellers and professional artists with local schools that have limited arts facilities. Since its launch last September, it has introduced more than 1,000 pupils to the visual arts for the first time.

Teachers from Lowfield Primary School visited Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield as part of the scheme and chose a picture from the gallery that would form the centrepiece of the project. But art, of course, is subjective. "Unfortunately, they didn't like it," says Ali Alison, a teacher from the school. The pupils preferred an image of a helter- skelter. From there, they explored the light and dark side of fairgrounds - from the vibrant facade to the seedier underbelly.

A storyteller, artist and poet explored these concepts with Year 5 and 6 children over the course of six months, which resulted in the pupils' creating their own poems, masks, plays and pictures.

"We looked at the danger of working with wild animals or being a tightrope walker, the sadness behind a clown's smile and the slightly spooky side of fortune-telling and the occult," says Ms Alison. Their creations were then exhibited at The Prince's Drawing School in London.

Pupils attended workshops at the grand opening, led by Neil Buchanan from children's TV programme Art Attack. "It brought the pupils above the mundane," says Ms Alison. "Some of the pupils struggle with creative writing because they don't have many rich experiences to draw on beyond home and school. Even the train journey, or staying overnight in London for the first time gave them the chance to unwind and be expressive."

Learning outside the classroom in this way has become highly fashionable, says Jeremy Newton, chief executive of The Prince's Foundation. Integrating the arts throughout the curriculum - from geography to history and literacy - will help ensure that it does not just become a passing fad.

"We're already seeing change," Mr Newton says. "Art institutions have become much more welcoming and pupil-friendly over the past three to five years, but we still need to work on teacher confidence. A lot doubt their own knowledge or worry that their pupils will misbehave."

However, with good preparation and the right venue, pupils will be so engaged, they won't have the time or the inclination to mess around, he says. "The arts have the capacity to change your life, to influence how you live and feel. If we can ingrain the habit during young people's formative years, it can become their lifelong passion."

www.findyourtalent.org; www.childrenandarts.org.uk.

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