Curriculum culture - The art of education

27th March 2009 at 00:00
Three resident creatives tell Meabh Ritchie how schools benefit from having real-life artists on hand

The term "artist in residence" conjures up a bygone age where poets, painters and classical musicians lived in boarding schools and imparted knowledge to pupils as they went about their day-to-day creative pursuits.

Universities still have artists in residence who give concerts or shows, and occasionally tutor students, but the role of the visiting artist has changed enormously in schools. Many arts organisations now have education projects that allow professional artists to run regular workshops in schools, and take pupils on visits.

While the artists may not have teaching experience, education officers employed by artistic establishments now work with teachers and artists to co-ordinate and design projects. More traditional partnerships between schools and professional artists still in exist, and both pupils and artists benefit from long-term creative relationships.

As anyone who has worked alongside an artist in the classroom will testify, artists can inspire pupils. Music, drama, dance, creative writing and art are all proven to boost communication skills, improve literacy and the social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal).

Experts believe there are other advantages too - just talking to a jobbing artist, musician or writer raises aspirations and can make pupils aware of options they might never have previously considered.

These three artists in residence - an artist, a composer and a writer - spoke to The TES about working with children, how it influences their art and how glad they are they don't have to "do" discipline.



Name: Richard Tait

Job: Artist in residence at St Paul's Way Community School in Bow, London, and the City of London festival

There isn't an age group that I haven't worked with. I've put toddlers in their wellies and helped them step into buckets of paint before walking across rolls of wallpaper on the floor, and I've worked with pensioners in their 80s. I work at all stages in schools and have also taught observational drawing in a maximum security prison in Bermuda.

I've always liked the naivety and unjaded qualities in children's drawings and artwork. I like the fact that their discoveries are embryonic - it's like their first time of really looking. From four to seven is an exciting time - it's the dawn of artistic abilities.

If artists didn't visit schools, the pupils would only know what they pick up in the media or learn in books and on the internet. They wouldn't meet successful artists. It's good for someone to come in who has a studio and creates paintings and sculptures.

They always ask me things like: "Are you famous?", "Have any of your paintings sold for Pounds 100?", "Have you ever been on TV?" Your answers invoke comments like: "Wow. So you're a real artist then? And you're not dead?" That's their impression of an artist, you're only famous if you're dead.

Me coming into schools gives pupils something realistic they can look forward to - a real job in the outside world. But even if you don't want to pursue a creative career, it's proven that any practice in a creative discipline is like the oil in the engine - it frees the mind and blows away the cobwebs.

I really admire what art teachers do and I often watch them for tips. I don't really do discipline - there's always a teacher to hand. I'm more of an outsider and don't really work within the curriculum, but some projects I do might tie in with it. At the moment I'm helping pupils with entries for the National Sculpture competition.

Sometimes projects are set for me, sometimes I devise them. I let the pupils do that as much as possible.

I always feel that I need to be open to being personally developed. I do feel that I'm learning as much as I am teaching and I try and make it a mutual experience. There isn't a single thing in my life that doesn't inspire or influence me, and I will always want to mix my own artistic work with various age groups and abilities. The benefits on both sides are immeasurable.

Richard was awarded the freedom of the City of London for art and education work in 2007

Name: Rachel Leach

Job: Composer and animateur with the London Symphony Orchestra and English Touring Opera

Just about everything I do begins with a blank page and a group of kids with completely varying degrees of musical ability. The idea is that by the end of that session, the page will be filled.

They always come up with the bare bones of the music and I go away and orchestrate it and put it together. They know if I've changed it and will say: "We didn't do that" if I put in anything too different.

An animateur is someone who helps a group to understand music through participating in the creation of it. If you have a written piece of pre- composed music, it takes longer for the pupils to get into it. We would all react like that if something was imposed on us. This way they have more ownership.

I knew I wanted to be a composer, but I hadn't figured out how you actually make money. When I finished my masters degree in composition at the Guildhall, I did a year-long traineeship as an animateur with the London Sinfonietta and this world of kids and schools and creative music- making opened up for me. A year with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) followed.

I like the emphasis on creative music-making in the curriculum. I think the primary curriculum's great and like the way it's going back to a more theme-based approach. However, I don't like the emphasis on rock music at GCSE. I think you need to get to know the bare bones, and rock and pop music is difficult. It worries me that there's a perception that it's easier than getting together with two kids who play the violin.

I think a lot of teachers have an inherent fear of music, because music means noise. Secondary schools operate on silence and control, with everyone in their seats. I'm lucky - I never visit a school on my own, there are always musicians or actors and the teacher in the room - but I can see how it's a complete nightmare giving 30 children a drum each and letting them get on with it.

A couple of weekends ago we took a class from the Sir Tom Finney Community High School in Preston to perform at the Royal Opera House in London. They have conditions varying from cerebral palsy to severe autism, but they performed a piece I had helped them write that Tim Yealland from the English Touring Opera directed. We have been on a journey with them that started four years ago. They wouldn't mind me saying that they weren't very good singers back then. I helped them to compose a version of La Tosca and they performed it. We went back each year to do spin-offs from different operas and their singing just kept getting better and better. Now they call themselves an opera group and their teacher has gone from teaching PE to being a performing arts specialist.

For me it was an amazing experience. I got to conduct at the Royal Opera House, which I would never have done. I've also conducted the LSO, performing Berlioz with 60 kids playing the xylophone alongside the musicians. At the end of days like these you just think: "Wow, I can't believe we just did that."

At the LSO I take a big classical piece and help kids understand it. I have to try and tell them everything there is to know about Mahler's 9th Symphony, for example, so that they're interested enough to listen to it for 90 minutes. I have to simplify it. I say things like: "The trombones sound like dad when he's angry."

You start to realise that music's actually quite simple. My music has become more pleasant and tuneful. You start to realise when you're with kids that they want a tune. My education work has revolutionised the way I write music.

Name: Diane Samuels

Job: Playwright and writer in residence at Grafton Primary School, north London

People are taught to think before they write, but no writer works like that. You discover writing through writing, so what you need to do is develop a method and practise. It's the same as swimming - you just get in the water. It's just like doing yoga, music, or athletics. What's fascinating is that the way writing is always taught debilitates people and they often have a very difficult relationship with it.

I run writers' groups and am a fellow at Westminster University, and every single person who comes into my room has become stuck because of the way they have been taught to write. I think it blocks them in every area of learning. It also makes learning self-conscious, and learning is about being able to make mistakes and being inquisitive. It's great to work with kids because they don't have that, and they won't have those difficulties later on.

I started out as a drama teacher in Hackney in the 1980s, and did that for about five years. I enjoyed working with the kids, but I didn't like the schools. It was just too restrictive and the secondary curriculum was too small.

I go in to Grafton Primary one day a week and each term I work with a different year group. I also work with a gifted and talented group who are at key stage 2. The way writing works and the way literacy works is different. I give them a writer's notebook that no one marks or corrects - it's purely for them. Children who usually won't write anything end up writing pages and pages. I show them how to do free writing and guide them to use their voices.

It affects their literacy standards so much that the school has an outstanding Ofsted. What I do goes beyond the curriculum, I'm creating confident writers who can effectively deal with writing tasks. The head employs me directly because she realises it helps the children's all round skills.

Children are underestimated in the education system. The work I do stretches them beyond what is expected.

The teachers also write with the pupils and develop their own skills. They read out what they've written. Recently, a Year 4 teacher read out her piece and the class burst into applause because it was so lovely.

A lot of theatres in London have great outreach programmes and for a lot of kids, the only way they have access to culture is through school. We took Years 5 and 6 to the National Gallery last year and they loved it. Working with children means that you have to be on your toes all the time. This encourages me to be more experimental and I'm thinking of writing a play that is based on my work as a teacher in schools.

What I do now is great because I can pursue my writing and connect with various institutions. I care very much about my teaching and it informs my writing.

The challenge for teachers is to keep alive the spirit and act of learning within the restrictions of administration and the curriculum. Many of the teachers I've worked with are skilled people with loads of ideas and inspiration. Most teachers say to me that children aren't the problem - it's the structures.

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