Drawing on pupils' artistic talents

31st January 2003 at 00:00
Learning through drama, music and painting has transformed behaviour at an east London primary. Helen Ward reports.

BEATRICE Addo, 11, has curled up as small as she can.

Her classmates at Gallions primary, east London, are similarly crunched, squashed and squeezed. She then pulls herself up to her full height.

"It's great fun," she said. "I love maths."

Beatrice and the rest of Year 6 are learning about greater and lesser-than signs with the help of techniques borrowed from drama.

When headteacher Bernadette Thompson arrived from a small village school in Hertfordshire, she believed that the arts would transform learning for children from the tough Winsor Park estate in Beckton. Now almost every subject at the school is taught through drama, dance, art or music. But it was not easy.

She said: "We had to start with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work. The building was not ready and we were too busy just ordering furniture to do any curriculum planning."

Staff and the first 117 pupils camped out at nearby Winsor primary while the building was finished.

Mrs Thompson said: "We became known as a very good school for teaching reading and controlling behaviour, so a lot of the children who moved had emotional and behavioural difficulties. At one point we had 49 per cent of pupils with special needs. Behaviour was a nightmare."

Determined to keep her dream of an arts-based curriculum alive, Mrs Thompson began the following term by hiring an artist who helped the children create banners for the school's official opening in June 2000.

Behaviour began to improve with support from experts drafted in from the borough's Eleanor Smith special school.

Then Mrs Thompson and her deputy, Emma McCarthy, sat down to plan their first topic, "The Tudors".

Teacher Lisa Naylor and her Year 4 class piloted the topic last year. She said: "We started with Greensleeves. The children learned about the music and then did paintings of how it made them feel.

"We visited the National Portrait Gallery and talked about why the Tudors were painted because there were no cameras. Then we made our own Henry VIII portrait. It was fantastic, the children were so motivated, reading levels went right up and behaviour was brilliant."

Now 80 artists have worked at the school and almost all teaching is arts-based. PE, some maths and some literacy lessons are still taught separately, including booster lessons for Year 6 pupils.

Children in Years 1, 2 and 3 will begin violin or cello lessons by April, a project funded by JP Morgan Fleming, a City asset management firm. All of the older pupils learn drumming, and some also have string lessons.

"We're not aiming to turn out professional artists and musicians. What we're hoping to do is instil a love of the arts which these children will carry through the rest of their lives and which will enrich their lives," said Mrs Thompson.

More art in TES Teacher, 10

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