Nigel Williamson visits the school where a visionary philosophy gives students ownership of the curriculum - and gets results.
Students should not enrol for A-level art at Fortismere school in Muswell Hill unless they are prepared to go scavenging for bits of old washing machines in skips or sit sketching the citizens of north London in an all-night laundrette as they watch their smalls going round.
It is all part of a project called A Sense of Place. But however unorthodox the style of head of art Andy Gower and his staff, the Fortismere approach seems to work. Last year the school entered 29 students for A-level art: 22 gained A-grades and four got Bs. The year before, 20 students entered and 19 achieved As. Laundrettes are a speciality. "They are fascinating places full of the oddest people," says Lauryn Davies, 17. She is carefully cleaning the drum of an old washing machine that will form the centrepiece of her sense of place project. "I think I am going to cut it up into three pieces and then add bits of clothing, soap bars and other images," she says. Matilda Flower, 17, also chose a laundrette. "I've taken photos and done drawings. The work is still taking shape but it is fascinating because there is an entire culture attached to it," she says. Other pupils have chosen local parks, woodland, a gasworks and a graveyard for their projects. The realisation is broad, although the end result is as likely to be acrylic paints on a traditional canvas as an installation built in an old washing machine drum.
"It is about taking students out of the comfort zone of the art room," Andy Gower says. "They have to choose a place that interests them and means something. Then they have to observe the site, do some contextual research and produce a box of evidence to bring into the classroom. It might involve photos, sketches, maps, interviews and sounds. The idea is to encourage new ways of looking at things and not make assumptions. You can chose your own bedroom but only if you are prepared to look at familiar surroundings in a fresh light.
"We do not project our ideas on to the students. There are art departments that have an identifiable house style. We do not and that is a conscious decision. We emphasise the individuality of the student. We think the children own the curriculum. We are just here as facilitators. The thoughts and ideas behind what they do are as important as the skills base of the work. We get good results from an intake which is truly comprehensive, with a genuine and wide ethnic mix. But the exam results are not the important thing about what we do. It is about having faith in the pupils and understanding that the possibilities are limitless. Even if all those A grades were Es, I still would not change what we do."
With 1,500 pupils on two sites, Fortismere is a heavily over-subscribed comprehensive with a geographically small catchment area. But at A-level the art department takes in pupils from other schools, attracted by its reputation. There are currently 70 A-level art students and a similar number doing a photography course.
With four other full-time staff - Sally Clifton, Louise Cross, Melanie Flint and Ellie Tallis - and part-timers Yvonne Gordon and Eileen Rapley, the department is stretched to the limit, says Andy Gower. The five art rooms are basic and the photography students work in temporay accommodation that is due for demolition. But Andy Gower believes the department's greatest resources are the imagination of its students and the visionary philosophy that drives it.
Much of that vision came from his predecessor Eric Peaker, who died in a car accident two years ago. He had been at the school for 14 years and Andy Gower, his deputy for four years, is swift to pay tribute: "He saw his work as a celebration of the students' talents and we are still carrying his torch. His goal was to make them think about what they were doing. When he died many students thought at first that they could not complete their course without him. But the strength of his teaching was that he gave them the confidence to do it for themselves."
Other projects in the two-year course include a "visual autobiography". "It is a written piece of work, although the visual presentation is important. Students think about important visual images in their life and from that we get an idea of where their enthusiasms lie," Andy Gower says. From the written work, a word or phrase is selected and the students produce a body of work based on it. "The conceptual side of the work here is unique," says Ellie Tallis. "I had never come across anything quite like it before. They break down conventions and thought-based processes are really valued. There is no spoon feeding."
Back in the art room, a Year 13 class is working on the sense of place project. Caroline Peacy, 17, has a table piled high with twigs and branches twisted into fantastical shapes. "I like textures and these branches are like found sculptures," she says. Over the desk are strewn numerous sketches of the wood, most of them done in silhouette at twilight. "The ideas are still developing," she says.
Opposite her, Gabriel Burch-Hall is working on a project about a 1930s tea-room in a local park. His sketches are testimony to his drawing skills but again the thought-based nature of the work is evident: "I wanted to explore the relationship between man and nature, the contrast between the harsh lines of the tea-room and the softer lines of the park around it. Then, I'm really interested in how man tries to change nature by trimming the hedges and things like that."
Lydia Corey, 17, is fascinated by the rise and fall of the local gas holders and has an impressive array of photographic images which she has superimposed on to canvas and stained with coffee to give a sepia effect. She, too, says it is too early to say what shape the work will eventually take. She initially felt the gas holders looked very alien but has found a strange beauty in them. "We are encouraged not to have a finished piece in mind. If you start out with the intention of creating a canvas that looks a certain way, that is very static. The work happens because of what you discover about the place and how your ideas develop as you go along," she says.
THE FORTISMERE PHILOSOPHY:
* the curriculum belongs to the students
* teachers are facilitators
* the thought processes behind a work are as important as the technical skills
* escape the "comfort zone" of the art room whenever possible
* encourage new ways of looking at familiar objects
* individuality of the students rather than "house style"
* the possibilities are limitless
* the imagination is the greatest resource.