Glorious food for the sparrows;Opinion

15th January 1999 at 00:00
CALLING A spade a spade, the build-up to Christmas in schools can be a sizeable pain in a portion of the anatomy, verging on a new and drastic definition of seasonal affective disorder, achingly ephemeral and chamfering nervous systems to screaming point. Ruthless commercialisation does nothing for the children's personal and social development except to create unfilled and unfulfillable material needs.

This year some events halted the Gadarene rush. With the holidays now only a pleasant memory, their song has ended but their memory lingers on, particularly in the case of our primary 7s. The events of Christmas did wonders for their levels of personal and social development. Certainly the serious moments of our Christmas assembly helped. Certainly a visit from the band of St Andrew's Secondary - which we feed into or cluster round or whatever - was an exciting event that the whole school enjoyed.

For P7, however, who at that stage in the Christmas celebration game can tend towards the blase, the event of the season was, and I think will remain, their enthusiastic and joyful participation in the public performances of Oliver put on by Newhills School for severely handicapped children, on to which we abut. Dressed down for the occasion, they took the part of the children's chorus in what turned out to be an exceptionally well prepared, well delivered and affecting performance.

This treading the boards together with the children of Newhills was not an isolated incident. Rather it was part of an agreed process of getting to know you that has been going on since last session. Often it is hard to put a finger on where things like this start, and who starts them, but early on that year, with what I must admit was some trepidation (fear of the unknown and possible consequences) I agreed to a suggestion that our then P7 could perhaps liaise and engage in physical education with their S1 for part of a Friday afternoon, accompanied by a senior teacher.

My fears as usual were groundless. The encounters proved mutually beneficial after initial curiosity, and the process of communication at a number of levels took off. When the head of Newhills suggested our current P7 joining in in a production of Oliver, I agreed readily, because the children themselves expected that some kind of liaison would take place.

Word had got about. With funding taken care of, and agreement as to roles in the production, Friday afternoon meetings resumed. The stairway leading to P7's eyrie began to reverberate regularly to the strains of Oliver, with the children asking for more as they started to master the choreography of on-stage location. This dovetailed well with our development plan which this session emphasised music within the framework of expressive arts.

I think the enormity of what they had taken on only became clear to P7 when the procedures of costuming started, and when they were introduced to the dark heavy sets of 19th-century London that Newhills produced. The Friday afternoons became more intense and focused, and I suspect the hysteria unique to productions of this kind started to show its head but was firmly quashed. Finally, my invitation to attend one of the two performances arrived, and I had to fend off P7 for the rest of the week, cornering me in different parts of the building to ask me if I intended to go. It was like being pecked to death by sparrows.

The quality of the performance amazed me. Well costumed, line perfect, action familiar, the cast went through its paces, successfully invoking Dickens by way of Bart. Sitting in the darkened hall with a pitifully small audience, other thoughts crossed my mind.

I could hardly encompass the devotion, sheer grit, hard work and organisation that had succeeded in bringing out the latent talents of the Newhills pupils. I was impressed, too, that co-operation of differing educational spectrums can be so successful.

Best of all, it was clear that exclusion of whatever kind entered no equation. P7's exuberant rendering of "Consider yourself one of the family" took on a whole new raft of meanings.

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