Hair today, gone tomorrow

25th May 2012 at 01:00
An arts project that sets 10-year-olds free to create freeform coiffure on local volunteers gave adults a chance to restyle their perception of children's abilities

"Bonkers" is the verdict from several staff at Oakgrove Primary on an educational project led by artists and educators from Canada. But they don't mean it in a bad way. "It's crazy and brilliant at the same time," says headteacher Jane Cerexhe. "It's about art and children's rights. There are lots of curricular links and it's great for children's confidence."

Haircuts by Children invites adults to look at youngsters with a fresh eye and see them as "creative and competent individuals whose aesthetic choices can be trusted". Which sounds fine in principle. In practice, it means that Oakgrove teachers, among other fearless volunteers, are going to have their hair cut, styled and dyed by a bunch of 10-year-olds.

It's a lot to ask. But the staff are unafraid, they insist, although a slight flicker in their eyes does hint at doubts. Scissors are sharp, ears bleed copiously when cut and after just one week's practice in school, kids' coordination can't be as good as that of experienced hairdressers.

"We are doing well at holding the scissors," John Comerford, owner of Alice Rocks hairdressing salon, assures the class, as they stand in pairs, eager to get to work on the styling heads in front of them. "Now we need to make sure you're safe and so is the client. Before we close the scissors, we check we haven't got our skin or theirs in there.

"You're working in pairs, so speak to each other about what you're doing," he continues. "Yesterday, we learned to do a trim. Today we'll be working on more funky and cool cuts. Think about what you're trying to do. See the haircut in your mind."

It's an important point, Mr Comerford explains, once the snipping scissors start. "It's too short a time to teach the technical aspects. So we're using role-play and I'm asking them to think about feel and visualisation. I want them to use their imaginations."

It's a vital aspect of what the memorably named arts company - Mammalian Diving Reflex - is all about, says founder and artistic director Darren O'Donnell, currently performing another show in Germany.

"The name's a metaphor for trusting the body's reflexive capacities to help us survive extreme moments. Our shows overload the audience with sensation or information, triggering a non-rational parsing of the situation, letting their bodies do the thinking," he says.

Metaphors are valuable for explaining art, says Jenna Winter, back at Oakgrove Primary. "The haircutting is part of what Darren calls `social acupuncture' - the idea of energy imbalances in a body that can be corrected with pinpricks. We work on the social body and the excesses and deficiencies created by classism, racism, sexism, rich and poor.

"We poke into these dynamics in subtle, artistic, fun ways. We put on shows with underprivileged children or people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Schools often say, `We never get asked to do these kinds of things.'"

Only part of this holds at Oakgrove, however. Despite having a free school meal entitlement over 50 per cent, the school has a track record of giving cultural and artistic opportunities to pupils.

"We often learn about these through the Museum Champions programme run by Glasgow Life," says principal teacher Iain Morrow (see panel).

Museum champions are primary school teachers who help shape the learning programmes around the city's museums. In return, they are invited to previews.

"We get first option on workshops available to all schools, as well as a few exclusively for us," says Mr Morrow. "Next month, for instance, our P4s will be doing an Essence of Beauty Italian art workshop."

It's all challenging stuff which stretches children and takes them out of their comfort zones.

"I'm finding haircutting a bit hard," says young Andrew Davidson. "So I'm glad we're working in pairs. I can learn from my partner, Brandon. He's brilliant at doing mad, cool hairstyles."

Sporting a spiky, well-gelled haircut of his own, young Brandon Mellon wields a confident pair of scissors. But even he has doubts, he says. "You worry you might get it wrong and then they'll shout at you. But they're saying the people getting their hair cut are volunteers, so we shouldn't worry too much. We're not professionals and they know that. It's good fun."

It is, but there is more to it, says young Mariama Bah. "It's so adults know that kids can do stuff they don't think we can. It's to earn their trust."

This is the context Mammalian Diving Reflex created in the children's minds during the first two workshops, explains associate producer Hazel Venzon. "It's about trust and giving children choices. We put people together that don't normally hang out, such as children and adults, and people from different backgrounds.

"At the weekend, they'll be working in a fancy salon they would never normally go to. This is our first time in Scotland, which is exciting."

Through the medium of theatre games, the workshops delivered by Jenna and Hazel looked at things children are not allowed to do, such as vote, drive, fly a plane, get married or cut people's hair.

"Everyone in class thought it wasn't fair that we can't vote," says Mariama. "Like before David Cameron, we used to have fruit and milk in school. Now it's only milk."

"Kids should be able to vote," agrees Brandon. "And teachers should trust us. We can do much more than adults think."

There is no doubting the seriousness of the children's purpose, as they listen to the tutors, follow instructions with their scissors and perform role-play rehearsals for their two days at Alice Rocks - where they won't just be cutting hair. They'll also be putting clients at ease with big smiles and conversation, consulting the appointments book and selling them soft drinks. It's a huge responsibility.

"The idea is that if children are given the chance, they can do anything," says P6 teacher Niamh Furlong. "For me as a teacher, the first few workshops were especially interesting. You got to hear the children's opinions on topics that wouldn't come up in such depth in the normal curriculum.

"They were talking about how they couldn't get married until they were 16 and how that related to puberty. That's a mature concept to discuss seriously, which they were. There's a mix of cultures, religions and individuals in this class, with a range of viewpoints."

Being able to observe, while others lead innovative lessons, gives unexpected insights into pupils, she says. "They're learning things about themselves, too. There's one boy who's hard to get involved. He normally just sits back and listens.

"But all his ideas were coming out. So they picked him to talk to the BBC and he's so chuffed. He's swanning around the school now. This is something that different children can really shine at. Everyone is involved. It's lovely."

The whole thing is a bit bonkers, says artist Louise Brodie, who helped bring Oakgrove Primary and Mammalian Diving Reflex together, as part of the annual festival by Glasgow arts venue The Arches.

"But it fits well with Curriculum for Excellence, which is great for artists who want to bring exciting things into schools," she adds. "I just love the idea of social acupuncture - needling away for social gain at things that feel uncomfortable. It's a brilliant philosophy. It's what art is all about."


Jane Cerexhe, headteacher

"My husband knew he was in the right place when he passed pavement tables on Gibson Street where everyone had green hair or Mohican haircuts.

I just went for a trim and so did Mr Morrow. Miss Furlong was more adventurous. Her hair was pink one day, red the next.

I couldn't believe how brave people were and how kind to the kids. Young ladies were coming in with long hair and telling them to go for it. One girl left with a bob on one side and a pigtail on the other.

I expected lots of students, but there were people of all ages.

It was very well organised and there was a wonderful atmosphere, like a gallery opening, with music, lots of clients and a really nice buzz.

A group of us went along from the school first thing, so the kids got comfortable working on us. Then we stayed and watched, which you can't often do as a teacher.

It is nice to invest time in the P6s, in preparation for them becoming role models next year. We'll be reinforcing it back in school and talking about what they did that they never thought they could.

I'm hoping it has a lasting effect on them. It was lovely. It was unique."

Iain Morrow, principal teacher

"At Oakgrove, we've taken part in lots of things we've heard about through my being a museum champion.

When the Transport Museum was moving, the famous "street" had to be gradually emptied, so our pupils created 1930s film posters that went on display for the last few weeks.

We took part in Take One Picture, run by the National Gallery, using Avril Paton's Windows in the West (pictured). We took them to see the painting and the building.

This year we did a similar thing with Scottish identity, using a photo- montage by Ron O'Donnell. Our P7s visited Glasgow Cathedral to learn about the technology of arches. Next session, we'll take part in a project at St Mungo's Museum, using objects to stimulate children's creative work.

I've worked with the Burrell Museum to match their educational workshops with Curriculum for Excellence. At a meeting last week, we heard about a workshop at the Riverside Museum on the Bloodhound, the fastest car in the world. So some of our children are going to it this afternoon.

Glasgow Museums produces brochures of all its workshops for schools, and its learning teams are always willing to tailor these, if you talk to them. They are really good."

Photo by Tom Finnie: Pupils at Oakgrove Primary create new hairstyles for volunteers as part of Haircuts by Children


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