Pictures from the West Bank have been used to stimulate youngsters on a tough Humberside housing estate to record their own lives. It's an arts-led approach that is getting remarkable results. Elaine Williams reports
The photography exhibition in the foyer of Kingswood high appears to portray a war zone. Smashed buildings, decaying dilapidated masonry, rolls of barbed wire framing houses against grey skies, piles of burning rubbish scarring recreation grounds, newspapers flapping against rusting railings proclaiming the snatching of children are all caught by the camera. But it's not a war zone. It's Hull, photographed by some of the school's pupils.
They have been working with photographer Rich Wiles who has spent the last two years portraying the lives of Palestinians inside the West Bank, in places like Hebron and Bethlehem. Kingswood's GCSE art students have been studying Wiles's work: images of Palestinian teenagers, their faces reflecting anguish as they stand behind their bombed-out houses; old men gesticulating wildly, telling of the destruction of their homes; an empty shoe on a bombsite speaking volumes about conflict and devastation; people trying to lead normal lives, taking their children to school. The students have then gone out into their local estate and city to record and express in photography the nature of their community. The resulting exhibition, "A Safe Place to Live", has required these pupils to think about their own lives in relation to the lives of Palestinians and greater global conflicts.
Kingswood high draws from Hull's Bransholme estate, the largest sprawling council estate in Western Europe, home to three generations of unemployed.
Gaza has been shattered by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; Bransholme by the loss of the fishing industry. There is a pervasive culture of hopelessness.
Loz Wilson, the school's deputy head and art teacher, says working with a photographer like Rich Wiles - a native of Hull and someone who deals in humanitarian issues - has helped these 14-year-olds, all in their first year of GCSE coursework, think about their own community and city in relation to the wider world, a crucial step forward in citizenship for schoolchildren in Hull, a city with notorious intolerance of immigrants and asylum seekers.
In preparation for the work with Wiles, staff at Kingswood had taken the children to see "Hanna and Hannah", a play about asylum seekers, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and visited the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull for an exhibition of John Keane's oil paintings of the Gulf War conflict. The pupils' photographs reflected many of the themes they heard and saw at the theatre, in the gallery, in Wiles's photographic records, resulting in powerful, stark portrayals of inner-city decay.
The project was brought about by Creative Partnerships, a government initiative which enables schools to develop their creative and imaginative work by forming partnerships with cultural organisations, businesses and individuals. The Kingswood project has also provided professional development for Wiles, who has been funding his photography hitherto by working in the city's Birds Eye pea factory.
Wiles says the pupils were receptive to ideas about conflict, more responsive than he had ever hoped for. "We began to explore the idea of a safe place for living and they understood immediately how that might relate to their lives", he says. "They showed me shops on their estate that had been ramraided, abandoned supermarket trolleys full of burning rubbish and they made links with the images they saw in my work. Their pictures are very powerful."
Harry Stockman, 14, says the project has made him think about where he lives: "A lot of places in Hull get broken into. I've seen fires in people's houses. It's not the safest place to live" Loz Wilson says art was used at Kingswood to spearhead achievement across the curriculum and that he hoped to take this project through Creative Partnership funding "as far as it can go".
The largest fresh start school in the country, Kingwood is of startling architectural design, like a spaceship that has landed awkwardly in the middle of this windswept residential suburb. But not even a fresh start in 1999 and architectural wizardry could save it from further ignominy. It was placed in special measures a year later after its GCSE pass rate fell to 2.7 per cent, the worst performing school in the country. That rate has now risen to 28 per cent, and next year the school is hoping for 35 per cent.
"We aim to hit the national average," says Mr Wilson, "and we are driving achievement through the arts. Projects like this one help every bit of the way. It encourages pupils to open their eyes to the wider world, to articulate their thoughts.
"We are drip-feeding them with ideas, building up their experiences. There are no quick fixes. This exhibition has attracted publicity and pupils gain in confidence when they think people are taking notice of them. They have a voice for once. The arts can provide lots of success stories and pupils'
attainment is buoyed by success."
The school has set up a public gallery on its premises, with a programme of contemporary art exhibitions. It has also attained Artsmark Gold, an Arts Council accolade, twice and all staff are being trained in the arts. Once a month they attend evening classes in pottery, playing in a band, salsa dancing, film and editing or drawing technique.
"The response has been unbelievable," says Loz Wilson. "We can show staff, for example, how we use the teaching of drawing, and the processes we go through in that to engage students, to develop their communication and co-operative learning. We believe this is the way forward."