I got rhythm, I got music

19th March 2004 at 00:00
I and drama and dance and poetry. Carolyn O'Grady visits an East London primary to discover how teaching through the arts can improve pupils' behaviour and boost results

When Bernadette Thompson, as head of a Hertfordshire Church of England school, applied to be the first head of a primary with extreme teaching challenges in East London, she didn't think she would be seriously considered.

She felt she had nothing to lose, so at the interview for the headship at Gallions in Newham she focused on her belief that arts-based activity works: that not only can you teach through it, but that at a school like Gallions it was the best way to go.

She didn't hide her conviction that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work "were a rich vein of stuff", but she didn't like their subject-based approach.

To her surprise she got the job. But she and her staff faced a daunting task when they opened the school in September 1999, with the pupils'

behaviour in those early days "appalling".

The school now has 368 children aged three to 11, almost all of them admitted because they had failed at previous schools. Some 44 per cent of pupils are on the special needs register and 71 per cent are entitled to free school meals.

With her staff (chosen because they share the same vision) she set about trying to reconcile the needs of an arts-based curriculum with the QCA's optional schemes of work. It proved too difficult: after a year they gave up and re-wrote them all, designing a curriculum taught as much as possible in tightly planned, arts-dominated research projects.

Mrs Thompson's faith in the arts as a curriculum vehicle has been reinforced. At Gallions "the arts provide a level playing field where all can contribute and many will excel", she says.

"We're not trying to get every subject into a project, and it's much easier to teach some projects through the arts than others, for example the Tudors, which we do through a lot of art, dance and drama. RE is taught through the arts, but a lot of mathematics teaching is traditional, and the numeracy hour remains largely intact, although shape, space symmetry and angles can be taught through dance."

Most of the content of the literacy hour also remains, but links are made to the rest of the curriculum whenever possible.

A tour of the school gave me a taste of how it works. In reception, I watched pupils and teacher enthusiastically singing and acting out a song about numbers and parts of the body. Over in a Year 45 class, children were devising and staging small plays on aspects of Victorian life, covering quite a few language objectives in the process. Year 3 pupils were reading and performing poems about numbers and were soon to write their own.

Visiting librettist Jane Buckler is working with a Year 3 class to create a verse on the subject of the moon that will eventually be set to music and performed. She is one of many visiting artists in a school where poets, visual artists, actors and dancers seem almost as ubiquitous as teachers: 90 have visited since January 2000.

Elsewhere, Year 6 children were investigating the mathematical principles of translation, rotation and scale using movements from an Ethiopian warrior dance. Teacher Emma Simpson explained: "Dance really does work, not only as an art form in itself, but also as a way of helping all the children access the curriculum."

The atmosphere in Gallions is now calm and focused. Pupils' much-improved behaviour is reflected in the way the school has begun a research project with a charity that promotes emotional literacy.

The arts are also reflected in small touches. Classes, for instance, are named after musical genres such as soul, rap and flamenco. And to get the class's attention teachers clap a rhythm that children have to copy.

In fact, music is a key feature in the school and songs are used throughout the curriculum. All children, teachers and support staff have been learning either the cello or violin and emphasis is placed on the development of musicianship through singing. Mrs Thompson says that learning to play an instrument, though not directly part of the national curriculum, enriches it and "instils the most amazing self-discipline and confidence in children, which is reflected in the general behaviour".

And the future? SATs results appear to be rising, but the school is still too young to be able to make a realistic assessment of the effect of its policies on years above key stage 1. In 20023 the seven-year-olds were above national levels in reading and science and almost at national level for mathematics.

Last year Gallions joined a networked learning community of four primary schools and one secondary; the aim is to establish a creative curriculum in all of them so that transfer at age 11 will be more seamless.

Gallions continues to question teaching methods - even its own arts-based approach. "Can one be creative all the time, or is it too exhausting?" Mrs Thompson asks. "We're coming to the conclusion that sometimes pages of sums and handwriting practice are necessary, both educationally and emotionally.

We're never going to really get there. There are a lot more discoveries to be made."

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