Joys of a country outing

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Seeing buttercups and barn owls for the first time can inspire mill-town children,Victoria Neumark reports

Creativity has its roots in everyday activities," believes Ethna Cummins, headteacher of Whitefield infants school in Nelson, Lancashire. "It's not something that should be bolted on. It's not rows and rows of sums in maths, it's giving children time to think, solve and explain how they do something.

"But," she emphasises, "teachers have to plan for it - you can't just leave it to chance."

And so, with that in mind, Whitefield holds a "creativity morning" every Friday. Even maths is seen as a creative subject. "You know you've got through to a child when they put their hand up and say, 'I know another way to do that'," says Mrs Cummins.

Whitefield is consistently hailed as a "school with vision" but it has had to battle against the odds. It caters for 226 children from an area of deprivation, with 30 per cent of pupils claiming free school meals and 99 per cent coming from the Punjab in Pakistan.

The school has already won three achievement awards for its Sats results, with impressive value-added from "very low" baseline (Office for Standards in Education 2000).

It runs music and creative arts weeks in which local potters and puppeteers come in to work with children. Painted silk and clay modelling made by the children with artists in residence Jackie Smith and Vin Cahill spangle the walls and tables, and regular contacts with community regeneration and arts funding bodies keep professional development going.

"People ask where we get the money from," says Mrs Cummins. "But it's thinking about what you get for the money. We really are investors in people."

Staff development helps to create an atmosphere in which Ofsted talks about "the look on children's faces when they enter school" and their "very good behaviour".

At Whitefield, pupils feel nurtured by a whole range of creative experiences, from working with visiting musician and story-facilitator Bob Peg to parachute games and music with John Mayercroft and day trips to feed curiosity and confidence.

So it was that one hot Tuesday in June, 28 children from Year 2 filed on to a coach taking them to Wycoller country park, a few miles from their homes in Nelson, to meet up with their penfriends from Coates Lane primary.

Twinned with the mostly white Coates Lane under the community cohesion pathfinder programme, the Punjabi children from Whitefield were unfazed by their new friends' skin colours, but highly delighted with the English countryside. "Miss, is that a buttercup, miss?" they called out to teacher Linda Turner, who had been teaching them to identify flowers in class.

Down in the aisled barn, Steve Hignett of Rhythmweave was setting out his percussion instruments. Setting a rhythm going on the big bass drum, he was quick to get the children involved in group bangings on rhythm sticks, then on percussion, then on a variety of drums and shakers.

Soon everyone was bashing away although a few had to be reminded: "Don't sit on the drums, they're not furniture."

As the class attempted a Ghanaian version of "The wheels on the bus", Rahila was grinning while Danielle, on the big bass drum, giggled. Hina was smashing wildly on the small Turkish drum, Hassan shook the tambourine and Zak, Faluck and Rukhsaanah rattled their shakers.

It was a bit shambolic but magically started to come together as Steve kept counting them down to a close. "We're aiming to stop and start all together," he explained. Finally, with a big roll, they all started and stopped on cue and the barn filled with satisfied silence. "Now you're a band," said Steve.

After lunch playing on the daisied lawn and marvelling at the duckling fluffing by the river, the classes swapped barns. In the activity barn, tables were populated by intent six-year-olds who first studied wildflowers - clover, speedwell and ox-eye daisies - and then made their own wonderful, gaudy blooms using coloured paper, plastic, tape and beads.

"We're going to use a different technique today," said Alison Wilkinson, art co-ordinator. "What's a technique, anyone?"

Mehran put up his hand: "How you make it."

There is a murmur of agreement, followed by a scramble to the scissors, glue pots and bead boxes.

"What is a template?" askedMandy Beck, textile artist.

"Miss, you use it to make the next one," answered Hina, cutting away.

Within 40 minutes, the table sported a brightly-coloured bouquet of artificial flowers, few of which the makers were ready to give up for the exhibition in Nelson library. "Miss, I need to show my mum," explained Zak.

Back at Whitefield, Linda Turner quickly developed the children's experiences by showing them a wide range of language and imagery in which to articulate their impressions.

Sketching and drawing went hand in hand with writing poetry and talking about the day. Several children have successfully badgered their parents into more trips to the country.

The writing is the best tribute. As Mrs Turner says with pride: "They really love words."

great days out 27 Rhythmweave, 01706521731, or email: Rhythmweave@rochdaleonline.orgWycoller country park

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