Lucky for some

4th July 2003 at 01:00
A Highland primary has an art room like no other. Run by the pupils, it is a haven of extraordinary creativity, where children are free to go at any time of the school day, and where they turn out accomplished art that belies their tender years. Harvey McGavin reports from Room 13

At first sight, it appears to be an ordinary art room. Its lino floor is spattered with paint, the walls are covered with exhibition posters, photographs and drawings. But look more closely and the picture changes.

The newspaper cuttings on the wall are all about this place, the exhibition posters advertise its work. The paintings stacked neatly here and there are technically accomplished and charged with ideas. Most extraordinary of all, their creators are still at primary school. Welcome to Room 13.

The story of Room 13 begins 10 years ago, before most of these children were born, when Rob Fairley was artist-in-residence at the West Highland museum in nearby Fort William. He was compiling a list of local primary schools to work with, and Caol (pronounced "cool") primary, housed in a dilapidated concrete-clad building in the middle of a council estate, was an unattractive proposition. "It was the local dump school, a difficult, hard place," he recalls. "They would take kids who were trouble, from anywhere, just to keep the roll up."

But, needing one more school to fill his quota, Mr Fairley took a chance on Caol, thereby embarking on an educational experiment that has produced some of the most exciting and inventive art work ever to come out of a primary school.

In his first year, Mr Fairley asked two disaffected girls if they would like to take the school photographs. They did such a good job the laboratory praised them on the professionalism of their work, and the photographs of their fellow pupils sold well with parents, raising pound;500. When Mr Fairley's residency ended, Caol used the money to pay for him to stay at the school for one day a week.

Gradually, the children of Caol took over Room 13, so named for the simple reason that that's the number on the door. It became a kind of pupils'

republic, run by a democratically elected management committee of 10 children. They order supplies, apply for funding and raise money through sales of T-shirts, postcards and school photographs (still their single biggest earner).

The school provides the room, the heating and the lighting, but the children pay for the telephone and photocopier and can sign cheques. They also make the rules (for example, anyone failing to clean their brushes receives a 50p fine). But the most significant rule (made with the full co-operation of Caol staff) is that the 10 and 11-year-old children in Primary 6 and 7 can leave their lessons to go to Room 13 at any time of the day as long as they are up to date with their school work.

The idea of giving children so much freedom might alarm some teachers, but it has proved a great motivator, and in 10 years no one has ever been ordered back into class. "It's a non-problem," says Mr Fairley.

Mr Fairley is not a trained teacher, nor does he teach art in the conventional way. "You can't teach art," he says. "Then it just becomes copying." Discussions on everything from philosophy to share prices take the place of still lifes and life drawing. Within the space of five minutes, conversation might veer from contraception to Renaissance gilding, to the trigonometry of a goal in Rangers' last game. In Room 13 the ideas come first, the means of expressing them follow.

Mr Fairley begins with Primary 3 pupils, letting them play with paint, and talking to them about what they are doing. "Some of the best paintings have come out of these discussions," he says, such as Rachel Allison's Magic Yellow Elephant, painted when she was seven. It was inspired by a lesson spent talking about the Hindu creation myth of elephants encircling the world. It's a huge canvas, about two metres square, so big that Rachel had to stand on a stepladder to reach the top of it. After discussing whether changing the name of a colour would change the way it looked, Rachel decided to paint the elephant red. "We drop in advanced ideas like this, but just for fun," says Mr Fairley.

Rachel, who's now nine, loves Room 13. "It's a very exciting place," she says. "It's lucky that we have it."

Mr Fairley uses an array of brilliantly simple techniques to help the children develop their visual awareness. When he asks who has ever eaten a digestive biscuit, everyone puts their hand up. But when he asks how many holes it has, nobody knows. Close your eyes and picture it, he tells them.

After that, they learn to look more closely at things, to take in the detail.

Caol sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis, and from Room 13 there is a majestic view of the mountain. It's an arresting sight and an obvious subject, but too familiar to inspire the pupils. Besides, in Room 13, obvious is not on the curriculum. Instead, to illustrate a lesson on how our eyes work and "the way our brain can sometimes tell lies", Mr Fairley once blacked out the windows, transformed Room 13 into a giant pinhole camera and turned the familiar landscape into a huge inverted image on the wall opposite.

Such simple but thought-provoking exercises have unleashed a surge of creativity in Caol's pupils. Danielle Souness, Room 13's 11-year-old managing director, always wanted to be an artist. "But I thought art was colouring in books. When I was wee, I was never into drawing - I just liked colouring in. When I went into Room 13 it all became different. The art that gets done there is about your feelings and emotions." Her photography and text-based work reflect her interest in Platonic philosophy ("Her understanding is almost undergraduate level," says Mr Fairley), tackling difficult themes such as death, pain and religion.

Becoming involved in Room 13 has helped Danielle overcome her natural shyness, and now she routinely addresses arts conferences with her outspoken views on education and art. An exhibition of work - her third - is currently on show at the West Highland museum.

The work of her co-exhibitor, Lindsey Martin, includes an astonishing triptych made up of bleached fox bones, dried maggots and acrylic panels that bears comparison with Damien Hirst's work. It is difficult to believe an 11-year-old made this. "We never sit them down and say, 'This is how you do it'," says Claire Gibb, Room 13's second artist-in-residence. "The quality of the work comes down to us teaching them presentation and technical abilities. It's completely intuitive."

Miss Gibb is just 18, and joined last year after leaving school rather than go to art college. "The creative environment and ideas flying around here are more stimulating," she says.

The evidence is all around. Leaning against one wall, carefully cocooned in bubblewrap, is 911, a huge, mottled grey canvas strewn with burnt matches, one for each person who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. It's the work of 11-year-old Jodie Foster, and last year it won the pound;20,000 Barbie Prize for young people's art.

In May, Room 13 gave another huge boost to the school's reputation and bank balance when it won a pound;200,000 grant from the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts. After years of getting by on small grants, the school's own fundraising efforts and the support of a handful of local businesses, this guarantees Room 13's survival and frees up the hours spent filling in forms. With its future assured, Mr Fairley and Miss Gibb plan to take Room 13's inspirational way of teaching art into other schools. They have already started working one day a week with Caol's other primary school, Lochyside. They also recently hosted a five-day visit from pupils at Brinsworth comprehensive in Rotherham, and are looking for other schools to get involved.

The effect Room 13 has had on the rest of school life at Caol is dramatic.

When headteacher Jennifer Cattanach arrived four-and-a-half years ago, her first reaction was: "Wow! It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up." While some headteachers might see its autonomy as a threat to their authority, Ms Cattanach's instinct was to preserve its unique atmosphere.

"It's important not to impose any restrictions on the children so they are not influenced by what they think our reaction will be."

She has seen the children involved in Room 13 become more mature, caring and thoughtful. "They can be just as naughty as any children - they are not perfect. They can make you proud or make you disappointed. But because the motivation is there we get more out of them." Attendance and attainment have both gone up, and Caol recently won an award for school improvement.

Outside her office, an array of work produced in Room 13 lines the corridor. Each piece is labelled with the artist's name and a date, 1994 or 1995, that seems somehow incongruous. Mr Fairley laughs. "At exhibitions, people will often say, 'Is that when it was painted', and I tell them, 'No, that was when the artist was born'."

Room 13 has blazed a trail for creative education, but its method is not easily reproduced in the traditional format of CD-Rom, resource pack and teacher's notes. Instead, Mr Fairley sees it growing "organically", through residencies, workshops and co-operative projects.

"People make the mistake of thinking this is all about me," he says. "But the results could be replicated in every primary school the length and breadth of Britain. There's nothing inherently different about these kids."

But, having been a part of Room 13, they will leave it very different people.

Room 13 website: exhibition of work by Danielle Souness, Lindsey Martin and other Room 13 artists runs until July 31 at the West Highland museum, Fort William, Highland. Telfax: 01397 702169

* Caol's winning way with art

Caol primary school was among the 27 winners of this year's Artworks Young Artists of the Year awards announced yesterday - and the only one to pick up two awards.

More than 37,000 young artists representing 550 schools entered their work for the fourth annual awards, organised by the Clore Duffield Foundation, which reward exciting teaching in art and design. Winners in the three categories - working with artists, galleries and resources - each receive pound;2,000 and a limited edition signed print by the artist and sculptor Julian Opie.

The award-winning work is on display at Tate Modern on London's Bankside and at the Artworks website.

Children's Art Day, celebrated yesterday, continues this weekend (July 5 and 6) with events to highlight art in schools and galleries, museums, art centres, and science and discovery centres across the country. For listings go to:

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