Making art work

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Reva Klein visits an inner-city school that has been reviatlised through a special relationship with the new Tate Modern.

May is National Museums and Galleries Month - but these treasure houses are there to be used all year long. Reva Klein visits an inner-city school that has been revitalised through a special relationship with the new Tate Modern

It is not every school on special measures that has its work displayed in one of the country's leading art galleries or whose artwork is chosen to decorate the hoardings leading up to the Millennium Bridge site. But in the arts, Charles Dickens primary school shines. And this, headteacher Liz Owens fervently believes, has raised standards in other areas of the curriculum and inspired the children with a desire to learn.

When the inspectors came to call at the school in the London borough of Southwark last year and declared it was failing, Liz Owens was just into her second term as headteacher. OFSTED's damning report, citing poor teaching, poor control of children's behaviour and a lack of progress in core subjects, was every new head's nightmare.

But the silver lining in this cloud was that for Owens, a veteran headteacher, being put on special measures allowed her to accelerate the radical changes she knew had to be implemented if the school was to be turned around.

Eight teachers left. Owens hired energetic, creative staff up for a challenge. Just as crucially, she realised that if the children and the school needed one thing above all others, it was a positive self-image. And if there was one vehicle that could deliver it, it was the arts, an area of the curriculum that hadn't been prioritised at the school.

While being in Southwark brings material disadvantages - 56 per cent of pupils at Charles Dickens receive free school meals and many live in poor housing - there are also enormous pluses. One is the Tate's new modern art extension, located near the school in a refurbished power station amid an area of rapid regeneration. Another is that the school is part of North Southwark's education action zone, one of 85 such community partnerships launched since January 1999 and intended to revitalise schools in deprived areas.

Putting the two together, Liz Owens made contact with the Tate's education curator Caro Howell for advice on devising an art and music project that would, in Owens' words, "allow children's creative confidence to grow, which in turn would raise their self-confidence and ability in other curriculum areas."

The Tate recommended Ademola Akintola, a Nigerian-born artist with experience of working with schools, as artist in residence for the project. Owens herself enlisted the help of musician Rachel Hills, whom she had worked with in the past, as resident musician. Both were hired to work on a project that complemented the National Year of Reading, coming into the school once a week for one year. Payment for their time came out of school funds. After a year, such was its sucess that the project was extended to the whole of this year.

The project has been developed to enable every class teacher in the school to work alongside Rachel and Ademola. Each teacher chooses a text that has links with other parts of the curriculum and explores its themes through art and music for a term. With Rachel, they create songs and instrumental music based on text. I watched half of a Year 12 class give an assembly to the rest of the school on Cloudland, by renowned author and illustrator, John Burningham. Accompanied by Rachel on the piano, the children put the book to music with song, clapping and rhythmic choral speech. The music was haunting and demanding, involving every child.

Afterwards, the other half of the class transformed sketches inspired by the book into paintings. "Easy," boomed a radiant Ademola when one reticent girl said she didn't know what to do next. "Just look at your drawing and think about colours and shapes." Satisfied, she set about it.

Some paintings were basic, others were boldly imaginative. All pupils received positive feedback. Last year, children created a 7ft high percussive sculpture inspired by Ted Hughes's poem The Iron Man.

The children blossom through the arts in ways that they could not through the core curriculum, observes Liz Owens. "A lot of children at this school speak another language at home. We're hearing their language become so much richer when they describe their paintings. Painting and music allow them to find expression."

So does exposure to fine art. Part of the project involves touring the Tate and focusing on works of art that explore topics or use materials similar to those the children have worked on. The Tate also has a Speaking Pictures programme, where poets and storytellers help the children describe the work of art they study together.

Word has spread about the young artists of Charles Dickens. Last year, older children who attended the after-school art club were commissioned by the Millennium Trust to produce images of the river to be displayed on temporary hoardings outside the Tate Modern. One of those paintings was chosen as the Millennium Trust's 1999 Christmas card. All were displayed at the Tate Gallery last summer. The pride of the children, and of parents who might not otherwise have visited the Tate, was palpable. And that, as far as Liz Owens is concerned, is an important part of what the art project is about. Giving children the opportunity to create music and art that is meaningful to them will stay with them forever. So will the self-esteem and confidence they derive from being connected with the outside world in such positive ways.

Liz Owens says: "Inspectors often ask schools in special measures 'where's the joy in the children's learning?' What we're offering is an alternative to the potentially joyless exercise of consistently delivering the literacy hour. We're giving children a creative arts dimension that's exciting and stimulating."

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