How can primary schools break free of the national curriculum and release their pupils' creative core? In the first of a summer series, Harvey McGavin travels to a Sussex town where an end-of-term carnival breathes life into the final weeks of the school year
The instruction on the flipchart sounds painful. "Put eyelids on to eyes with glue gun." Reputable plastic surgeons might frown at such face-building techniques, but the only other resources available to the children of Rodmell CE primary school are supple willow twigs, tissue paper and large amounts of masking tape. Then again, the finished articles bear only a vague resemblance to human anatomy.
The children at Rodmell, a tiny village school outside Lewes in East Sussex, are busy making aliens, part of their costumes for Moving On, a carnival parade that takes place today to mark the passage of local Year 6 children from primary to secondary school.
As they sit scattered on the grassy playground, surrounded by planetary shapes and costumes in various stages of readiness, the children are going about their tasks a little too enthusiastically. Their teacher, Sarah Hone, has to ask them to keep quiet because a funeral service is about to start in the Norman church next door.
Rodmell enjoys a beautiful setting, down a narrow lane between flint walls and with sweeping views across the South Downs. It's a place that inspired the novelist Virginia Woolf, who lived in the weatherboard cottage next door until her death in 1941.
Even in such inspiring surroundings, the opportunities for creative learning in primary schools are diminishing, being squeezed out by the demands of tests, and the literacy and numeracy hours. "This is something they would never usually get a chance to do," says Ms Hone. "It's important after they have put in so much hard work that they have something fun and creative to do." The same applies to their teachers, and Ms Hone has entered into the spirit, fashioning a huge blinking eye that she wears on her head.
"It's a good experience for the children to get involved with something a bit different. Even though it's difficult to fit in, it's worthwhile - it gives them a sense of achievement."
All this is music to the ears of parent and artist Martha Hammick, the driving force behind Moving On, who's on a whistle-stop tour of some of the schools to see how preparations are progressing. Although only in its second year, Moving On is already a model of how parental involvement can revitalise the dead end of the summer term and make the transition to secondary school a little less daunting and a lot more fun.
When her son Charlie started school last year, Ms Hammick, 35, knew the years ahead of him would be very different from her own relatively carefree primary education. Talking to other parents, she found many of them felt the same. "Because of Sats, the creative side of things was being sidelined. Compared to what we used to do when we went to school it just didn't match up."
With like-minded parents, teachers and other volunteers she formed Patina (Parents and Teachers in the Arts). Although most of them had children in the early stages of primary education, they soon realised they needed to involve older children to get the most out of it, and the only feasible time of year it could happen was the end of the summer term.
Eventually, the event took shape as a kind of leaving parade for primary pupils, partly inspired by the annual parade of 70 schools in nearby Brighton that marks the first weekend of its arts festival. Now all Patina had to do was pay for it.
Ms Hammick contacted Chris Bailey, ex-director of Same Sky, the public arts organisation that organises the Brighton parade. "He told us local funding was so scarce we would have to organise it ourselves." At his suggestion they came up with the idea of wellwishers, benevolent folk who might buy themselves the title and a little advertising, and put something back into the community by parting with pound;500.
Ms Hammick admits that Lewes - a prosperous county town with a thriving arts scene and lots of small businesses - is just the sort of place where this might happen. "It's the perfect sized town; all the accountants and solicitors, people like that, have kids at school so there's a kind of immediate interest."
Even so, she was "bowled over" by the enthusiastic offers of help. Eight wellwishers signed up and, with an Awards for All grant from the National Lottery, Patina raised pound;11,500. This year two wellwishers, the local Round Table and Roche, the largest employer in the town, have upped their contributions and, with an additional pound;5,000 from the Arts Council, the budget has reached pound;16,500.
This has paid for materials and for visiting artists to conduct three-day workshops in the 13 primary schools that guide children through the construction techniques needed to make their costumes. Music and instrument-making workshops will add to the carnival feel.
Over at Wallands primary school, children are just getting to grips with willow and masking tape construction techniques. Artist Charlie Morrissey distributes bundles of willow twigs, called withy, among the children. They have chosen to make planets - a frosty looking Pluto, rendered in clingfilm, an extravagant Saturn and a fiery Venus with fantails of flames - and groups of children sit cross-legged on the floor of the school hall, putting together the twiggy skeletons of these celestial bodies.
Wallands will have 48 children taking part in the parade, more than any other school. Previously, Year 6 pupils would mark their leaving day with a special assembly and a party. But the great thing about Moving On, says Sandy Everett, Wallands's deputy head and arts co-ordinator, is the sense of togetherness it fosters among the children in the town. "It brings all the children in Lewes together," she says, "and it means they get to meet the children from other schools who might be in their class next year."
As well as having children at Wallands, Peta King is one of Patina's wellwishers (she runs a picture framing business in the town), and is the chair of group. As if she didn't have enough to do, she's taking the day off to help out at the workshop. But the community involvement is what makes Moving On so special, she says.
"I love the fact that it's not focused on one group of children. At the beginning they don't know what they are doing, but by the end they get such a great sense of pride. Last year they were loving it, representing all their schools. That's what's great about it - it's local businesses supporting local schools. It all links together - it's lovely."
Martha Hammick: 01273 475442. Chris Bailey: 01273 776001. Same Sky: www.samesky.co.uk. Arts Council: email@example.com Next week: Poetry in Peckham
MAKING IT HAPPEN THE LEWES WAY
Who takes part in Moving On?
Five hundred children from 13 East Sussex primary schools and one secondary (Lewes Priory) - mainly Year 6 pupils but including some Year 5s from smaller schools. Each school has at least one representative on the Patina organising committee.
WHAT they do
This year's carnival parade is themed Space, Onwards and Upwards; last year's was Birds and Flight. Artists' workshops were staggered across June and July to allow the five artists employed to work with several schools.
About half the schools had two-day music workshops - the schools that missed out this time will provide the music next year.
Workshops throughout the second half of the summer term. The procession itself takes place today, Friday July 11, 12.30pm-2.30pm.
It follows a route from Lewes town hall, along the high street to a park close to the centre, where live music and "other exciting happenings" are promised.
The Round Table donated pound;3,000, Roche pound;2,000 and other wellwishers - individuals and businesses - pound;500 each. All 13 primary schools chipped in with pound;200 and Priory school, recently designated a performing arts specialist school, donated pound;800. An Arts Council grant of pound;5,000 took the total to pound;16,500. Local restaurants, photographers, car dealers, event managers and designers have all given help in kind.
Patina is already planning next year's event, and is thinking of changing the format to include new artists and materials and to stage the final event at several sites rather than as a procession.