Radical motivators

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Elaine Williams on a scheme bringing artists and young people together to maximum effect

Disaffected teenagers, locked into a cycle of disruptive behaviour, underachievement and truancy, often see no way out of the daily school round. They see nothing in the national curriculum for them. They regard themselves as failures and act accordingly. Education Secretary David Blunkett has recently acknowledged that for such children an alternative curriculum, more vocational, more hands-on, has to be found, at least for part of the time.

But disapplying the curriculum need not leave hairdressing or motor vehicle maintenance as the only options, according to Pat Cochrane, who co-ordinates a million-pound creative arts scheme with 24 Leeds and Manchester secondary schools.

It could mean, as it does in these schools, a long-term programme during and after school, where students work alongside a professional artist - a dancer, painter, photographer. Students are given the chance to strike up long-term relationships with creative professionals that are radically different from the ones they are able to have with teachers. For some it can provide the opportunity to shine at skills they and their teachers may not have known they had. The subsequent rise in self-esteem and gain in respect can have a dramatic impact on their general behaviour and application to work in school.

The scheme, called CAPE - Creative Arts Partnership in Education - was imported from Chicago, where it was found that integrating the arts into the curriculum, through long-term partnerships between teachers, artists and the community, has substantially improved student motivation and achievement and reduced drop-out rates. Although many schools have one-off events with visiting artists, these often fail to have a long-term influence. With the CAPE scheme pupils are able to develop a long-term relationship with the same artist, who comes into the school week after week over five years. Two years into the initiative, Pat Cochrane believes it is already having an effect.

Pupil Russell Hanley, for example, now lives out his school hours in the art department of Intake High. A cropped peroxide blond with multiple piercings, this 16-year-old can be found willingly putting in time on his bold figurative and landscape paintings, photographs andenvironmental art. He is one of the more dedicated pupils of Mike Jolley, head of art at this Leeds secondary.

This has not always been the case. Russell, the son of a single parent only 14 years his senior, was one of the more troubled and troublesome pupils of this 1,500-strong school, which draws from some of the most deprived housing estates in inner west Leeds. An able boy, he had nevertheless spent most of his school life expending aggression and using his ability to find devious ways of avoiding work, and making a general nuisance of himself. When he reached Year 11, however, he was sent on a residential course with Benedict Phillips, a professional fine art photographer who has been employed under CAPE as the school's lead artist.

This opportunity led to a profound change in Russell's attitudes and to his staying on in the sixth-form. One teacher, who had initially refused to accompany the trip because of Russell's presence, was amazed by his transformation. The course involved walking and caving, cooking, taking and developing photographs and generally putting in an 18-hour day. Barry Middleton, Intake's headteacher, who also attended the residential for a day, says: "I was astounded by the mature response of young people who had struggled through school all their lives. It led to a number staying on into the sixth-form who would normally never have been considered by staff as staying-on material.

"Russell changed in Year 11. At a time when you would have expected him to switch off completely, he switched on. It encouraged others who would have opted out to opt in."

Russell says: "I have found that I love art and I want to dedicate myself to it. Going on that trip made me see things in a different way. I used to think the teachers were like robots, but now I know we can get on and have fun together."

That residential, 18 months ago, marked the beginning of Benedict Phillips' five-year commitment to the school. He has worked with pupils to make photographic autobiographies, which resulted in an exhibition and an opening to which parents were invited. Dyslexic himself, he celebrates his language difficulty in his own work, and has worked with pupils in the school's dyslexia unit. He also headed a second residential last November to Derbyshire's White Peak. Pupils who went on the first visit, including Russell, became mentors to newcomers.

Mr Phillips has also introduced a a painter, Kate Genever, who has helped dyslexic pupils to make a 200-foot mural in one of the school's corridors. Incorporating key historical events and geographical concepts, the group worked on the painting during a recent two-week GCSE study leave, turning up every day when the majority, having few exams to study for, would probably have been hanging about the streets. Mr Jolley believes Benedict Phillips is having a profound effect on students' motivation and the culture of the school. For example, many parents and grandparents who normally never turn up for parents' evenings, having been disaffected at school themselves, attended the exhibition opening.

CAPE is the only schools-based scheme to be funded (pound;750,000) by Youthstart, the European Social Fund's project to tackle disaffection and youth unemployment; pound;350,000 has come from the National Lottery's "Arts for Everyone" funding and pound;120,000 has been given by the Yorkshire Arts and North West Regional Arts boards, which were the catalysts for establishing CAPE in England. More than 100 artists are now involved in projects that range from setting up a live radio station to improving the school environment and using art to promote literacy.

The idea is for a professional artist to work long-term alongside a school co-ordinator to develop a strategy for change and innovation. It is believed that artists, as inherent risk-takers and problem-solvers, will inspire young people to develop similar skills. Many of the CAPE schools are in areas with a disadvantaged, highly mobile population, with poor health prospects, and attainment well below national averages.

At Merlyn Rees Community High School, a south Leeds secondary which draws from the deprived Belle Isle estate, 60 Year 10 and 11 pupils have been working two nights a week after school with Jan Burkhardt, a contemporary dancer and development worker with Yorkshire Dance. They were runners-up at the latest regional final of Rock Challenge, a national dance competition. Jan Burkhardt says: "This is a poor area but dance is something the young people can achieve in. I make tough demands and as time goes by we achieve an increasingly higher level of skills." Pat Cochrane says teachers were often sceptical about the possibility of drawing disaffected pupils into after-school activity, but many of the CAPE projects were showing it could be achieved. She says Merlyn Rees is "buzzing" on dance nights. Students who once truanted now attend and believe they themselves are helping to turn the culture of the school around. "Without this I think we would have lost a number of pupils," says Brian Wilson, the school's head of expressive arts and senior manager.

At Newhall Green High School in Manchester a photographer, musician and architect have been working with pupils with a range of social, behavioural and attendance problems on projects resulting in exhibitions, performances and environmental installations for the school. Denise Bowler, the school's art teacher and CAPE co-ordinator, says the pupils responded to having their work approved of by professional artists. She says: "It makes them feel special. It's all very fresh and out of routine."

Villmore James is a dancer, and was a founder member of Leeds-based Phoenix Dance. He now works as lead artist under CAPE with the City of Leeds School, which serves a multi-ethnic community in the city centre. Apart from preparing pupils for dance performances to outside audiences - they have performed in the City Hall and won the Rock Challenge regional final - he has also worked with science and foreign language staff, using dance and movement as a way of teaching structures in science and vocabulary in German. One pupil, Matthew Ahmed, aged 16, who was particularly disruptive in school, has discovered he has real dance ability and recently performed in a duo during an assembly. "People respect me more now," he says. "I get pats on the back instead of detention."

Under the CAPE banner Mr James has also brought in other artists who offer gospel singing, Asian dancing, steel pan and African drumming as after-school activities. Christine Walker, the school's head of creative arts, says: "There are few black and Asian teachers, so getting in artists who celebrate the many cultures we have here helps to redress the balance. Working with artists long-term helps to give staff a vision and gives kids the opportunity to show what they can do."

"Over the past two years I have seen a huge change in a lot of the kids in terms of their discipline, behaviour and concentration," says Villmore James. "They demand a lot from themselves. Sometimes they just need that push and then they can fly ahead."

Further details of Cape UK are available from Pat Cochrane, tel: 0113 214 42342. E-mail: pat_cape@netcomuk.co.uk

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