A two-day Edinburgh Arts in Action event got pupils with special needs taking part in all sorts of activities. Raymond Ross reports
Why can't school be like this every day?'' asked a pupil from Canonmills Special school. The question was rhetorical rather than critical and was a compliment to all those involved in a two-day Edinburgh Arts in Action event at Queen Margaret College last week.
Funded and organised by the city's education arts unit and pupil support services, 97 pupils from 10 of Edinburgh's 13 special schools took part in activities ranging from drama, dance and music to photography, puppet-making and collage art.
The idea sprang from a visit to a music festival for special needs pupils in Denmark last May, says Glen Rodger, Edinburgh's special schools and integration manager. "The visit gave us the idea to do something similar for Edinburgh schools. In order to keep the differentials as close as possible with a particular eye on age range we opted for pupils from upper primary and lower secondary."
On the face of it, to organise a programme that would cater simultaneously for pupils with limited mobility, physical disabilities and learning disabilities ranging from the moderate to the profound, is a tall order. But, to judge from the sheer sense of fun and achievement generated by the different workshops, this was an unqualified success. The pupils obviously relished the hands-on experiences which also involved working with young people from other schools.
"Bringing the special schools together to work with professional artists was the essential idea," says Mary McGookin, manager of the arts unit. "This gives pupils access to the sorts of activities and equipment they might not necessarily have in schools."
Among that equipment was not only a darkroom where children could develop their own photos of creepy-crawlies, but also Ultra Sonic Ranging Units. Also known as "dolphins", the units were put to good use by Janice Parker in her "Sound=Sense" workshop.
"They send out a small sonic pulse which detects position and activity. They produce sound via a computer and sampler, so that body movement triggers different music programs related to where everyone is and how active they are," explains sound engineer Dave Waugh. "You can interact with sound without having to touch anything. The more active you are the more musical activity there is."
This allowed pupils of differing abilities to work together, creating their own movement or "dance-scape'', whether moving in unison, working with partners or shaking and waving ribbons of multicoloured cloth.
A sense of rhythm was essential for Amu Logotse's African drumming workshop. But then, according to Logotse, everyone has rhythm, "it's just a matter of getting them to participate in it together". And he proved it. Using 20 from his collection of 105 African drums, he had one and all "rhythm counting", eliciting the kind of total involvement you'd imagine at a convention of rock drummers. Using, among other things, the children's names to beat out new patterns, the joint (in this case a mobile hut) was certainly jumping.
Staggering from that sound-blast into the nearby drama studio was to hit the kind of silent concentration my teachers used to belt for. The pupils, some in wheelchairs, were creating human sculptures with their partners and there was no lack of imagination with titles such as Fighter Plane, Swan, Scoring a Goal, The Statue of Liberty and Samurai Warrior. "The concentration was equal to anything I've experienced in a professional workshop," says Clark Crystal of Benchtours Theatre Company, which ran the workshop along with trainees from Lung Ha's Theatre Company.
"It's about teamwork and pushing people beyond where they're at," says director Pete Clerk. "In that sense it doesn't matter whether people have a disability or not. The principle is the same."
The only drawback to this session was that children couldn't take their sculptures home with them. But this was one of the added attractions of Kim Bergsagel's puppet-making workshop, where the word written across everybody's face was definitely "happy".
"Puppet-making is a simple technique that each child can develop according to his or her ability. One pupil may make a figure that has few articulated joints while others want elbows and wrists that can move," she says. "And of course they've all got a friend to take home, to play with and make up stories about."
Art writ large was the order of the day at Kate Downie's "billboard collage" workshop where pupils worked as a group, cannibalising billboard adverts to make up their own giant collages with titles such as Sunday Drivers and Scottish Big Day Out. "The great thing about collage work like this is that it can challenge and fulfil pupils who are not confident about their own drawing skills but might still be bursting with ideas," she says.
"Involvement and quality are hopefully the keywords for this event," says Mary McGookin. "It's not didactic. It's not about artists and audience, them and us. It's interactive. The kids have a lot to contribute and I like to think the artists will get something from it too."