Rich seam of culture

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
In the heart of a former mining town, a school's arts-led teaching has become the focal point for an renaissance in the local community. Gill Brown reports

Eastwood Comprehensive, twice winner of an Artsmark award for raising the profile of arts in the community, is at the heart of the one-time mining community in Nottinghamshire.

"It's more about going out than staying in," says headteacher Christine Hasty. "Social life used to revolve around working men's clubs and the unions, so when the mines closed there was a gap. Gradually, the school has become a focal point for the area."

Where once the school served boys from the villages around the pits, now children from those same families study art, design, drama and dancing.

In 2000, the school played a central role in the first Eastwood arts festival. Its reputation quickly grew and the event now draws visitors from outside the area, especially on the day of the school's carnival parade.

This summer's theme, Mystic China, featured a five-metre dragon, banners, and dance and music from pupils of all ages. Artist Hayley Shardlow worked with Year 9, producing the huge dragon in just a day.

For Caroline Maynard, head of performing arts, such relationships with artists pay welcome dividends. "It raises the bar dramatically," she says.

"Students and teachers begin to see that it's possible to achieve something impressive, even in such a short time." Never mind that it rained so hard on the day that they had to take the dragon inside.

"People came to Eastwood specially to see what we'd done," said pupil Amy Smith, 14. "You felt really proud."

Head of arts Sean Caley devised a lesson in which Year 9 pupils made masks based on the Beijing Opera. He printed website pages, then cut out sentences and put them into envelopes. Five groups each had to place each sentence into a category - for example, "What colour means in the Opera."

From this research, pupils worked out the shape and meaning of the masks.

"It was a way of encouraging them to connect with text as a reference tool," said Sean. "I could have given them a slide show on the Beijing Opera and they would have been bored stiff. This way, they had to work together and carry the project through themselves."

Eastwood's theatre is in the heart of the school and showcases community activity, professional artists as well as in-house productions.

Students are used as technical staff and work backstage with touring companies. Caroline Maynard believes such activities give young people a fresh and realistic view of art and artists. "They can see that it is a business just like any other - even a career some might consider for themselves," she said.

In common with similar areas around the country, teachers see low attainment and self-esteem, particularly among boys. So the school has adopted teaching and learning styles to challenge stereotypes and attitudes.

"Drama in particular can give boys freedom to explore feelings in role that they simply wouldn't show elsewhere," said Christine Hasty. Drama is used with all pupils across the whole syllabus. In many humanities lessons, students "hotseat" before they write or discuss - "What's it like to find yourself on a boat? What do you eat? What are you wearing?"

Attainment levels at key stage 4 have improved since visualisation and body language have been used as learning tools across the school. For instance, in a classroom dramatisation recreating events surrounding the Aberfan disaster of 1966, pupils researched video, print and online archives to put together a staged version of the tragedy over several lessons. Since all local famillies have some connection with the mining industry of the past, the disaster struck a chord in Eastwood.

"If we'd done only research, I would not have really taken it in," said Greg Hatherley, 14. "Doing the performed drama hit home that it actually happened. It was awful and I felt really bad, and angry with the Coal Board."

Music is also central to individual learning. David Miller, 13, used to be withdrawn until he was encouraged to explore the clarinet and piano. "The school has really brought David on," said his father, Tony. "It's given him such confidence and he enjoys it so much."

The impact of the arts on the life of the school has been so impressive that this term it has acquired specialist arts college status.

When David Miller walked on stage with Natasha Giddens, 14, at the Derby Playhouse to accept the Artsmark Gold award for the school, he glowed.

"I wasn't just proud for myself, but more for the school" he said. "It was a feeling that we'd all achieved something."

* Including contemporary art in the curriculum encourages creativity and thinking, according to a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research. School Art - what's in it? Exploring visual arts in secondary schools reports on a year's research by the NFER. Other benefits include better motivation and enthusiasm in art at school and widening knowledge about society and culture.

Tel: 01753 574123

* Eastwood Artsmark: email

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