Rocket Man to help fuel young artists

13th June 2014 at 01:00
Elton John joins US scheme to protect creativity in classrooms

If you wanted ideas on how to teach music, you could do worse than ask the man who has sold more than 250 million records, had 25 platinum albums and composed one of the best-selling singles of all time.

Elton John is among more than 20 musicians, actors and entrepreneurs who have signed up to "adopt" low-performing schools in deprived areas of the US to enrich their arts education. The move comes after a successful pilot found that celebrity involvement in school arts helped to improve students' reading and maths scores, boost attendance and cut the incidence of bad behaviour.

The Turnaround Arts programme is being run by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and is funded by the US Department of Education, along with a number of charities and businesses. First Lady Michelle Obama is honorary chair and has been a vocal supporter of the scheme.

During the pilots, which started in 2012, students up to the age of 14 took part in at least one session of arts education a week, with support from the likes of actors Forest Whitaker and Sarah Jessica Parker, who visited schools to deliver workshops.

As the programme expands to 35 schools, Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins, architect Frank Gehry and Sir Elton will join the roll call of famous faces helping out.

Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston was one of the eight institutions involved in the original trial. The school, where more than 70 per cent of students are from low-income households, had been among the lowest-performing in Massachusetts in terms of maths and English scores. In 2010, it became a "turnaround" school; a large proportion of staff were replaced, an extended school day was introduced and a new principal, Andrew Bott, was hired. He was the school's sixth leader in seven years.

"When I was appointed, the city set up a meeting with the parent governing body and wider parents," Mr Bott said. "Just one parent showed up."

At Orchard Gardens, money that had previously been used to pay five security guards to patrol the school halls was redirected into arts. "Those five positions were the ones I felt had to go," Mr Bott said. "For me, having a whole lot of force is not what's going to build a safe school. What builds a safe school is having classes that kids want to go to and having good relationships with parents.

"We had hit saturation point for English and maths. What people want for their kids are deep arts programmes, great science, great sports programmes."

The artist assigned to the Boston school was cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who visited four times over two years. Members of the Silk Road Ensemble, which was founded by Mr Ma, visited the school a further 10 times.

"Yo-Yo Ma has rock star status in the school," Mr Bott said. "His involvement really gave power and momentum to what we're doing. It also gives real credibility. When people question the focus on the arts, knowing we have support from people like him means they suspend disbelief and are prepared to see how it plays out.

"The very first arts show we did was the first time we got a lot of parents in. After that it has become easier and easier."

In the UK, concern has been growing about the place of the arts in schools, especially after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBac) performance measure, which prioritises traditional academic subjects.

Susan Coles, president of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, said that Creative Partnerships - the cultural learning programme that ran from 2002 to 2011 and matched schools with artists - also showed how a strong focus on the arts helped pupils in deprived schools.

"We had it in this country. We don't have it any more," she said. "The arts have slipped down the hierarchical league table to be a little subject in the corner."

A spokesperson from the UK Department for Education said that the government was determined to give all young people an opportunity to enjoy the arts: "That is why we are investing pound;340 million to support music and cultural education.

"Our new accountability system will measure pupils' progress across eight subjects - and three of those slots can be filled by non-EBac subjects like art, music and drama."

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