The astonishing success of a remote primary's arts project, giving its pupils unparalleled freedom, is helping children as far afield as Nepal, writes Reva Klein
Just as I think I'm getting to grips with what the project is all about, Jennifer Cattanach, head of the school where it all began, declares: "If you think you understand Room 13, you're a fortnight behind." This is the story of a small primary in a far corner of Scotland that developed a project so creative that it is being replicated not only in other schools in Britain but, surprisingly, as far away as Asia.
Caol primary is a former sink school in Fort William in the Scottish highlands beneath Ben Nevis. Eleven years ago Rob Fairley, a local artist, started working there and created with pupils the special ethos that is being copied in two British schools as well as the Helpless Children's Mother Centre, an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Room 13 is an idiosyncratic blend of pupil autonomy, artistic freedom and curriculum enhancement. It defies easy definition. It is an arts project that is not just about making art. Rather, it is a way of working that gives pupils a level of freedom - artistic, practical and intellectual - not usually found in schools. Pupils take responsibility for their own learning and for the running of their arts studio, to the extent of writing out cheques, making funding applications and attending meetings with potential sponsors. There is a special needs teacher, Joe French, whose sole responsibility it is to integrate his pupils into Room 13 as much as possible. Older pupils can go at any time during the day to work or to discuss things with Mr Fairley. The only condition is that they are up to speed on their classwork.
While pupils, all of whom attend voluntarily, get guidance on their art projects, they are not taught in the conventional sense. "I'm the thorn in the pad of their feet they can't get rid of," jokes Mr Fairley. "I give them critical feedback every step of the way, asking them difficult questions to make them think analytically about what they're doing. I treat the work here like any other piece and give it the analysis that I would of Guernica. It is the integrity of the work that I'm looking for."
Part of the Room 13 approach is giving pupils the intellectual skills they need to fulfil their potential in years to come. So as well as creating their own artwork, they carry out research projects weekly based on a list of eminent scientists, artists and writers. While the research assignments relate to curricular requirements, their main purpose is to teach pupils how to research, use footnotes and reference data: skills, says Mr Fairley, which they would not be taught in the primary curriculum.
Hareclive primary in Hartcliffe, Bristol, started the first Room 13 in England last September in a Creative Partnerships project. A core group of eight Year 6 children have been working with artist in residence Shani Ali to create their version of the Caol project in a disused computer site in the school. They have been helped by visits to and from Caol and have established an email exchange system, or "digital conversations", which consist of electronic postcards featuring paintings, photographs or videos that the pupils have created.
One of the themes that the Caol and Hareclive pupils have chosen to explore on what is now called Network 13 is a discussion on "what does Room 13 mean to you?" In two weeks alone, there were 60 messages. Partnering with Hareclive has been successful because the two schools, although hundreds of miles apart, have similarities. Like Caol, Hareclive is on a large estate in a disadvantaged area.
Exporting the concept to Kathmandu won't have quite the same echoes for either side, but already there is a great deal of goodwill and the desire to share ideas and practical applications. The idea is no stranger to Nepal. Through Rob's long-standing associations with the arts faculty at the University of Kathmandu, Room 13 children who have moved on to secondary school have been visiting the country for the past three years.
The plan is to help the children at the orphanage, which caters for eight to 14-year-olds, to set up a similar art studio which they will run themselves.
It will be supervised by Parbati Pariyar, a craftswomanstreet trader, who will come to Caol and train there next term, thanks to fundraising projects by the children. She will go back to Nepal for a couple of weeks with some former Caol Room 13 pupils now at Lochaber secondary who are still associated with the project. Parbati will establish the project at the orphanage and then take the methodology to local children's and youth clubs in Kathmandu.
Whether these offshoot Room 13s will follow the same trajectory as the original at Caol remains to be seen. Caol and its individual students have won Barbie Prizes for outstanding art and the attainment levels of the school have risen steadily as a result of greater collaboration between staff and more challenging and integrated work being introduced.
How to translate this to other schools and other cultural contexts is very much in the hands - and imaginations - of the children and the artists in residence working with them. The important thing is that it is fluid and constantly evolving.