With a little imagination, discarded tins, bottles and boxes can make sweet music. Harvey McGavin reports on a teaching programme that uses salvaged materials to drum home the environmental message
It doesn't look too promising. Plastic barrels, water cooler containers, boxes, jars, cans, pans and bits of wood lie scattered over the wooden floor of the hall. A group of expectant children sit cross-legged facing them, waiting for something to happen.
Julian Fyson, who brought all these disparate objects to Our Lady of Lourdes RC primary school in the London borough of Redbridge, introduces himself; then the questions start. What is recycling? What can you recycle? What is pollution? Why are trees important? These are easy questions for this Year 4 class, they know their three Rs - recycle, reuse and reduce - and have been learning all about the environment.
Then Mr Fyson does a mime - picking up a toothbrush, turning on a tap, squeezing out some toothpaste and brushing round his mouth. He does it again and asks the class to spot the difference. Blank faces at first, but eventually someone suggests that he didn't turn the tap off. "Turn the tap off. That water has been cleaned. That takes a lot of energy and it's gone straight down the plughole. Imagine how much water would be saved if everybody round the world turned their water off while they brushed their teeth."
The pile of junk behind him has almost been forgotten in the question-and-answer session, but now Mr Fyson is arranging a few randomly chosen objects in a line. Suddenly, this strange collection of stuff makes sense. The clues were in the questions - all these bits and pieces whose useful life seemed over can be recycled.
Mr Fyson picks up a couple of drumsticks and starts to play - drum rolls and paradiddles, changing the tone of the sounds by moving the sticks from the edges to the sides and the base of each object. An outsize wok Mr Fyson's mum bought him when he was a student finds a new use as a gong.
When they are invited to choose their instruments, the children descend on the discarded objects like a scrum of scavengers.
This is a junk funk workshop, a kind of environmentally minded crash course in percussion run by arts organisation Red Zebra, based in Brighton, East Sussex. For two weeks at the end of the summer term, it has been touring primary schools in Redbridge, a borough that stretches from the deprived outskirts of east London towards the wealthy green belt of Essex.
Redbridge is one of the top-performing local education authorities in the UK and consistently appears in the upper reaches of the league tables for Sats and GCSEs. Not, you might think, somewhere that needs to look for out-of-the-ordinary approaches to improve its schools. Nevertheless, the junk funk workshop is just one aspect of a borough-wide, year-long effort to boost creative teaching in its schools. "We are successful within some of the narrow definitions and benchmarks against which schools and LEAs are judged," says Colin Moore, Redbridge's head of pupil support, access and inclusion. "But we need to go much further than that in developing people's lives. We wanted to energise the school and education community into a celebration of creativity."
Redbridge's year of creativity kicked off at the Royal Albert Hall with its schools choral festival last July and gathered momentum in November, when educational creativity guru Ken Robinson addressed a conference of teachers and heads.
Throughout the year, a steering group has met to exchange plans and ideas, keeping the borough's secondary and primary schools informed - and inspired - through regular email newsletters. The idea for the creative year came from the council's education department, but found a champion in Jo Balcombe, who became co-chair of the steering group. Ms Balcombe is head of the Redbridge Drama Centre, which (with the borough's music service) is one of the few remaining council-funded arts resource centres in greater London, so she is used to fighting for creative teaching. The centre has had to be resourceful to survive, developing community workshops for all ages, selling its expertise to other boroughs and setting up consultancies and hire services. "I have spent the whole of my life committed to drama in education and arts in education," she says. "We have been fighting for the survival of something that education is really all about."
The drama centre has commissioned a play on mental illness, A Strange Kind of Difference, as well as hosting workshops for teachers on music, dancing and creative writing through the year. A week-long "festival of creativity" in July, to mark the end of the year, was included in a series of concerts, dance performances, exhibitions, street theatre arts and technology workshops.
The impetus behind the year has come from abandoning regular working practices in favour of a more free-thinking approach, says Ms Balcombe.
"It's about saying, 'Hold on, we are all creative - we just need to develop that'. And you don't do that by staying on the tramlines."
At Gilbert Colvin primary, Ilford, this has extended to classes swapping teachers to give staff and pupils a fresh perspective. Head Sandy Dargon organised six after-school art workshops to give teachers confidence to teach new techniques with fabric, clay, drawing and painting. "What was interesting was the impact on literacy," she says. "The children were so excited they wanted to write about what they had been doing. We are coming out of being so strait-jacketed."
At Our Lady of Lourdes, the junk funk workshop is coming to a noisy end.
But the creativity doesn't stop there as the groups break up to assemble their own instruments from items of household waste they have brought in.
Recycling is a big issue - collection boxes for all sorts of items are dotted around the reception area and car park. For children their age, Mr Fyson reckons the pupils are "pretty clued up". As all manner of musical contraptions take shape around her, their teacher, Linda Houghton, reflects on the difference a year of creativity can make. "School's got to be about more than just sitting at a table in the classroom," she says, "especially for children who are less able in the academic sense. When they do this, they can be creative and feel successful."
Jo Balcombe, Redbridge Drama Centre: 020 8504 5451; www.redbridgedramacentre.co.uk. Redbridge Borough Council: 020 8554 5000; www.redbridge.gov.ukcouncil.Red Zebra: 01273 881578; www.redzebra.org.uk
* HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
All Redbridge's 17 secondary and 51 primary schools have been involved in the year of creativity, alongside the borough's drama centre and music service.
Inset arts training for teachers was complemented by whole-school workshops, and several arts projects visited more than one school. Seven schools hosted junk funk workshops while Random Dance Company worked with four primary schools, preparing a curtain-raising show for Stratford Circus.
The year started in July 2002 and ran until July this year, coming to a close with a week-long festival of events.
There was no single financial backer; funding came from several sources.
Some of the projects on an environmental theme were funded by bids to Redbridge's environment department, and the borough's Artists in Schools initiative funded work in another six schools.
The steering group is meeting again in September to see how the best aspects of the year can be continued, and the council is considering merging the drama and music services into a centre for creativity. "We are going to use the momentum built up over this year to move on to greater things," says Colin Moore.