Simon says

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Simon Woolham's students never stop asking questions. They're still asking questions, full of whys and wherefores, as he's waving them forcefully towards the door because it's lunchtime. Simon may be an artist, and his studio full of weird electrical bits and seemingly random objects garnered from the neighbourhood, but his pupils at Broadway Junior School in Sunderland are completely unfazed by this oh-so-not-a-classroom environment.

They are only too eager to show visitors how the studio's detritus connects with film and drawing; they understand how Simon can work as an artist without paintbrush or easel in sight; they show you how his work has influenced their own, holding out delicate, sculptural pop-ups that suspend line and text in air - fragile, careful evocations of their favourite school dens or hiding places. They are full of questions, a favourite being "What are we going to do next?"

Simon Woolham is artist-in-residence for the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, but instead of having a studio in the iconic gallery on the banks of the Tyne, he has taken over a room at Broadway School, humble by comparison, but just as productive. From the beginning, the Baltic has developed an extensive education and community arts programme, building partnerships with schools, encouraging pupils and staff across the North-east to work with its artists and in its galleries.

But this is the first time the Baltic has established a year-long residency in a school. The project, funded by Creative Partnerships, is intended to look at the impact such a residency can have on pupils' achievement.

Broadway believes that so far the initiative has been a resounding success.

The school wanted Simon to work with challenging pupils in particular, those who tended to be aggressive or withdrawn, and there have been great changes in their conduct.

In a recent project, for example, called "Who or What am I?", pupils were given freedom to take on the persona of a character in their favourite film or computer game. One boy wanted to show himself sitting on a tank blowing up the school. Simon, taking the request at face value, worked with the lad on a series of images, considering it better to lance aggressive emotion by turning it to creative ends: "It's a case of saying OK, we've done that, let's move on shall we?"

For children who rarely leave their neighbourhoods, making an art film called The Cove on themes of transformation and journey by going to the coast, finding a cave by the sea and decorating it to make it their secret, magical place, was hugely motivating. They are eager to talk about all aspects of their film.

Jack, in Year 5, says: "I thought an artist would be boring because they just sit and paint all day." Ebony says: "Now I know that being an artist is about asking questions about the things around you."

Simon, previously artist-in-residence at the VA and the Lowry, says working a full year in a school such as Broadway is a two-way process.

School life has become integral to his own work; gallery owners who sell his work visit his school studio. In turn, pupils visit galleries exhibiting his work, such as the Dean Clough in Halifax. "They've become part of the art process," says Simon. "But they are also becoming critics in their own right, developing a language around art." Pupils have become familiar with questions such as: "Is colour important in the work?" "Do the materials tell us anything about the work?" "Would it work in another setting?"

Through setting up and running an artist-in-residency with the Baltic Centre, the school has sought to develop pupils' language, literacy and communication skills as well as developing staff knowledge of visual arts.

Chris Horn, Year 5 teacher responsible for co-ordinating the residency, says: "Someone like Simon breaks the mould. He is very personable with the children but his art challenges them to use language and develop ideas. We had one mother who came in saying 'Who is this Simon? My son never stops talking about him, he loves working with him.'"

Broadway draws pupils largely from a low-income, no-employment, social-housing neighbourhood. Headteacher Margarita Acklam is evangelical about using the arts to improve attainment. She says: "Many of our children live in heartbreaking circumstances. Having Simon here, and the Baltic as our resource, enables us to say, 'Look, there is a whole other world out there and it's there for you as much as anybody else.'"

Further details from Chris Horn Tel: 0191 553 5980

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art Tel: 0191 478 1810 Email:

Creative Partnerships Durham Sunderland Tel: 0191 565 1913

How the partnership works

The artist's week

Simon Woolham works five days a week at Broadway Junior School in Gateshead, arriving when teachers arrive (8am) and leaving when they leave (often 7pm). His contract ring-fences two-and-a-half days a week, timetabled for his own professional practice. For the rest of the time he is used as an additional resource in curriculum teaching throughout the school, but he is also used to meet one of the targets in the school's development plan - to support children with challenging behaviour.

He works with about 20 of these children in groups of two or four at a time in his studio. Year 5 teacher Chris Horn says: "We also use Simon as a role model. He plays with children out on the yard, eats lunch with them, and joins their book club. He has taken on board the culture and that is so positive and exciting for the children to see an adult working, creating, modelling, adapting in the creation of art, in a way that is different to their teachers."

The gallery's programme

The Baltic artist-in-residence at Broadway is a one-off project funded by Creative Partnerships for pound;8,000. Extra money is provided by the Baltic and the school. However, the Baltic runs an extensive partnership programme linking artists and schools, both secondary and primary, throughout the North-east.

The Baltic has built up a team of 16 freelance artists, re-selected every two years, to work with schools.

Schools can book in for a half day (pound;90) or full day (pound;180) studio session with an artist either in school or in the Baltic. The artists offer a range of expertise and specialisms and are police-cleared and trained to work with students and teachers in the use of the gallery, its exhibitions and resources. They offer a bespoke session, matching schools' requirements.

The Baltic offers longer-term residencies with artists for schools. For example, in partnership with the Arvon Foundation, the Centre set up a week-long residency for a Gateshead secondary school in Ted Hughes's house working with an artist and a writer on an in-depth study of the Baltic's British Art Show.

The Centre also offers continuing professional development for teachers, teaching resources (available online), a special teachers' preview evening, library and archive (available online).

The art and education MA run with Northumbria University for artist-teachers is part of the artist-teacher scheme approved and supported by the National Society for Education in Art and Design. Many of the course's tutorials are held at the Baltic. As part of the MA, Baltic organises a five-day summer school which is open to non-MA students for pound;80.

Residency tips

* Involve pupils in interviewing artists for the residency. A group of pupils spent a week at the Baltic going through applicants' artwork, helped draw up the shortlist and interviewed all artists on it. "Simon was the pupils' choice," says headteacher Margarita Acklam.

* Prepare staff. Broadway teachers used in-service days to create their own artwork from Baltic exhibits. They also went on a three-day trip to Barcelona to develop their knowledge in galleries.

* Use the artist to develop children's language of art. Through Simon Woolham, Broadway pupils learned to be art critics and helped create a "question kit" for schools introducing pupils to contemporary art.

* Use the artist as a role model to develop a learning culture; Simon Woolham became a reader at the Broadway Boys' Book Club.

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