Step to the top of the Pyramid

9th June 2000 at 01:00
Using professional artists in schools can help to ease the transition from primary to secondary and raise achievement, reports Carolyn O'Grady.

Standards in arts subjects, so high in Year 6, can easily fall off in Year 7. Perhaps even more easily than in other subjects because, with performance-based arts, secondary school teachers have little way of knowing what pupils have achieved and how good they are at expressing and communicating ideas and feelings through music and movement.

The Sheffield Arts Pyramid project, funded and organised by Sheffield local education authority and Yorkshire Arts, aimed to contribute to a smooth transition between key stages 2 and 3 and to help secondary schools and their feeder primary schools become more aware of each other's arts curriculum. It was also designed to raise achievement in the schools and improve staff expertise.

Three artists, chosen because they had a good track record of successful work in education, worked with Year 5 and Year 7 teachers and pupils in each of six schools. In the lead-up, which began in October 1999, teachers met advisers and each other to discuss what they wanted, choose their areas of work, meet the artists and draw up a timetable. Schools then began work on their projects. The artists returned to the schools for three day-long sessions the following spring. The project culminated in April with a presentation at which all the schools shared their work in the areas of music, arts and dance.

"It was very important to the project that the teachers, as well as the pupils, worked closely with the artists," says Stephen Tiffany, arts adviser with Sheffield's education department, "because if you want to make this sort of work sustainable you must spend time developing the teachers. The project focused on Year 5," he says, "because we thought this would allow the benefits to filter through to the rest of the primary schools and also because Year 6 pupils have a lot of pressure at that time, including SATs."

The theme was Our City, a subject that gave rise to an artfest of work at the presentation. The work included tapestries incorporating cutlery, wheels, cogs and other metal objects, portrayals of blackened chimneys and papier mache figures based on old black and white photographs of Sheffield steelworkers.

Among the children's performances were a musical number inspired by the statue in Meadowhall mall of steelworkers pouring molten ore (the children imagined a conversation with one of the workers when the statue came to life) and dances in which children improvised on the themes of entertainment, industry, travel and machinery.

"The aim was to share all the work that different groups had been doing," says Stephen Tiffany. "It helped the secondary school teachers see what Year 5 children can do and will enable them to pitch their work at the correct level. It also allowed the primary school teachers and children to see what former pupils are doing in Year 7. It is important that children share work, meet each other and show each other wha they have produced; through that process a great deal of learning takes place."

At Ecclesfield primary school, which chose dance as its subject area, Erica Wilkinson and Paul Swift, both age 10, and Laura Harman and Miles Coleman, both nine, described how, with the artist Wendy Smith, they brainstormed what to do and decided on entertainment as their focus. Cinema, bowling and parties were incorporated into their work. "We practised eating popcorn and exaggerated the movement, looking straight ahead," said Erica. "And Wendy said 'what would you feel if you were at the cinema?' I said: 'I'd be scared', so we thought of ways of looking scared."

Pupils decided on how to express finding something funny or sad. Headteacher Sophie Barton chose dance because "it is the area we do least of and we wanted to raise its profile in the school". She says: "It is also an area of PE where teachers lack confidence and there has not been a lot of training. One aim was to work out the best way of working with artists. In this case, the professional artists worked very closely with the teachers, which seemed successful. It is really important that children see other work, especially in dance and music where there is no abiding product. The performance aspect is vital."

While the primary schools picked just one of the three areas to work on, Ecclesfield secondary school, a 1,500-pupil comprehensive, had one session with each of the three artists, and the school decided to target gifted and talented young people. PE teacher Kathy Hutton was impressed by how enthusiastically the boys responded (they were included in dance for the first time - usually boys were timetabled for basketball while girls did dance). The artist specialising in dance introduced several styles, reggae, for example, and Ms Hutton said she would probably incorporate these into her work.

She was surprised at the primary schools' impressive standard of work: "It will help us in future to know what they can achieve. And I am sure it helped primary children to see what the secondary children are doing at the presentation. They could see that their work leads somewhere. They could see progression."

Ecclesfield secondary school is already planning more projects with the primary schools, says Vicky Godley, head of faculty for creative and aesthetic arts. This month they are putting on a production of Gregory's Girl and pupils will be going into feeder primary schools to perform parts of the show and to hold workshops. They would like to repeat the Pyramid project themselves next year if funding could be found.

The LEA plans to produce a report to identify the benefits of the project, says Stephen Tiffany, "to show other schools what can be done" and hopes to run similar projects with other schools this year.

A resource pack showing how a Pyramid-style project can be organised, including pro-formas, will be available from the end of June, price pound;20. Contact Stephen Tiffany at The Bannerdale Centre, Bannerdale Road, Sheffield S7 2EW. Tel: 0114 250 6855

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