Can inner-city A-level students be inspired by Old Master paintings? Kate Graham visits the Dulwich Picture Gallery
On the 185 bus from Oval, it takes just 30 minutes for the bustling roads of Kennington to melt into the picturesque streets of Dulwich. It's become a familiar journey for 13 A-level students from Archbishop Tenison's School, a visual arts college since 2003.
Participating in an exhibition titled In Our View, they became temporary artists-in-residence at the beautiful Dulwich Picture Gallery, creating work to hang among the paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens. Every student at this thriving inner-city comprehensive is a familiar face at the Saatchi, Tate and Hayward. But despite being a passionate advocate of gallery visits, the school's head of art, John Rummens, had concerns about the collaboration with the Dulwich. "We are a very ordinary school with a strong ethnic mix and a range of special needs. At first, I thought it was the modern galleries that reflected their community."
Gillian Wolfe, head of education at the gallery, meets the issue head on.
"I know you can't get any posher than here," she admits. "One - it's fine art, two - it's not even sexy contemporary art, and three - it's an austere-looking building. We know it's not an easy collection to get into."
John's advice to other teachers is clear: "Get beyond your comfort zone and what you perceive to be the comfort zone of your pupils. I was reading what I thought were the preconceptions of the pupils, and not letting them experiment. I thought they would be into modern art rather than the 17th and 18th centuries, but I was wrong."
Insisting on a structured programme culminating in an exhibition, John ensured that his students experienced the life of a professional artist. "I sold my idea to the gallery and they went for it. The results were based on a lot of effort, hard work and trust."
Their achievement is all the more impressive since students completed the work just weeks before their A-levels. "I was concerned the project would result in either a great exam and a weak exhibition, or vice versa, but they fed so well from each other," says John. The quality of work on display is so high that there have been offers to buy. "These year groups have produced work of a better quality and a higher standard than any before. You can actually see the results of this exhibition, they are palpable."
Headteacher Louise Fox is delighted, believing achievement in art brings success across the curriculum. "Ten years ago we had 1 per cent A* to C grades at GCSE, now we have 60 per cent A* to C and art has definitely helped us move in that direction. A boy might start to work really hard in art, realise that he likes it and that he has talents elsewhere. Art helps with engagement and motivation; it has really helped transform the school."
Both gallery and school see the collaboration as an important step in making fine art more accessible to the community. Gillian says:
"Even walking from our gates to our front door is a stretch for many people. We want to create deeply tapped roots in our local community so they feel this gallery is theirs."
John is delighted the relationship with the gallery is so strong. "In many ways, we will always be like chalk and cheese. That was part of the excitement, it is completely alien, completely different, completely opposite to what we do here and to the background these kids come from. But I realised they were equipped to deal with it, and the results are there for everyone to see."
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