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Watching me watching you

A prize-winning art project has truly been a whole-school effort, reports Sean Coughlan

There can't be too many primary schools where the art work in the corridor is inspired by Piet Mondrian. But they take art seriously at Summerlea School in Rustington, West Sussex, and, while you often hear concerns about creativity being squeezed out of the classroom, here they are determined to keep art in the picture.

Summerlea was the joint winner of a national schools art competition, run by Marks amp; Spencer, in which schools were invited to submit art work based on "Portrait of the Nation", a photo-collage by David Mach, previously on show at the Millennium Dome. The prize- winning picture is called "Portrait of our Environment", and it includes the work of every child in the school, plus all the teaching and support staff, including the cleaners.

When it's said that "everyone" joined in, it often means a few of the brightest did most of the work, a few others helped out, a few probably got in the way and the remainder were more or less present in the room when it happened. In Summerlea's work, there is direct evidence of participation, because the picture is made up of 450 self-portraits, with everyone depicting themselves in a huge collage that visually represents the entire school community.

The judges described this as an "exceptionally well planned piece of work, structured for each child to contribute not only a huge amount of background work and preparation, but individually and collaboratively to the whole collage". They commended the way that the concept of the "Portrait of the Nation", made up of a quarter of a million photos from around the country, had been applied to depict the life of a school. This portrait of the pupils and staff was an artistic statement about inclusion, all the year groups and their teachers and school buildings brought together and captured in a "whole school image". "It was very important to include everyone and to promote the idea of a community," says art co-ordinator Susie Fisher. The school opened in 1998, and the art project was chosen as a way of expressing, and creating, a sense of belonging.

When pupils gather for assembly nowadays, they see the whole school mirrored above them - the image itself the product of their collective skill and energy. Taking additional inspiration from David Hockney's photo collages, digital photos of each of the 15 classrooms were used as a background to be filled by the pupils' self-portraits. The classroom portraits were then linked into a unified collage representing the school, with each element a snapshot of an age-group at a different stage of development.

The picture works on a series of levels. It's a single work of art, which can be looked at from a distance in its entirety - a big picture, full of vitality and detail, reminiscent of some folk art. But you can also see it in terms of its component parts, as a series of group and individual drawings, each capturing a moment in time.

Each year group used a different medium. The oldest and youngest classes drew themselves with pencils, while Year 1 pupils used oil pastels. Years 2 and 4 used different types of computer art packages. Year 3 used pen and ink and Year 5 opted for watercolours.

"Through this project the children have developed a greater understanding of how art can evolve and become a combination of people's ideas, thoughts and feelings, and not just those of an individual artist," says Susie Fisher.

Such projects do not need to be at the expense of other parts of the curriculum, says Richard Mitchell, a teacher who helped to organise the project. For instance, it can fit neatly into other areas, such as history. The Year 3 self-portraits are in period costume, as they were taking part in a Roman day when they drew them. One Year 3 pupil, Danielle, dismissed much of Roman life as "gross", but was still full of pride at the carefully drawn pictures of pupils in togas and soldiers' uniforms. "There are usually only a few people in a picture, but this is the whole school and it's a better feeling," she said.

Holly, in Year 5, enjoyed painting with bold watercolours, and said that every picture had depended on patience, taking "two or three goes". Another Year 3 pupil, Katie, says she wants to be an artist now. Her classmate says: "I can't get it through my head that I've won pound;1,000." But she isn't taking the winners' cheque home in her pocket, as the prize money is spent on art equipment, including easels, CD-Roms and sculptures.

Bringing sculpture into the school encourages children to think about art in another dimension and to move beyond thinking in terms of painting or drawing only. But, as the winning picture shows, it isn't about a resources cupboard full of expensive equipment, because planning and process were at the core, rather than the production of a polished final image. It's all very low-tech, showing pupils how to produce a work of art and to think about what they were trying to achieve, rather than making something flashy for a parents' evening.

"Art can be too narrowly defined in school," says head teacher Brian Ball. "And we try to ask ourselves, what's the point of it? What are we trying achieve? And how do we use art in a school to arouse interest and reaction?" He is keen to use art as a way of getting pupils to think for themselves, rather making decoration to impress visitors. "We could make robots here, but we don't want to," he says.

"Many people assume that when we look at art, it should be beautiful. But it needn't be. Using a painter such as Mondrian, you can look at how colour is used. It's about looking beyond the cliched reactions. You can get such open responses from children. We've shown them pictures such as Picasso's Guernica and, without any idea about the history behind the painting, they can read the picture and see the pain in the horse or whatever. They can draw their own stories from what they see.

"Children are creative, they're always making things, and whether it's art or poetry or music, this creativity should feed into everything."

The curriculum - in art, and elsewhere - shouldn't be interpreted as "train tracks" that have to be followed, stresses Mr Ball, but should be seen as an opportunity to make creative connections between subjects. Furthermore, for a school still in its formative years, such art projects can help give a sense of identity, building a particular type of environment. After the picture is displayed at Marks amp; Spencer's flagship store in Baker Street, London, it will be returned to the school. "We've gone from a building site to a school, and we're trying to establish traditions, setting trends for the future. This picture will be an enduring part of the school's history."

The Summerlea art project was produced with a budget of less than pound;50, says Susie Fisher. This was because it made use of resources already in the school, such as a digital camera and art software.

The computer art package used was Dazzle, pound;49 from Semerc, Granada Television, Quay Street, Manchester M60 9ES. Tel: 0161 827 2927 Other materials included pencils, pen and ink, watercolours and crayons. Each class spent about two art sessions on the project, with an estimated total time of 60 hours

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