We're with Brunel

Like the city's most famous son, a Portsmouth school is busy building bridges, reports Renata Rubnikowicz

The new Spinnaker Tower spears 170 metres into the sky over Portsmouth, a symbol of high hopes in a city that has often suffered from low aspirations. Portsmouth grammar school, established in 1732 and the city's leading independent school, is trying to act as a similar beacon.

The head, Dr Tim Hands, arrived in 1997 after being second master at the independent Whitgift school in Croydon. "I'd really become interested in the way the school got involved in the local community there," he says. In February 1998, he launched Partnership Portsmouth on board HMS Victory. The city council, the city museums, the Royal Armouries, the Historic Dockyard, the cathedral, Hampshire Cricket Club and Hampshire rugby club were all involved, as were big local employers such as Vosper Thorneycroft, the Royal Navy and IBM.

Examples of partnership projects abound at PGS. A junior school football tournament, held on PGS's Hillsea playing fields, has attracted entries from 16 primary schools this year. Head of history Simon Lemieux tells how Year 11 and 12 pupils visited the graves of former pupils from PGS in Gallipoli and developed educational materials on remembrance for junior schools. Two of Mr Lemieux's colleagues have been instrumental in setting up an HMS Warrior website aimed at key stage 3, and his department has a continuing link with the ship's education department.

St Luke's secondary school is within walking distance of PGS but, surrounded by tower blocks and with a large proportion of special needs pupils and many claiming free school meals, it might as well be in a different world. Under a new head, Krysia Butilowska, it began to make links with PGS in 2001. At first, a small group of PGS staff mentored a group of St Luke's GCSE pupils in specific study skills with the aim of raising their exam results. "I enjoyed it," says Lara Pechard, deputy head of the sixth form at PGS. "The kids responded very warmly to us. We helped them to become motivated."

In return, St Luke's staff have shared their experience of learning difficulties with PGS staff. "It's a very positive development," says the city council's head of culture, Stephen Bailey, "and one that people wouldn't have thought possible 10 years ago."

James Priory, former head of English and now assistant head at PGS, brought Andrew Motion to Portsmouth to work with PGS and St Luke's pupils in 2001.

He describes the "can-opener effect" the poet laureate had on the work of the 25 pupils attending the workshop. "I saw no difference between the pupils in terms of raw talent and dedication to poetry," he says.

One of the first fruits of the partnership was an annual festival which begins tomorrow. "Portsmouth Festivities are really the brainchild of Tim Hands," says Sarah Quail, the former head of arts, libraries, museums and records at Portsmouth council. "The arts need patrons," she adds, and here PGS plays a key role, commissioning work for the festivities.

This is Isambard Kingdom Brunel's year, and Portsmouth is not letting Bristol grab all the glory of the 200th birthday of the great engineer who is one of Portsmouth's most celebrated sons.

Brunel was born near the school, in Britain Street, when his father was working in the dockyard. Brunel was not only interested in nuts and bolts and steam, but commissioned work from contemporary artists, too. With this in mind, the artist Philip Cox led a week's workshop with Year 9 pupils, using corrugated card and brown paper to create shipyard characters, including Brunel, that will be exhibited as part of the festivities in Portsmouth's Anglican Cathedral.

The school has a continuing association with the London Mozart Players, who will perform at the opening gala concert at this year's celebration, which will include music by Brunel's friend Mendelssohn and the world premiere of "Rain, Steam and Speed" by Cecilia McDowall, a piece commissioned by PGS and inspired by the painting by Brunel's admirer, JMW Turner. The London Mozart Players are also working with youth groups in the city.

Young musicians from all over Portsmouth find a platform at the festivities. One is Yasmin Ogilvie, from Horndean technical college. A former member of the Portsmouth Music Club, which meets at PGS, she won the 2005 Portsmouth Music Festival and will be giving her debut saxophone recital.

In the future, PGS plans to arrange for artists to set up their studio in its art department for half a term, and invite four or five local schools in to experience an artist at work. "When you do these things, you don't know what will come out of it," says Garry Whitehead, head of art. "That's the thing about creative work."

www.pgs.org.uk. Portsmouth Festivities, June 24-July 2: 023-9268 8069; www.portsmouthfestivities.co.uk

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