When Brid met Kandinsky

Elaine Williams sees what is brewing in the East Riding of Yorkshire and finds even tiny rural schools are getting a taste of metropolitan art and culture.

Yorkshire's East Riding is England's largest unitary authority and the most sparsely populated - more pigs than people, as the locals say. Its vast landscape flattens out from the undulation of the Wolds through immense arable fields towards the North Sea coast; its population of 312,000 scatters into farmsteads, villages, market towns and faded seaside resorts.

It has a distant edge-of-the-world feel, yet from a young age East Riding pupils are exposed to a wide range of multicultural and arts activities that are developing a lively cultural awareness and raising achievement across the board.

In an initiative led by the education authority's curriculum and quality development team, artists and performers are being drawn in to work in partnership with schools, so that even as small and remote a primary as Bewholme, with only 25 on roll, can boast an ambitious arts project.

Taking the theme of portraiture, Bewholme pupils are working with artist Margaret Roberts. During a series of one-day residentials she helped pupils make studies of ancient faces and masks, culminating in a group of stained glass portraits. She is now working with them to prepare a mural in the playground, which will reflect the history of the village. Pupils have also been working alongside Jonathan Robson, an internet artist and photographer, who has helped them make pictures of themselves to put on the school's website. All this artwork has been linked to biography projects in literacy. Bewholme's headteacher Linda Bentley says: "It has been like a breath of fresh air. These artists offer a diversity of experience and skills that the children really appreciate and they respond with high-quality work in all areas - writing as well as making." John Duke, age 11, agrees. He says: "If you really listened and followed what Mrs Roberts said you got a lot done. I enjoyed it so much it did not seem like work."

Other projects taking place across the authority include an internet initiative with Year 7s at Driffield school, a 1,600-strong comprehensive. Pupils work with Jonathan Robson and photographer Andy Palmer, both members of Cafe Society, a Hull photography and design group, to undertake computerised manipulation of work pupils have already accomplished, inspired by Aboriginal art. The artists are helping pupils look at website design with a view to creating their own virtual art gallery. The children are also being helped to set up e-mail addresses and "chat" to pupils on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.

At Moorfield infants' school, Bridlington, artist Lucy Merle Jackson has worked with Year 1 pupils to create large wall-hangings, made from sketching shapes in the environment and teasing out geometric patterns from the work of artists such as Miro and Kandinsky. Together they have also made life-size body sculptures using mod-roc. The wall-hangings were shortlisted in the finals of Artworks, the new national children's art awards, a source of great pride in a community suffering high unemployment and low self-esteem - Bridlington has a high proportion of single-parent families, some beset by drugs problems.

Cathy Murray, the school's head and project co-ordinator, says: "Everybody is enormously proud of what the children have achieved. The project has made children familiar with concepts such as angularity, ratio, scale, distance, fluidity. They will not forget these things. The long-term effect has been to get young children excited about maths through the medium of art. Staff preconceptions of what children can achieve have been strongly challenged."

These artistic partnerships form part of an authority-wide undertaking called Creative Contexts for Learning, the fifth in a series aimed at promoting arts projects with the intention of directly influencing pupils' progress in other areas of the curriculum. Schools are required to carry out baseline tests and assessments on pupils and to retest six months later in order to measure gains.

Three years ago, a few schools were involved in Riding High, an arts and language project. Then came Face to Face, a language and literacy arts project. Last year Creative Contexts for Literacy aimed to use the arts to raise standards in primary school English, while a sister programme called In the Frame ran in secondary schools. This year, 20 schools are involved in Creative Contexts for Learning, which also brings in numeracy.

Next year more than 40 schools are bidding for cash that comes out of the authority's Arts in Education fund. Robin Tait, the East Riding's curriculum project manager for the creative arts, believes the whole programme represents remarkable value. This year it has cost no more than pound;40,000, including support by Yorkshire Arts and cash that the schools have raised themselves.

Bob Tonks, the authority's link adviser for the visual and performing arts, says there is evidence that gains in achievement across the curriculum have been real and substantial. He says: "The results have clearly shown great gains. It means that in the East Riding we are keeping the arts alive and kicking and central to the curriculum."

To gain funds to pay artists, however, schools must prove that the projects fit into their development plan. They must elect a member of staff as a project co-ordinator and they must have the firm commitment of their headteacher. They must also be prepared to undertake the research element.

A group of boys at Bridlington school, an 11-18 secondary, has been making large, conceptual textile sculptures, which have become a central feature in the school. The boys, selected from across Years 9-12, were taken out of lessons for day-long residencies with Jenny Barson, a textiles artist, who was responsible for co-ordinating projects across the authority last year. Encouraging the boys to use a great variety of materials - tissue paper, electric wire, a bicycle wheel, willow - she helped them to weave the sculptures into huge dramatic shapes in the assembly hall.

Julian Morris, an art teacher and the school's project co-ordinator, says that before the initiative many of the boys had seen textiles as something for girls only. Now seven or eight boys want to study textiles for GCSE art.

Billy Bruce, age 17, appreciates Jenny's teaching methods. He says: "She did not try to restrict us. She never said 'that will not work'. She helped us with our ideas and just made us think how to do things better." He also believes other boys in the school became committed to and interested in the sculptures. He says: "They think, well, lads have made them so they must be all right." Gavin Sykes, age 15, appreciates the attention his efforts received from both his peers and teachers. He says: "It has been just great. It has made me come into school in my spare time." The boys also developed enormous respect for Craig Spamer, a disabled boy in Year 10, who tied all the knots with his teeth when weaving.

Jenny Barson thinks the initiative has been so successful in raising boys' achievements and self-esteem partly because school staff put in an enormous amount of work and planning between her visits. At Headlands, Bridlington's other secondary school, a group of Year 7-9 boys have been working with Steve Johnson, a Leeds break-dancer, to build up self-esteem and to break down stereotypical attitudes. Many of the boys had decided that dancing was a leotard-and-tights thing exclusively for girls. With Steve, they discovered dance is a physical challenge that they, too, can be good at. Matthew Fox, age 14, believes the experience has given him a more mature attitude to performance and that he is now gaining higher marks in subjects such as drama where he is prepared to include dance routines.

All 140 pupils at Tickton Church of England primary school have benefited from a residency with sculptor Philip Cox, whose "paper people" have been exhibited across Britain. Cox spent a day with pupils, along with villagers who contributed materials, as part of a numeracy and art project called From 2D to 3D, helping them make four large sculptures: a lion, elephant, man and woman. Pupils have also worked with Paul Slater, a digital artist, using ICT programs to create images of their faces. Using maths skills, pupils were encouraged to create 3-D shapes to contain these images, then the shapes were stuck together to form a "living" sculpture.

Staff at Tickton said the sculptures had "fired" pupils to create outstanding work in literacy and numeracy. Linda Cholewa, the acting head and project co-ordinator, says: "The initiative has provided an inspirational and 'real' context for children to improve their skills."

Further details on these arts initiatives from Robin Tait, curriculum projects manager for East Riding of Yorkshire. Tel: 01482 883960. E-mail: robin.tait@east-riding-of-yorkshire.gov.uk Jenny Barson is a freelance textile artist, tel: 01482 655740. E-mail: jenny@barson.karoo.co.ukPupils' work from Creative Contexts for Learning is to be exhibited in Beverley Minster, from July 7-21. Tel: 01482 868540

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