Education: Coffee and chat made the ideas flow: The modern world has given children greater 'visual literacy'. Diana Hinds looks at new approaches to creativity in schools

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The Independent Online
AN A-LEVEL pupil is hard at work on a still life of bottles, painted with an impressionistic delicacy and vigour. 'Sparkling like spring water,' says Joe Kusner appreciatively.

Moving on, he points out a pleasing abstract work by another student, 'a sophisticated thinker and worker', who has already won a place at the Glasgow School of Art.

Thirty years after he first came to Acland Burghley School, north London, Mr Kusner, head of its art department, has much to be proud of. Art at Acland, once widely regarded as unimportant, is now a positive draw for many parents. The figures tell the story: 100 out of 150 pupils took GCSE art this summer - their exam work is displayed on the walls, a confident array of prints, pencil or chalk drawings, and abstract reliefs - and 25 pupils took A-level. Next year, 35 will take A-level. The year after that, possibly 45. Of last year's 21 A-level candidates, 10 were awarded grade As.

Now dressed in jeans and a baggy T-shirt, Mr Kusner started the job in a suit and tie lest the school doubt his seriousness. But he brought in hammers and nails for his pupils to work with, and they made such a noise, he says, that the art department literally made itself heard.

'It was a very exciting time. We would have a coffee with the students, chat to them, make them comfortable - and the work flowed out of that. It was very strong, very gutsy. The work has improved since then, but it's also lost something - it's become more art-school oriented.'

Working from observation is a key activity, and to stimulate his classes Mr Kusner builds, with the help of his pupils, a large central display on a different theme each term: this summer the theme is the Raft of the Medusa, an assemblage of wire cages, rope and wicker baskets, hung with lights and pieces of fabric, and crowned with a ship's figurehead.

In Vassos Papas's art room next door - the department has three full-time teachers and one part-time - plants and other paraphernalia fill the shelves, and parts of bicycles hang from the ceiling. 'It has the atmosphere of a studio,' says Mr Papas, head of lower-school art. 'You come in and it makes you want to paint.'

Many of the pupils' sketchbooks are fascinating records of how they have tried out different methods, studied the work of other artists and struggled to develop their own ideas. In addition to drawing and painting, they are encouraged to experiment with a variety of print-making techniques (the school is lucky enough to own an etching press), using lino, cloth, gold card, potassium permanganate and lemon juice; or with 3-D work, such as breeze-block carving.

'They'll try everything once. They generally find they're good at something,' says Mr Kusner.

'Personally, I don't believe in talent,' says Mr Papas. 'Anybody who can come up here and show motivation and effort - they can do well.'

The Ercall Wood School in Wellington, Shropshire, a grant-maintained 11-16 comprehensive, is another example of a school that is making a success of its art - with less space, less equipment and fewer teachers than Acland Burghley. In some years, three-quarters of GCSE pupils opt for art, and this summer's exam work reveals a range of accomplishment, from skilled observational drawings of buildings or plants, to expressive and imaginative work in paint.

Paul Janczykowski, head of art since 1981, says: 'Most of them come to the school enjoying art, but after a year or so some get frustrated because they have difficulty expressing themselves. I try to explain that there is no one way of doing it, and I insist that they really look at things. They say they can't draw, but it's because they're not using their eyes.'

Jim Toal, who teaches in the department, says 14-year-olds tend to be the most conservative about art and the most anxious to produce 'realistic' pictures in the photographic sense. An attempt to inspire his year 9 class to do some more adventurous work on movement, by looking at Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase and the work of futurist artists, had not entirely succeeded, resulting in some rather tight pictures of footballers and skiers. But by year 10, Mr Toal says, pupils have generally become a bit more open-minded.

Elsewhere in the school were some fine examples of large-scale, semi-abstract prints made with pieces of plywood, as well as some proficient paintings strongly resembling famous works by Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. These are not merely 'copies', however, but studies intended to promote an 'understanding' of great painters, in line with the national curriculum.

'People learn to draw and paint by referring to other paintings and drawings,' says Mr Toal. 'For example, there's no better way of learning about handling paint than by trying to do what Cezanne did in his Cardplayers.'

(Photograph omitted)