Model students: Why GCSE pupils are head over heels about sculpture

A school in south London is giving pupils the chance to try their hand at sculpture – and they can't get enough of it.

There's a new landmark in Balham and it has nothing to do with Peter Sellers' Gateway to the south, nor any other part of his gentle 1960s mockery of this bustling south-west London suburb.

No – this landmark is an eye-catching piece of sculpture, perched high on a plinth near the main entrance of Chestnut Grove School, a popular 11-19 comprehensive close to Balham High Street.

This artwork – a sinuous arrangement of steel branches and leaves, soaring upwards – is fittingly titled Aspiration. Designed by Shapali Kalam, 15, it is the most conspicuous result of a two-year sculpture project run as part of a GCSE applied art and design course.

Shapali, who is now going on to do A-level art at Chestnut Grove, still seems amazed to see her idea turned into this beautiful (and now valuable) piece of art, gleaming in the June sunshine. "Right up to the end I don't think any of us believed they were really going to make any of our designs into full-size sculptures," she says.

Perhaps she'll finally believe it when her work, along with that of fellow student Varunan Kumar, is officially unveiled by local dignitaries (and maybe a celeb or two) on 7 July.

The idea for the project came from the school's joint head of art, Adam Butcher, a trained sculptor who was determined to bring the art form he loves most into the lives of his students. Sculpture is less well represented in schools than other visual arts – partly because of the cost of raw materials and tools, and partly because of the specialised skills required of teachers.

All the more reason, he felt, to give his pupils and the school the benefit of working with a professional sculptor on a real project, with expensive materials and tools.

His plan came together at exactly the right time: the school had been the first in London to gain visual arts specialist status, which brought funding and the requirement to work with the local community, including around 15 link schools. Chestnut Grove is also in the midst of being rebuilt under the Government's Building Schools for the Future programme, and the whole school is thinking hard about the aesthetics of its environment.

The final and possibly winning element of Adam's plan was the involvement of a professional sculptor who could inspire students, guide them through their coursework, and run sessions for teachers from link schools and the community.

He already had the perfect candidate, a successful local sculptor, Diarmuid Byron-O'Connor, whose best-known work is probably the Peter Pan statue at the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in central London. Byron-O'Connor had been a community artist in the past and works extensively with TV and film companies on set-design and special effects. He was, Adam realised, the ideal person to work with the pupils, give them a sense of how the commercial side of the art world works, and involve the wider community.

As well as fitting in with the community brief, the idea would be great for the pupils – and for the public image of the school. So, funding was released, Byron-O'Connor was hired to run 10 sessions, and in autumn 2007 a group of 15 year-10 students set to work on their GCSE project brief.

"What was great was that we could replicate all the conditions a sculptor has to face when making a piece of art for a client", says Butcher. The pupils had to respond to a brief – the client was the school, and the job was to design a piece of sculpture that celebrated its specialist arts status, and was right for a specific site.

Butcher and Byron-O'Connor worked with the children, initially helping them to research ideas from natural forms, and to start working from ideas to sketches to creating 3-D maquettes in a variety of materials. The group reflected the school's diverse ethnic intake, and highlighted some of the different cultural approaches to art: "Some of them had no experience of sculpture before," Butcher says, "and for some pupils, trying to visualise a three-dimensional design was entirely new."

As well as the aesthetic challenges, Byron-O'Connor was constantly reminding them of the realities of working to a brief: "They had to know what was feasible, how things had to be delivered on time, to a budget, how things such as health and safety have to be considered", he says. "This is all stuff I deal with in my working life every day."

The sculptor spent a lot of time helping them to develop their visions, and explaining what was possible and what was not – and how to use computers with Photoshop to create a simulation of how their finished piece would look in situ.

He also taught them the value of the happy accident. "Half of the skill of the artist is to know when to apply luck," Byron-O'Connor says. One of the students, Varunan Kumar, had come up with a design involving a spiral wrapping around itself in space. He had four goes at making a model in card, and stacked them all on a shelf. They got squashed together – and this led to the "epiphany" of the inter-twining spiral design, which, in a version involving about £600 worth of pure copper, now graces the main foyer of the school.

From the start the 15 students knew it was a competition – and that only two of the designs would be chosen to be made into full-size sculptures. "It made us keep working," says Varunan Kumar. The course had also been a confidence booster: "It helped me decide to go ahead with my aim to train as an architect".

The competitive element kept students on their toes up to April 2009 when their final maquettes went on show in the school's smart new exhibition area. And, in a Balham version of the Turner prize, they were judged by a panel of artists, teachers and dignitaries, and the two winners were announced.

Butcher now hopes to build on the project. "Lots of younger pupils have been asking us, 'will we be able to do this in year 10?'," he says. The answer is yes. He hopes they'll be able to create at least one new piece each year over the next four or five years. "The aim is to create a sculpture trail around the school," he says.

Originally he wanted to take this trail out onto the streets of Balham – but bureaucratic obstacles have ruled this out. That said, there'll be real efforts to make new works visible to the neighbourhood, and the school is producing a resource pack to help other schools to run similar schemes.

So, yes, dear departed Peter Sellers, it seems you were right – hordes of art lovers will be beating paths across the verdant grasslands of south west London to seek out the treasures of Balham in the coming years – indeed they will.

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