Steps in the right direction: An imaginative scheme brings dance and drama into disadvantaged schools

The lessons have a marked effects on pupils' achievements across the board. Richard Garner visits one of its success stories

There is more than a touch of the Billy Elliots about the project. He was, you remember, the miner's son with a penchant for ballet dancing who was living in a traditional Northern pit town with not much enthusiasm for boys to take up that subject.

Children from the Oaks Community Primary School in Ipswich, Suffolk, have developed strong links with one of the country's leading dance organisations. They go to the DanceEast centre in the middle of the town once a week to learn how to dance and express themselves and have also attended productions there. As Rachel Burrows, the teacher who has taken charge of the project at the school, puts it: "There are not many male role models in the local community."

Yet boys and girls are sharing a new-found enthusiasm for dance as a result of the link. Parents, too, appear to have been won over – accompanying their children on visits to performances. It could be said to be a way of engaging them more in the education of their children. Rachel Burrows singles out one child on the dance floor who seems completely wrapped up in a complicated dance manoeuvre as we speak. "He's been a very shy boy at school, but he seems to come out of himself when it comes to dance and expresses himself," she says.

The link between DanceEast and the school was established through the Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts – a project set up by Prince Charles to bring arts, drama and dance to youngsters in disadvantaged communities who may never have otherwise had the chance to take part in such activities. Jeremy Newton, its chief executive, is acutely aware of the dangers of the arts being squeezed out in schools. However, he is also aware of the benefits that can emerge in other areas of the curriculum from the sense of enjoyment that involvement with such a project can bring.

At present, the programme is engaged in 38 projects bringing disadvantaged communities and the world of the arts together. The idea is that the foundation will fund the link – called its Start project – for three years, and that then the project becomes self-sufficient and can continue without its involvement.

There is a great demand from schools and arts and drama organisations to become involved – witness the fact that the foundation is sifting through 250 applications for 10 places for projects to start in September. The hope must be that some of those rejected – where arts organisations have already made an initial introduction to schools – may start schemes of their own if they fail to get funding from the foundation.

The scheme was first started after Prince Charles visited a Midlands school where a class was studying Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. On talking to the pupils, he discovered the youngsters had never seen the play performed. Coincidentally, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) was at that time staging a performance of the play in Stratford-upon-Avon. Being president of the RSC, the Prince took the class to see it and afterwards the cast talked to the pupils. When they returned to school following the trip, the youngsters wrote to the Prince saying it was the best experience of their lives.

Rachel Burrows can attest to a similar success with the visits to DanceEast. She has also started philosophy classes at the 355-pupil school, which start in the reception year for four and five-year-olds. "They get the children to think and make their own arguments," she says. "We got them to give a star rating to a dance performance they had just seen at DanceEast and say why they had give it the rating. They were acting like dance critics."

As to the success of the scheme, it does seem to be having a spin-off in terms of the pupils' achievements in other areas. On the last visit to the school, which serves one of the most deprived areas of the East Anglian town, the inspector Heather Weston wrote: "There is good improvement in pupils' achievement since the last inspection, which is now good rather than satisfactory because standards are steadily rising... The results achieved in 2010 were the best the school has ever achieved in its history ... the quality of the teaching and learning has improved and all the pupils are making better progress."

Even in the previous inspection, though, the inspectors noted the enthusiasm of the children. "Pupils love coming to the school," they wrote. "Phrases such as 'I think the Oaks is a fantastic school' and 'this school is so nice and helpful' are repeated time and time again." The school has a philosophy of engaging in out-of-school visits such as a trip to Felixstowe, where it has a partnership with a school in the neighbourhood. The rationale behind these trips is that it encourages the pupils to learn a bit more about their local geography. Surprisingly, a number of pupil might never have even ventured that far away from home before the school trip was arranged.

Geography, too, is one area of the curriculum that does play a part in the visits to the DanceEast studios. One of the shows the pupils saw that made a lasting impression with them was called Maps, performed by the Nats Nus Dansa company. The show focused on four timeless characters who become accidental travel companions.

They make several stops on their journey to share experiences, sensations, sounds and dances from different countries around the world – thus giving pupils the chance to learn more about the countries the group has visited.

One of the constant themes to be heard at teachers' conferences in the past few years is how little time there is to devote to areas such as the arts in the primary-school curriculum. This is attributed to the pressure to do well in national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds in maths and English, thus securing the school a top spot in the resulting league tables. For a start, argues Rachel Burrows, it does not take too much time out of school to come and visit a nearby dance studio once a week. Secondly, with the critics' sessions and the improved knowledge of world geography, it is playing its part in developing their knowledge of other parts of the curriculum.

Speaking and listening skills, in particular, have been improved by developing pupils' arguments about what they have seen when they act as dance critics. And those speaking and listening skills, according to the recently published review of primary-school national-curriculum assessment carried out by Lord Bew's inquiry team, are essential to improve reading and writing standards.

So teachers at the Oaks would argue they are doing their bit to raise standards just as much as they are bringing a little bit of glamour into the lives of their children by participating in the project. The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating (or the SATs results).

The message being hammered out by the Oaks is one that would be reinforced by many of the other projects that the Prince's Foundation is involved with. That is shown by some of the teachers participating in projects. Take Carla Moore, a teacher from Lewisham in south-east London, where pupils are also engaged in a dance project.

"Children and the Arts has motivated a positive attitude towards the Arts," she says. "Boys' attitudes towards dance have been transformed, children with special educational needs have had their self-esteem improved and produced their best writing to date, and two children have been identified as 'gifted and talented'. These amazing opportunities have truly enriched the lives of my pupils."

But perhaps the last word should be left with one of the children involved. "I'm looking forward to going to the... concert hall because I don't get to go to concerts," says Charlotte, aged nine. "I like music and when the musicians came into school, I especially liked the performance in the hall because I was chosen to conduct them."

Arts in the classroom

The Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts is currently working with 38 arts organisations around the UK through its Start programme to inject some culture in the lives of children from deprived areas.

Its projects, which this year have reached more than 15,500 children, include working with theatres, museums, galleries and orchestras as well as dance centres.

Under the project, all pupils will make at least two visits to their partner cultural organisation to watch a professional performance. They will also meet artists and be offered back-stage tours.

Normally a project would last for two or three years with the hope that the links between schools and the arts will continue once funding is withdrawn.

Schools that take part are selected on the grounds they serve pupils in areas of rural and economic deprivation. Some pupils will have been excluded from other schools while others will have behaviour or learning difficulties.

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