Mike White, Senior Research Fellow in Arts and Health in the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University, writes: Last week I visited, probably for the last time, Chickenley Primary School in Dewsbury which has been the base for Roots & Wings, CMH associate Mary Robson’s extraordinary arts and emotional health programme for children which has run for over ten years. The occasion was an upbeat valediction for the project closing down and moving on. A long-standing problem of sustaining day-to-day partnership support has been exacerbated further by funding difficulties and changed priorities in (Gove)rnment meddling with the education system such as the downgrading of arts in schools and the scrapping of the healthy schools standard. Setting aside a sense of loss, at the invitation of the children and their artist mentors I attended this finale day of celebration and positive reflection.
In the art room base of “Roots & Wings” were dozens and dozens of communal journals, photo files, ‘artist statements’ and scrapbooks, dating back ten years, laid open for all to see. Old friends of the project, parents and former pupils turned up to offer congenial support and, well, condolences. Display boards and art works, especially the self-portraits that have come to characterise “Roots & Wings”, spoke volumes and sparked our conversations, and we were invited to contribute our memories of the project to a timeline on the wall. The year 6 children, fresh from their annual transition parade and sporting the winged t-shirts they designed, had set up an impromptu cafe to offer visitors drinks and an all-cake buffet on arrival. The confidence and good humour of Chickenley children are always remarkable, and are so evidently at odds with their estate’s reputation in the media as a sink of under-achievement and social dysfunction. While we leafed through the journals with mixed emotions, we were periodically entertained with raps and songs the children had composed.
It is a choker to realise that this marvellous experiment in social pedagogy and empathic arts practice, which has inspired relationship-based learning through participatory arts in schools across Kirklees district, is breaking up its base camp before scaling new heights next term in another school in a neighbouring district where the artist team has already been invited and resourced to establish another “Roots & Wings” project. In a very palpable sense, the artists too have had their time of transition, and in a manner akin to the observation of Emerson that “everything teaches transition, transference, metamorphosis: therein is human power, in transference, not in creation; and therein is human destiny, not in longevity but in removal. We dive and reappear in new places.” (Journals 1820-1824).
Just as I was leaving Chickenley Primary, a spin-off mothers’ group from the project, “The Ladies Of The Parish”, walked in with a communal pride in their bearing and banter. I noticed one of them had a tattoed inscription on her shoulder that read “When you could only see one set of footprints…that was when I carried you”. Even a clichéd aphorism in the right place at the right time can turn up in ‘that dress’. Dumbstruck, I took these words made flesh as a spot-on testament to the back-stop support that “Roots & Wings” has provided to Chickenley’s children over the years. There is now a whole generation on the estate who have been through this project and experienced its social pedagogy in the literal sense of having had someone with a creative empathy walking alongside them with a continuous positive regard. As many children have said of the “Roots & Wings” art room in their ‘artist statements’, it is the one place in their school life where they always felt welcome, were never shouted at, and were encouraged to reflect maturely on what mattered to them in their awakening lives. Call me old-fashioned and sentimental, but I believe that has got to make a difference to the Chickenley community’s future.