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June 20 2011

Art clubs target talented children

Saturday art clubs – a reincarnation of a 1970s idea – are inspiring disadvantaged children

See their work in this gallery

The young boy looks wistfully out of the window at the huge green expanse beyond, the darkness of his clothing – layered with tiny strokes of coloured pencil – contrasting with the airiness of the never-ending countryside.

This extraordinary drawing – which goes on show this week in a new exhibition at London's Somerset House – is not the work of a professional artist, but 14-year-old Leeds schoolboy Hafizullah Karim.

The exhibition spotlights the potential of more than 400 young people aged 14-16, showcasing their work in disciplines from drawing, painting and sculpture to photography, print-making, ceramics and digital graphics. All have taken part this year in the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme, receiving free specialist tuition from their local art college.

The Saturday club is a modern version of an earlier incarnation, which bit the dust in the 1970s. The aim was – and is – to encourage disadvantaged youngsters to consider careers in the creative arts. So on Saturday mornings 14 art colleges – including Leeds, Plymouth, Hereford, Grimsby and Hastings – have been throwing their doors open to this group of young people who often struggling lengthy distances by public transport to get to the lessons.

Hafizullah seems surprised by the huge interest in his work since he won a place last year on the club run by Leeds College of Art. "I love art," he says. "It is my favourite subject at school, but I have learned so much from the Saturday Club. My tutors have encouraged me to be more adventurous in my style. In art, the more you do, the better you are. I have worked with clay, done graphics and also used watercolours." He explains that for this work, he originally took a photograph of himself sitting by the window at home but adapted it for the drawing – which he completed in about a week and a half – substituting the urban views outside for countryside. "The outside world and nature are so important to us all," he says, declaring himself an admirer of the Impressionists.

His love of the outdoor space may reflect the earlier restrictions in his life. Hafizullah's family left Afghanistan when he was three to live in Pakistan while his father went to find work in Leeds. The youngster honed his drawing skills at the afterschool Ghoighola Art Class in Quetta, which he attended for four years.

In February last year, he and the rest of his family moved to the area and he joined year 9 at City of Leeds high school. He won a place at the Saturday Club after the school's head of art, Catherine Walsh, recommended him as exceptionally gifted.

This year, more than 400 young people attending 100 schools in the UK have taken part in Saturday Club – funded predominantly by the private Sorrell Foundation to the tune of £150,000 a year – but it is hoped to increase this number to 500 next year. It is estimated that there are a further 100 UK colleges that could offer the programme using existing facilities, and the aim is to "scale it up" each year to allow more young people to take part.

The scheme targets 14- to 16-year-olds who have already shown evidence of artistic talent – many from challenging social backgrounds – who are still weighing up their academic options after GCSE and are yet to decide whether to pursue further or higher education. While the regular classes offer the kind of tuition and facilities that most secondary schools could only dream of, they are supplemented by "Master classes" given by renowned artists and designers such as Antony Gormley, Thomas Heatherwick and Naomi Cleaver. This brings the best of inspirational British art and design talent to youngsters from poorer backgrounds who might not otherwise be able to tap into such creativity, along with opportunities for longer-term mentoring. All students are also taken to London for a day – for many their first visit – for tours of major galleries.

Also studying at the Leeds club is Nida Mozuraite, a 16-year-old student at Morley Academy, who came to the UK with her family from Lithuania six years ago. She has been getting up regularly on Saturday mornings at 8am to travel to Leeds for the three-hour sessions. "I have got used to getting up early and I do it because I enjoy it," she says. "I have made lots of new friends and also been introduced to techniques I would not have been able to use at school. The tutors treat you like grownups, not children." Nida is just finishing her GCSEs and plans to study full-time at the college on its BTec national (extended) diploma in art and design in September.

The clubs' success is reflected in high attendance rates – no mean feat given that Saturday mornings are a time when you would expect most teenagers to be chilling out or hanging around with their mates – if they manage to drag themselves out of bed at all. Last year, Leeds College of Art received 80 applications for just 25 places, while at Plymouth College of Art some students happily undertake a 60-mile round trip to attend classes.

The clubs use existing resources, but the art college lecturers (helped by student volunteers) have to give up their valuable time on a Saturday to teach – a considerable sacrifice at the end of a busy week.

The drive to expand the programme into a fully national one is given extra impetus given the cuts to arts education funding that threaten to constrict the supply of talent to colleges, universities and, ultimately, the creative sector in the UK. Similarly, many teachers fear that art GCSE is at risk if schools have to comply with the new EBacc curriculum – which for the same reasons could also lead to design technology being downgraded.

Plymouth College of Art's club has been running for five years, and last year 38% of club members went on to take up courses at the college. An enthusiastic "veteran" is 15-year-old Ben Lintell, whose striking photographic work for a magazine project features in the exhibition. "I have done everything from old-style poster printing to pinhole photography, which has been great," he says. "The sky's the limit in terms of what you are taught, and I have also enjoyed the chance to work collaboratively."

Fellow member 14-year-old Eleanor James-George says: "I would very much like to go on to study at Plymouth College of Art. I have really enjoyed screen-printing T-shirts with photographs, and using  darkroom equipment, enlargers etc that we do not have at school."

Alumni of the original 1970s art clubs included designers John and Frances Sorrell (who went on to form design consultancy Newell and Sorrell and who set up the Sorrell Foundation) and advertising genius John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

Sir John Sorrell reflects: "This strikes me as something the government should support as it is all about localism in action. Frances and I were lucky that we could start our careers in a Saturday morning art and design class when we were 14 years old, and by the age of 19 I was running my own business. We believe the club offers a real pathway for youngsters to develop their skills and confidence, and find worthwhile and rewarding careers. Just as we did."

• The exhibition is open until 17 July, admission free. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Arts on Saturday

Disadvantaged children are being nurtured in the creative arts by the fledgling National Art and Design Saturday Club scheme. An exhibition opens this week at Somerset House in London of the work of more than 400 young people

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