Why does it matter when Art isn’t promoted in schools? Jessica Austin-Burdett argues it does more than simply offering a creative outlet for students. It levels the playing field.

Creativity has long been understood to be something that is vital to human existence, something that gives us meaning and purpose.[1]

During the Covid lockdowns there were the beginnings of some really interesting conversations around the purpose of education and how we can better support and equip our students. Now we’re back in the pressurised and stressful school environment, the room and time for deep reflection and conversation seems to have disappeared. We know the current system benefits certain types of students over others, we know that the narrow subject choice and topic matter within these subjects is restrictive and exclusive. We know that many students feel like failures when it’s the system failing them and that mental health issues are rising rapidly. This all points to an ineffective system.

An approach that encourages a more holistic education would ensure our students are fully prepared for the emotional, political, financial, communal and societal aspects of adult life. School should be more than just about how many exams you can pass. On that note, we should allow access to a much broader portfolio of qualifications for students so they all have the opportunity to succeed and find their true skill set.

Currently, schools compete with each other instead of collaborating. Teachers have reduced resources, schools are struggling with budget constraints, students have majorly reduced choice and parents are often very confused as to how to judge the quality of a school, thanks to the haphazard and unequal measures put in place. How does the current system empower students to problem-solve, to face the future with solution-focused thinking? Where are critical thinking skills embedded? How is creativity nurtured and encouraged? Where do we plan for and celebrate communal and collaborative approaches?

I believe that placing creative subjects, including Art and DT, at the heart of education, alongside English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Languages, with more equal weighting given to all. Encouraging a portfolio approach to gaining qualifications would significantly improve not only the educational experience of our learners but also the teaching experience for educators too. Why? For a number of reasons.

 

First and foremost that Arts learning is very different to that in other subjects. Students can explore how to express themselves, how to successfully design and create something, how to understand the world through others’ eyes and needs, and how to critically analyse and reflect.

 

More variance in how and why we learn is needed, in order for more forms of success to be experienced by a wider number of students. According to the findings of the TALE research project,  “one clear and consistent message comes from students: arts and cultural learning taps into their imagination, creative instincts and self-worth in ways that other lessons do not”.[2]

 

All students deserve to be able to work in ways that fit their needs and desires, so they can know what success is and know they are capable of being and doing something worthy in the world. Narrowing the field of experience and focusing too much on academic subjects reduces that capacity for many. In the long run making people feel they are failures, when the system has actually failed them, leads to them being  less able to contribute to society in any way that is meaningful, and  will lead to them having less healthier lives on many levels, which is detrimental both to individuals and to society as a whole.

 

An interesting conversation I regularly have with my students is how Art is linked to everything else. When we visit galleries I also like to challenge them to find an artwork that cannot be linked to the topic we are studying, they haven’t managed yet. Meaningful intertwining of topics across subjects could ensure that students really look, notice, analyse, critically engage with, understand and embed the information and skills we want them to acquire in ways that are more effective than our current methods. How much time do we spend teaching similar skills in different subject areas that could be more effectively taught and retained if we worked together?

 

Many skills and areas of knowledge Art and DT can be connected to those of other subjects, I think that all subjects have crossover and we could design a  more interconnected curriculum if given the opportunity, a more intertwined curriculum would ensure that students were practising and transferring skills and knowledge and embedding those in meaningful ways, making the learning more sticky.

 

Students who are involved in successful Art projects in schools generally have improved well being “including increased confidence, self-esteem and resilience; improved interpersonal and communication skills; increased social capital, social skills and social inclusion; increased participation in school life; and improved school attendance”.[3]

 

Teachers often report that many students and parents do not see the value in pursuing a career in the Arts. But according to The Arts Council England, in 2019 the arts and culture industry grew by £390 million in a year and now contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy, generated 363,700 jobs, and productivity in the arts and culture industry between 2009 and 2016 was greater than that of the economy as a whole.[4]

 

It has often been reported that many primary educators do not feel they have the subject knowledge or confidence to teach Art well, as only a small percentage of their training is spent on Art. This needs to improve, but in the meantime there are some great resources and training out there, see AccessArt for starters!

 

The government even states that ‘Art makes a significant contribution to our society through human innovation, imagination, and thought. A high-quality curriculum in art, craft and design, enables pupils to develop love of a subject that is both intellectually challenging and creatively demanding’[5]

 

The big concern is the reduction of the Arts in the timetable from Primary upwards. This isn’t just an educational issue it’s a social justice issue, as the Cultural Learning Alliance in partnership with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation research states: ‘We must work together … to ensure that every child and young person can access a broad and balanced curriculum that enables them to fulfil their potential, and which gives them the skills needed for the future.’ Otherwise the arts become the preserve of only those who can afford them.

 

Whilst we await more fundamental changes to the way we co-construct a more meaningful and holistic educational experience for our students, here are some ways in which we can explore how to ensure we construct and deliver a robust and engaging Art and DT curriculum in the secondary school classroom:

  • Explore identity and belonging rather than portraiture. Still focus on self-portraits but add layers of exploration and understanding through an exploration of our history, our community and our context and how that can be communicated visually.
  • Explore community and how this can be celebrated through the arts; how can community art, public art, architecture and landscape design help to generate and celebrate a sense of community, an understanding of the history of place and a sense of pride and belonging?
  • An exploration of issues, what issues are pertinent to our young people? How have other artists explored this and how can we help our students design and create a piece of art that helps them express how they feel about this issue, or a graphic design product that helps to communicate a message related to the issue.
  • Explore the adaptation of products to meet variant needs, looking at and understanding the needs of different groups of people and exploring the differences between equality and equity.
  • Exploring the history of a particular product or material in relation to geography, economy and sustainability.
  • Investigating how artists and designers get inspiration from all over the world, and how certain themes and motifs appear in many varieties at different times and in different cultures; referencing the interlinking and similarity of the human experience.

 

To quote Andria Zafirakou: ‘Art transforms lives as well as being a vital part of our economy. It is incredible to see how it can change a child, unlocking their talent, building resilience, confidence and communication skills. These are skills needed for any job. The arts need to be integrated into the [school] curriculum, not just seen as a nice thing to do.’ [6]

 

Art connects us all and is connected to everything. I envision a curriculum with intertwined learning happening from all perspectives, each supporting one other. But most importantly,  supporting our learners to grow, develop and create.

[1] https://www.cornerstone.edu/blog-post/what-is-creativity-and-why-do-you-need-it

[2] https://researchtale.net/

[3] Page 5: https://city-arts.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Art-Works.pdf

[4] https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/research-and-data/contribution-arts-and-culture-industry-uk-economy

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/research-review-series-art-and-design/research-review-series-art-and-design

[6] https://www.culturallearningalliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Arts-in-Schools-Briefing-A4.pdf

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