Getting Education Down to a Fine Art

19th April 2019

Creative subjects are every bit as important as the more traditionally ‘academic’ ones in terms of developing the whole child, contends Ben Evans, Head of Edge Grove School in Aldenham…

Art has traditionally been considered by many to be a creative subject that lacks the academic rigour of other subjects such as maths and science. But art in schools today has evolved far beyond what it might have looked like 20 years ago. It is arguably wrong, anyway, to compartmentalise curriculum subjects into either an academic and non-academic box. All subjects taught in schools require high levels of planning and delivery by teachers, and a great deal of learning from pupils to ensure demonstrable progress is made. Any of the traditionally ‘non-academic’ subjects can be studied at GCSE and A-Level and beyond at university – so it begs the question, does this make them less rigorous and less important?

Art, PE, drama and music are all creative subjects in their own right but they should also have a strong academic core and focus. The skills required for successful learning in any subject, such as concentration, creativity, critical thinking, resilience, communication, perseverance and many more, are transferable across the curriculum and will serve to ensure children are active, reflective and accomplished learners. As with any subject, to make the best possible progress, children need to understand their learning journey, embrace the success criteria for every lesson and fully understand what they need to do to improve. This is a continuous process achieved through regular target-setting and careful assessment – and should not just happen in English, maths and science.

Art is not a time to relax and recuperate between double maths. It might be creative subject, but it is also a very technical one too and should be taught as such from the youngest age. Anyone delivering art lessons must have the ability and knowledge to teach the skills required in an accessible, creative and enjoyable way and, quite possibly, with the uninitiated not even noticing. Without a solid and clear progression framework, children won’t make the progressive and consistent improvement which will allow them to access a greater range of media and technical methods as they move through primary and secondary school. Viewing art as time for children to relax between lessons simply devalues the importance of the subject and detracts from the technical skills involved. High expectations of pupil progress, together with detailed planning and carefully differentiated success criteria are necessary – just as in any other subject.

Most importantly, every art teacher from Reception through to Sixth Form should be expecting pupils to demonstrate progression, a deep understanding and high pupil outcomes. All subjects in school, including art, should be considered as a whole, with each one contributing to pupil enrichment and the overall learning experience. One subject should not take precedence or importance over the other; they all have their place in ensuring that children enjoy a wide and balanced curriculum, allowing them to access a range of knowledge and skills.

We want our pupils to be accomplished, successful and creative in thought and action, with the ability to talk about their learning and demonstrate a natural curiosity to learn more. These skills should certainly not just be expected in traditional academic lessons.

As with the teaching of all subjects today, much has evolved over the last few years and will continue to do so. Rather than the teacher dictating from the front of the classroom, demonstrating, explaining and expecting pupils to copy and repeat, we now expect a far more creative, active and collaborative approach and attitude from our pupils – and art is no different. Children should be encouraged to be risk takers, to have a go without worrying about the end result and learn to be reflective. They need to be able to discuss the progress they have made and what they need to implement and improve on to ensure further and sustained growth.

The good news is, increasingly, parents are valuing the place of art within the school’s curriculum and they do understand the importance of creative subjects in their children’s overall development. However, there are a number of parents who still see the subject as one for the graveyard slot in the afternoon, or as an after-school activity, thereby giving space in the normal school day for the more academic subjects. The reasons for this are simple; art does not currently appear on the entrance requirements of schools at 11+ or 13+ amongst the verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and unless it will be studied for A-Level or at university, its value is seen as limited and that does need to change.

Schools should be judged on their ability to achieve excellence in all areas of the curriculum. There must be academic rigour and children deserve to be challenged to achieve their best but at the same time, their wider skills should be developed and nurtured. When touring (and judging the quality of any school), it should be possible to hear music happening at the very core and to see art work everywhere – not just from the scholars but a full range from the youngest to the most proficient learner. This is the sign of a school that understands children’s needs and one that ensures its pupils are receiving a full curriculum; one that nurtures each individual’s character and personality.

When art is taught properly, it’s a popular subject for all pupils. Who can forget the torture from our own school days of yet another still life or dusty cheese plant to draw? Thankfully, such experiences would be quite alien to our pupils today. Instead, they have access to digital technology, a range of media, ceramics, batik, textiles and so much more. Creative teaching methods also ensure complete engagement and enjoyment as well as rapid and successful skill acquisition.

Despite what many people believe, the teaching of art in schools should have nothing to do with ‘talent’ or being ‘gifted’ and nor should that be used as an excuse for children who find the subject a little more difficult than others. We no longer accept the line ‘nobody in my family can do maths’ and the same applies in art, music or drama. If art is taught by well qualified, passionate professionals from the outset, children are able to gradually and consistently acquire the skills necessary to be proficient in all aspects of the subject. Proficiency also ensures success, which in turn builds confidence and enjoyment for the subject.

I try to ensure, here at Edge Grove, that art is not a stand-alone subject by incorporating art, music, drama and dance all within the Creative Arts faculty. Art is taught from Reception age by graduates in the subject, who are often professional and successful artists in their own right. This means that the children benefit from a natural passion and expertise not possible from a non-specialist teacher, no matter how committed or enthusiastic.

Expectations are, of course, high, but engagement and enjoyment should always be the priorities. Whether it’s batik in year 5, creative clay for year 4, or cave art using natural resources in year 3, skills must be carefully explained and modelled and children should be encouraged to be creative, get involved and take risks. Experimentation with oils, collaborative ‘big art’ pieces, large-scale outdoor installations and 3-D sculptures all form part of the experience and work together to ensure that art is not just another slot on the timetable or another after-school activity but an integral part of our pupils’ education and something that is essential to their overall academic success.

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