I taught art in schools for years before leaving and setting up my own art business providing schools with art workshops. Yesterday, I was in a secondary school in Reading, UK – lovely school – running a GCSE Inspiration workshop with around 60 15/16 year olds. I had a wonderful day and was well supported by the Art Staff. But at lunchtime I sat down with the whole art department and they told me about falling numbers in art, the hostility of some academic staff to the subject and comments from children that there is no future or jobs in art. It reminded me of what I see as one of the fundamental problems with education in secondary school in this country, namely the down grading of the arts in pursuit of academia. Of course, academic subjects are vitally important for children’s and the country’s future, but so are the arts. To some academic staff in this school ( and I have experienced the same myself), referring to art lessons as ‘playtime’, or the ‘dumping ground for the less able’ is demeaning to art teachers and these attitudes can be detrimental to what should be impartial advice given to children when opting for GCSE subjects. Instances like this remind me of the response of an art colleague of mine to similar comments from an history teacher. His reply was simply, ‘Historians are merely prophets of the past, artists and designers create the future.’
Whilst petty-minded attitudes of some academic staff to art is simply that – petty, it shouldn’t be allowed to influence the attitudes of children and here art teachers have a roll to play. They need to promote their subject to the school, not merely by mounting their wonderful displays, but showing the school community the contribution art makes to our society. Children and staff should be aware that virtually everything man produces or sells, has an artist or designer involved, whether it is in the creation of the idea, the design of the product or its marketing. Examples of the profound effect artists/designers can have on the production of wealth, jobs and society should be appearing in the art rooms and display boards for all to see. Perhaps the best example of this is Jonathan Ive, who studied art and design at Northumberland Polytechnic and went on to become chief designer for Apple. He is responsible for the redesign of the Apple Mac and coming up with the idea for the design for the IPod, IPad etc. Before the redesign of the IMac, Apple were were a niche computer company with Steve Jobs as the technical guru and perfectionist. It could be argued that it was Jonathan Ive’s designs that transformed Apple into the world’s largest company that it has become to day. It is also interesting to note that virtually all major City banks and corporations, major manufacturers and blue chip companies have invested heavily in Innovation Departments crammed full of creative individuals and artists. You need ideas to compete in the modern world.
Whilst extolling the virtues of art’s contribution to society is important, perhaps art’s role in the curriculum up to the end of GCSE (16 year olds) is the issue that is vitally important for academic staff to understand. Let’s face it a lot of academic teaching up to the end of GCSE involves feeding children with a stream of facts, processes, techniques and formulas that have to be learnt, to be regurgitated in a different form in an examination. Along the way children are trained how to pass the examination and as a result targets for GCSEs Passes are met. There is little independent thinking going on, on the part of the child, and virtually no conceptual thinking, which explains why so many students find the leap from GCSE to A Level so difficult.
In art conceptual thinking is the basis of the subject which explains why so many students find Art a difficult subject in which to achieve high results. They are so spoon fed else where in the curriculum that when asked to think for themselves, develop an idea or a strategy to achieve an end is beyond them. This conceptual thinking is very important for the development of children’s minds, it enhances their creativity, their problem solving skills and would, in my opinion, be an absolute boon to Mathematics et al. Art provides children with the opportunity to develop their conceptual skills. I was given a copy of the GCSE Art paper yesterday and what was really interesting was how challenging it was. Questions consisted of just a single word with a list of artists names attached, from this a student is expected to spend weeks developing an idea, researching the cultural, artistic links, preparing and refining their ideas and learning new skills in preparation for their 10 hour examination, when the final art work is produced. The self motivation and conceptual thinking required to achieve the top grades is enormous because we know, as art teachers, it is not just a talent for the techniques that will get a student through.
So I would like to say to all art teachers keep up the good work, be proud of your subject, extol its virtues to the less receptive in your school, keep battling to develop your student’s creativity, because this country future depends on their ideas and creativity. Rant over!
PS. I have met a lot of brilliant academic teachers over the years that do value the role of art, one in particular, who got my son through A Level Maths (Grade A)
Fantastic art work produced by GCSE and A Level Students