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A brush with the heart

The mundane nature of the exam system can obscure the bigger picture that art can give to the emotional life of the pupil, says Rab Walker

URING the Christmas holidays, I watched To Sir With Love on television.

Like Sydney Poitier's teacher working with school-leavers, I too would like to throw the textbook into the wastepaper basket and encourage the youngsters to address life itself.

Our current system seriously neglects the emotional and experiential life of the pupil. Art could be the key to redressing this imbalance. I have come to this conclusion after two and a half years of research while working on my MPhil degree at Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University, an experience I would recommend to any reflective practitioner at a loose end.

Let's redefine the role we wish art to play in the lives of young people, particularly as the Scottish Qualifications Authority embarks on a consultation process with teachers. Listen closely to the stories and experiences the pupils themselves have to tell and consider the contribution their art can make as a means of cognition in its own right.

As 17-year-old Steven told me: "Art was like a punchbag for me - I just wanted to hit out with something and hit out against my life - art was the only outlet I had - without art I would have just gone round starting fights or something like that. Art was kind of like a painkiller for me, as I learnt to look at myself, understand myself and be myself."

Sketchbooks represent imagination for Iain who sees them as "a different form of human perception - a picture of something in the soul".

His art is cathartic; it shows the feelings running through his body and offers a picture of the mood he was in at that time.

Helen recalls that "art helped me survive . . . it gave me a place, physically and emotionally . . . it got me through a very rough period."

Believing that he is living vicariously through his movies, Davey supposes that "I am making these films as the way I would like to see the world - I like people seeing inside my head - it feels right."

The wish fulfilment embodied in his art is of the same visionary nature inherent in the work of William Blake.

Sometimes the mundane nature of examinations obscures the bigger picture art can provide. "In S5, the SQA screwed me over," Cutch says, "but I'm going to art college and I don't have a Higher to my name. Art for me is really everything about who you are, who you want to be, where you are and where you want to be . . . it's sort of studying everything around you."

Jenna says: "What I gave art and what I got back was more than just a grade . . . more like the confidence I gained . . . more the way I was seen as a person and not just another pupil."

If we acknowledge the experiences of young people "doing" art, we really shouldn't be quibbling over numbers of A2 sheets. If you shift the pupil's emotional landscape and experiential world to the centre of the learning experience, clearly a more creative pattern for assessment will be necessary if motivations and meanings are to be valued; but, in doing so, we will all have gained a more complete and intimate understanding of the processes of art, moving closer to identifying its potential for self-discovery and self-understanding.

The big question is - how ready are art educators to take up contemporary issues? That is the real challenge for art education in the 21st century, where pupils should be in a class of their own.

Rab Walker is principal art teacher at Dunfermline High.

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