A call against conformity

Tom Hardy's school is leading the way in working around problems experienced with ASA-level

It is time for a rallying call for art teachers and reflection on how far we have drifted from all we hold dear.

During the past two years, there has been an outcry from teachers about the new AS-and A-levels, which are supposed to encourage variety but really demand conformity.

The effect is most acutely felt in the separation of the sixth form into two courses which do not (and, we are told, cannot) relate to each other.

Where some teachers have reacted with a defensive retreat to dry technical instruction, my own department at North London Collegiate School has made key changes.

Our students have built on projects to such an extent that exam boundaries were blurred. Some continued developing at AS the themes tackled in year 11, so the AS exam could be seen by students as a work in progress rather than an end product.

By freeing ourselves from a GCSE mindset (if it's Tuesday it's printmaking) and internal deadlines, we allowed students to pursue ideas in greater depth. And, much as I dislike the vacuity of the "one word" exam project (such as "Autobiography"), at least such vagueness allows for a continuation of personal themes through to the timed test.

The constraint of short timed tests was circumvented. Some students made works in a series or polyptych form, so that each panel had a life of its own but could then become part of a larger piece.

Some developed a theme by changing the medium rather than the message. Some created site-specific installations whose multimedia nature embraced all that had been produced over the year.

We ran the critical study at the same time as the major project, so they could influence each other. For criticalcontextual studies, some students started a correspondence with and made studio visits to contemporary artists. Those involved recently have included Mark Gilbert, Julian Bailey, Keith Albarn and Sir Anthony Caro.

The rules may require the A2 submission to be separate, but if work needs to be seen in the context of its development, what is to stop all relevant sketchbooks being submitted?

"Confidence" is the highest accolade in the AS descriptors. It is time art teachers moulded this dog's dinner into a feast. We do know best. As Walter Sickert said: "Art is not for those whose minds are muddied with the dirt of politics."

Tom Hardy is head of art at North London Collegiate SchoolEmail: thardy@nlcs.harrow.sch.uk

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