The fourth R

Reading, writing, arithmetic and art? A growing chorus is calling for the subject to have the same prominence as the traditional pillars of school curricula. The education system needs to embrace this argument, says Helen Ward

Helen Ward

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This feature is about the importance of art – but you knew that already. Before you even read the first sentence, possibly before your eyes flicked across the headline, you could tell that the next few pages will argue that art should be considered a core subject in schools.

You knew this because you had seen the illustration and, importantly, you could "read" it.

Reading images is not a small matter. To take an extreme example, in Europe the swastika is deeply associated with the Nazi regime, but in India it is a religious image symbolising good fortune. Of course, such potential misunderstandings can be explained in words, but as the world becomes increasingly image-driven, being literate now means not just reading and writing text on a page, but understanding images on screens, too.

In September 2001, students arriving at Stanford University in California, US, faced an unusual request from Professor Andrea Lunsford and vice- provost John Bravman. Would they agree to send them all the writing they did for their courses - every word - plus as much of their out-of-class writing as they wished?

Nearly 200 students signed up to the five-year project, which originally aimed to quantify the written output of undergraduates. The result was a deluge of 15,000 pieces of writing - not just essays and class notes, but emails, blog posts, a surprising amount of poetry and even a script for a "hip hopera" (a series of hip hop songs in the form of an opera). The sheer volume of writing was startling, driven by the fact that socialising now often involves texting or typing, but what soon became clear was that it was not all about words.

One question that the academics became increasingly interested in was how to define writing. The researchers found a dramatic change in the nature of the writing over the years of the study, with more and more visual elements included, together with web pages, audio files and videos.

In an interview for the website Spotlight, which covers digital media in education, Lunsford later explained that students were aware that including pictures, illustrations and even videos provided their text with greater depth. "Writing isn't just black marks on white paper. It is full of sound, images, colour," she said. "I think that students today have an ability to use a combo of words and images. Words free up the images and the images free up the words, so they're both incredibly important."

It may sound like a case for ICT - learning how to insert a jpeg or upload videos - but only if you consider websites to be primarily text-based with supporting images. In fact, in the world of YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram, web pages are overwhelmingly an assemblage of images. Learning to write effectively is not just about learning how to spell - it is about choosing which words will be most effective for your purpose. Similarly, being visually literate, able to choose and create images, is not about how to upload images - it is about what pictures to select and why.

Barbara Stafford, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, US, foresaw these changes in her 1994 book Artful Science: enlightenment, entertainment and the eclipse of visual education. She argues that we are increasingly communicating in images, as we have done historically in text, but a high-level visual education to accompany these advances is lacking.

We are entering an era of "oral visual culture", as the dominance of text recedes. "No longer pre-literate, we are post-literate," Stafford says. But she points out that the educational system is "image illiterate". And she calls for the change to be led by art teachers. "Those of us with knowledge about techniques for making and understanding images, their construction and cognitive role throughout history, had better speak up now or be content to vanish into disciplinary extinction," she says.

A 'vital' subject

At a time when the English educational system is rethinking the national curriculum, this could be the perfect moment to overhaul the way we think about art in school. It is important to note that no one is arguing for maths or English to be downgraded, but simply stating that communication is evolving faster than education.

This potentially revolutionary change is being driven in large part by technology: it is predicted that e-book technology will give readers the power to annotate not just with text, but also with pictures. Similarly, visuals in maths and science have become increasingly sophisticated. Take a look at the Wolfram Demonstrations project online. These incredibly dynamic classroom resources for maths and physics are image-led.

It is perhaps ironic that understanding and learning how to use the internet are being downplayed in the curriculum, following the government's popular decision to kill off ICT in favour of more technical aspects of computer science and programming. Is it possible that art teachers will fill part of this vacuum as those best placed to explain how to decipher this new image-led, digital world? Art, then, is fast becoming more important in many areas of life and schools should move quickly to reflect that.

There are, however, other reasons to take the subject more seriously. Indeed, no essay demanding greater prominence for art in education would be complete without running through the well-rehearsed arguments of how important the creative industries are to this country's economic success. Creative industries now employ more than 2 million people in the UK and this is forecast to grow. Schools need to keep up, say the sector's advocates.

When the Next Gen report, on the needs of the video games and visual effects industries, was published in 2011, the government eagerly backed its recommendations about ICT, but ministers have been noticeably slower to act on the report's words on art. Art should be included in the English Baccalaureate, it recommended, saying the subject is "vital too: our industries create convincing and beautifully designed images. Schools push pupils to choose between art and science rather than bringing them together."

And here is another advocate: "Over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. You need to bring art and science back together," says Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google.

So what might these shifting arguments mean in practice for schools? Waddesdon CofE Secondary School in Buckinghamshire combines specialisms in visual art, maths and computing. The walls of the art department are lined with haunting photographs of Alice in Wonderland, red oil paintings of a contorted face and precise line drawings of fairies with roses. But as well as the art produced in the school's airy, light studios, there are two rooms filled with banks of Apple computers where graphic design is practised. Waddesdon, an outstanding school, has a national reputation for its use of ICT in art, and Ofsted has noted how boys in particular are motivated by this.

Jack, 17, is studying for an A level in graphic design, along with business, economics and biology. He would not have chosen a more traditional art course, but thinks graphic design will boost his CV, and he aims to study business with law at university. "I enjoyed the GCSE," he says. "It could potentially be something I want to do later - I was sort of leaning towards marketing."

Marketing. Could there be a better example of how art is infinitely more important as a subject than it used to be? Imagine a modern, successful, multimillion-pound, cross-platform marketing campaign, conceived or consumed by anyone image-illiterate. Impossible.

Marc Berrett, Waddesdon's head of art, arrived at the school 18 years ago, when the department consisted just of him and one part-time member of staff. This soon changed, and he decided to establish a digital course, starting with just one computer. The school won specialist visual arts status in 2003, which lasted until 2011 and brought in money for studios and equipment, as well as outreach work with primary schools.

Berrett's department now has five teaching staff and two technicians. About 100 of the school's 150 GCSE pupils each year take art, photography or graphics, while 70 study in the sixth form. It is the case for image- literacy that drives him. "You have to make it happen," he says. "I'm a born and bred artist. I see it embedded in our society and I think all of us human beings crave creativity, not just visual but other forms.

"It doesn't help that art is perceived as something for Sunday afternoons . it has more weight and gravitas than that. I would want to create a curriculum that facilitates art for a wider audience, engages a lot of learners and their interests, and part of that is to instil passion and enthusiasm for the opportunities it offers."

Get arts-rich quick

For those pupils skilled in art, the outstanding provision at Waddesdon is an attraction, but Berrett and his colleagues believe that it is increasingly important for all children - even those who are not engaged in the subject - to study it alongside maths, English and science to the age of 16.

Many countries seem to agree. A survey of 21 countries and states in 2004 found that arts were compulsory up to the age of 14 in 17 countries, as in England, with only four stating that arts had to be taught at primary level only. But only five systems allowed pupils to drop arts at 14. The other 12 systems - including such high achievers as Japan, Massachusetts, Ontario and Sweden, where design is particularly mentioned - required pupils to study arts throughout compulsory education.

Shirley Brice Heath, a professor at Stanford University, has long called for more extensive art education. She has said that while we are trained to pick out careful visual details in text, such as the difference between the letters b and d, we do not devote the same attention to learning about details in images - and that this definitely can and should be taught.

"Gestural references, such as pointing, along with repeated reading of the same text of children's literature, provide excellent practice in learning to see not only texts on screen or on the page, but also to `read' works of art, whether paintings, dance and dramatic productions, or sculpture," she says.

Heath points to research suggesting that the most important influence on the understanding of text by children in the early years of schooling is the content of illustrations. Thus, the teaching of visual literacy is critical not only to early reading, but also to memory and recall. Information, she says, is nested with words and images, along with emotions and aesthetic judgements.

Heath is in esteemed company. US president Barack Obama made an election pledge to reinvigorate arts education in schools. Indeed, in 2011 his committee on the arts and the humanities produced an influential report, Reinvesting in Arts Education, which highlighted links between high- quality arts education and keeping students in education and raising their aspirations.

But although the priority is to retain older teenagers in education, arts- rich schools are not just being recommended as an alternative for the non- academic. They are also hoped to produce the next generation of entrepreneurs - people such as the late Steve Jobs, who dropped out of college and wandered into a calligraphy class that fascinated him, and that inspired the typography he embedded in the Apple Mac years later.

It is not just a hunch that the arts reach where other areas cannot. The US report considers the evidence from neuroscience and brain-imaging studies, which have found that the brain prioritises emotionally tinged information for conversion to long-term memory - a possible advantage for learning through music or theatre, for example.

But last term, the National Curriculum Review published its first draft programmes of study for English, maths and science. Art and music, it stated, will remain part of the primary curriculum, but it is not clear what status they will have in the secondary curriculum.

And it is not as if the experiences of Waddesdon are common - far from it. The situation is desperate for many art departments. A recent survey by the NASUWT teaching union found that the lack of an arts option in the EBac means that many art departments are having their time cut in favour of the core EBac subjects. And the number of secondary teacher training places for art has been reduced by 40 per cent, compared with 14 per cent overall.

Susan Coles, president elect of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, doesn't like to play the crisis card. "When (education secretary Michael) Gove says he's looking at international evidence, he's cherry-picking," she says. "If all the evidence for art and arts education was piled up in a corner of his room, he wouldn't have room to breathe. It's massive and it's being ignored."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this argument has some powerful backers: Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Tate and a man with serious influence, for one. "The situation is definitely getting worse. The arts are suffering more than other subjects under the present regime," he says. "The visual arts have a particular part to play in a culture so drenched with images on screen. We have to understand how we learn through images as much as we learn through words and understand how images play a part in our lives."

But perhaps the best way to understand the importance of art is to imagine a school without it, says Sir Andrew Brewerton, principal of Plymouth College of Art. "If you take art away, you are not removing something that is just a curriculum option, but a core skill."


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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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