Make room for Tracey

Emin to O'Keeffe, Hirst to Holbein: who is being taught in secondary schools' visual art classes, and why? Dick Downing asks

There is no prescribed canon of art that should be studied in secondary schools. Since Sir Ron Dearing's review of the national curriculum in 1994, the choice of art genres and artists to be studied rests with art departments and individual teachers. So who gets in? Hirst or Holbein? Gormley or Gaugin? Ofili or O'Keeffe? Or is there room for them all?

Teachers in other subjects might envy the apparent freedom of art teachers to choose their own curriculum content and play to their own strengths. But the creative output of the world's artists is constantly changing, and keeping up with developments and the increasing variety of forms of artistic expression can be demanding and confusing.

Contemporary art practice pushes at the boundary of what we understand art to be and its purpose in the world. Tracey Emin's bed might present something of a challenge for a teacher to introduce into art lessons, but a few decades ago Picasso's work also presented problems. Personal preference and perceptions of what is acceptable or comprehensible are two factors that appear to influence the curriculum content choices made by art teachers.

The National Foundation for Educational Research was commissioned by the Arts Council England and the Tate Galleries to explore what is included in the secondary art curriculum. Interviews were conducted with 54 art teachers in 18 schools around England; 10 randomly identified, which might be seen as a sample of "typical" schools, and eight that were recommended as already incorporating contemporary art practice in their curricula. Each teacher described a recently taught art module in detail, setting out the media and materials used, the artistic references that supported their teaching, the skills taught and the thinking processes involved.

Significant differences between the two cohorts of schools became apparent, not all relating directly to contemporary art practice. Yes, the smaller sample referred much more to contemporary art images, whereas the "typical" sample referred mainly to early 20th-century art. Teachers in the "typical" schools cited half as many artistic references overall when describing their art modules.

Other notable differences in characteristics were that teachers in schools incorporating contemporary art practice were three times as likely to refer to creative thinking skills, twice as likely to address meaning and issues in their lessons and twice as likely to use art galleries or practising artists in their teaching. They were also more likely to refer to women artists, to artists from different cultures and to art forms other than painting and drawing.

Overall, the "contemporary art practice" schools offered a broader curriculum in art, both in terms of the art to which they exposed their pupils, and the range of aims in their art teaching. The prevailing aim of art education in secondary schools emerged as the acquisition of art form skills, such as the manipulation of materials and observational drawing.

However, some schools were considerably more likely to encourage pupils to explore meaning and issues through art, much as is proposed in national curriculum guidelines, which indicate the importance of art in supporting social, cultural and moral development.

A number of reasons emerged for the differences between teaching approaches. Teachers tended to choose art that they themselves liked, or that they felt was accessible to their pupils, intellectually, emotionally or socially. But on these latter points, opinions varied greatly. Art that one teacher might regard as irrelevant to pupils, another might see as entirely resonant. The confidence of teachers to address more challenging elements of contemporary art emerged as a significant factor.

The NFER study does not suggest that one approach to art teaching is inherently better than the other; there may be compelling reasons to limit the range of purposes and activities in art teaching. But the fact that there are such wide differences in approach deserves attention.

What do we want art teaching to achieve? The next generation of professional artists; a greater understanding of the world; a motivated, confident and fulfilled school population?

There is much to be said for art teachers inspiring pupils through teaching what they, the teachers, are inspired by. There is much to be said for pupils learning particular skills, and becoming confident with them. There is also much to be said for grasping the opportunities that art offers to extend pupils' intellectual range and to inform their understanding of their own world and the world around them.

That, in essence, is the promise claimed by those art teachers that pursue the broader approach. Whether all art teachers should pursue those opportunities is another question.

"School art: what's in it? Exploring visual art in secondary schools" by Dick Downing and Ruth Watson can be obtained from the National Foundation for Educational Research, price pound;10.00. Email:

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