Still life to real life

Laurence Pollock discovers how an 'issues-based' approach gives art lessons relevance.

As a child, 17-year-old Nadine Pascal suffered sexual abuse. Years later, through school sex education, she painfully came to understand what had happened to her. Today, the south London teenager has represented her early trauma in a powerful and disturbing sculpture - a plaster cast brick wall showing in relief words such as young, innocent and abused. "This was about the wall that was building up inside me. I wanted to create that brick wall with words telling a story. Doing this has helped my confidence and helped me in many other ways."

Brick, with other work, has also won Nadine a coveted place at St Martin's college of art in London this autumn. She puts her artistic development and the freedom to tackle these tough issues down to her experience at Crofton secondary school in Catford. Several heads of art there, including recently appointed Kevin Moore, have promoted "issues-based" art teaching as a way of tapping into students' deeper feelings about race, gender, identity and pain.

In a multicultural society, the thematic approach, based on lived experience, is a bold attempt to break free from conventional art teaching. It sees observational drawing, still life and familiarity with western art forms as irrelevant or inaccessible, particularly to Afro-Caribbean, Asian and Chinese young people. Some teachers argue that this applies just as much to working-class white pupils who will not engage with traditional fine art skills. It also has relevance to other alienated groups, such as abuse survivors.

Crofton is doing something "really good" says Nadine Pascal. "When we did 'a sense of place' as an issue, the class sat down and brainstormed. One guy, for instance, was talking about living in Africa and how the army came in and cut people's heads off. I learned so much from these sessions. My cousin says she is sick of doing art at her school, where it is all still life," she says.

Art's relevance is an eternal theme. But the United Kingdom's transformation into a multicultural society has raised urgent questions about ethnicity and the relevance of art teaching.

It is a concept that Paul Dash, a lecturer in art and design at Goldsmiths college, has been addressing on a widening front. Drawing on both early experiences as an immigrant and 20 years of teaching art in London, he has defined and argued the case for issues-based art education with growing precision. A number of academic papers and frequent guest lecturing have allowed him to develop and disseminate this message. Paul Dash wants art teaching to move beyond simply providing space for ethnic culture. In a recent paper in the Journal of Museum Ethnography, he writes:

"Multiculturalism would take on a different meaning by positioning difference at the centre of learning ..."

He had his own share of "difference" in 1957, as a newly arrived Afro-Caribbean, age 11, in a secondary modern school in Cowley, Oxford. "My brother and I were the first two black pupils and I was quite literally traumatised. Nothing in Barbados prepared me for this. Subliminally we had imbibed the tremendous respect for Britain as the colonising power. I was in a psychological mess trying to come to terms with my new environment and could not even eat in front of other people." He found solace by using an artistic technique to paint remembered scenes from Barbados. He acknowledges that they were romanticised - a market place at sunset, for instance - but he had, nevertheless, started along the path to art college and teaching and took up his first post at Hagerston girls' school in Hackney in the early 1970s.

"In the mid 1980s there had been racal disturbances in London and elsewhere and many Bangladeshi children were enrolling at Hagerston. I could see they were not interested in observational drawing. Many had arrived in this country with little English or art experience."

His response was to use issues such as religious belief to draw in children of all ethnic backgrounds. They employed resources ranging from illustrated Bibles to adornments such as jewellery and henna markings. One Fijian Indian girl made a sculpture based on the decorated arm of an Indian bride. He also formulated schemes of work around the ephemera - movie posters, for instance - associated with the Indian cinema club he ran during lunch hours.

After five years as head of art at Haberdashers' Aske's school, Paul Dash moved to Goldsmiths. He began to publish papers and book chapters and accept invitations to lecture on his theme of issues-based art teaching. A key point he makes is the limitation of cur- rent multiculturalism in art teaching and elsewhere: "We are asking the white hegemony, the people who have authority and power, to share that power. The whole multicultural project is designed to make them feel secure that they are doing something for those out there who are alien. That project was a failure and we need to move into a different arena."

As a GCSE moderator he has some pessimism about the ability of education to achieve this at the moment: "People are still terrified of getting a poor OFSTED. They will interpret the national curriculum to the letter. The early drafts were very Euro-centric. Though the current version is greatly slimmed down, I believe the initial document still influences what happens." This professional conservatism, he fears, reaches art graduates currently taking their PGCEs at Goldsmiths: "The majority of art students are only concerned about getting their PGCE. Before they leave we try to encourage them to keep their freshness and take risks."

Kevin Moore, himself a Goldsmiths graduate, sought the opportunity to work at Crofton because he was drawn to the issues-based approach. He says he finds the national curriculum inhibiting and believes the knowledge and understanding requirement focuses too much on art history: "I am not happy that the curriculum concentrates on western art, with non-western art as a bolt-on." He is also willing to acknowledge the risks of an issue-based approach: "Using, say, fear as a theme could open up a whole can of worms. The crucial thing is, we try to use children's own experience as a starting point."

The force of children's experience is reflected in Crofton's equal opportunities policies, boldly presented in the school foyer: "We recognise that many members of the school may experience prejudice and harassment both within the school and outside. Staff and students should be able to share experiences which help them devise strategies to challenge the effects of all forms of prejudice and discrimination." With a social context like this, pupils could be forgiven for losing interest in the Pre-Raphaelites or lacking enthusiasm for yet anotherstill life study.

Art at Crofton, despite curricular orthodoxies, is continuing to progress and produces strong examination results. All the current sixth-form art students have secured places on college foundation courses next year. It is impossible to say if success is due to issue-based teaching. But putting sexual abuse on a brick is the sort of in-your-face statement that cannot be ignored.

Crofton offers an art teaching approach that makes majority-minority divisions - sexual, religious or racial - central to how we understand ourselves. It is a challenge that curriculum designers will have to think about long and hard.

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