A new shape for the arts

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
Curriculum 2000 will mean big changes. Modular courses and individual student timetables are the future, reports Justina Hart

Try meeting government targets, providing a stimulating, creative environment for students and then squeezing your own professional practice into an overcrowded timetable. Like most full-time art and design lecturers, you will find that it is the personal development work - which can have direct pedagogical benefits - that suffers.

A conference held recently in Oxford by the Art and Design Further Education Network aimed to help heads of department understand the impact of the Curriculum 2000 reforms on their work. At the same time, seminars by sculptors, lecturer-photographers and the director of national programmes at the Tate helped to refresh those parts that other conferences fail to reach.

"It was wonderful having a conference in Oxford where people could pop out to the museums and the gallery," enthuses Polly Skinner, the organiser and regional manager for the Further Education Development Agency, which hosted the event. Ms Skinner, a member of the team of artists that designed and created the doors of the Catholic cathedral in Liverpool in the Sixties, says she understands art lecturers' personal and professional anxieties.

Once denigrated as the Cinderella department, art and design encompasses a swathe of expertise, ranging from fine art and fashion to graphics and multimedia. Specialist courses, such as cartography, horology and millinery, could be threatened by Curriculum 2000's emphasis on breadth and rationalisation. Although such courses will be supported through the changes, they will probably have to adapt or face extinction.

"The creative arts make a huge contribution to the economic development of the UK, so losing specialist subjects could have a negative impact," warns Ms Skinner. "At the moment, departments are in a situation of not having enough information."

Lack of clarity on issues such as the status of the foundation diploma, which is trying to get accreditation for the national qualifications framework, or the nature of external assessment for the streamlined national diplomas, does not help managers make complex decisions.

Lecturers are mostly worried about maintaining their resource levels and keeping a professional environment for students, which are vulnerable because the need for teaching space is so great.

Such issues will need to be addressed because of changes to A-levels. Art departments are likely to see an influx of non-art students who have signed up to do AS-level art in September, says Maggie Greenwood, an adviser on curriculum and qualifications at Feda. She has conducted a case study based on the sorts of new courses students will rush to pick. "That will prove tricky in terms of management because lecturers will have to establish different entry criteria and they'll have to provide for stuents who have little understanding of art and design. They won't know what the uptake will be, nor how many students will want to carry on with the subject."

Deciding which qualification courses to run from a funding and marketing perspective means offering increased student choice while getting the balance right between depth and breadth.

"A difficult management issue is deciding which bits of the vocational A-level you should offer, since there are core units but there are also plenty of options," says Ms Greenwood. The new art and design vocational A-level (GNVQ) has been broadly welcomed as a more valuable qualification, but a possible shift from the full award (equivalent to two A-levels) to the single award (one A-level) could affect the traditional full-time college art and design student.

Perhaps because art and design courses have traditionally involved early specialisation, a number of colleges have already voiced interest in moving away from the vocational A-level and towards the more specialist national diploma.

Lecturers at the Oxford conference also expressed concern about teaching the "application of number" key skill component of the new enrichment package. This is partly because art students tend not to be the most numerically able, but also because they recognise that application of number will be difficult to teach in an artistic context while also preparing students for external tests. It could be incorporated by asking students to work out how much it would cost to put on an exhibition, for instance, but art lecturers are not likely to have the time or skills to teach numerical application to assessment level.

"In general FE colleges, this shouldn't be a problem because you have a large range of staff, but if you're a specialist college it is a real problem," says Ms Greenwood.

Ms Skinner also believes that developing and managing other enrichment activities could prove difficult for small, more specialised colleges. "Art departments face a huge task, but being up to date with all the current changes is as much as managers can do at the moment. Senior managers need to be well-informed and cascade information to programme managers, who have to pass it down to all staff," she says.

Some managers are considering organising departments to teach modules in order to ease the reforms. One head of art and design said that many departments have a cost-ineffective timetabling strategy and that mannagers having to modernise their facilities are forced to "trade staff for kit".

Ms Skinner suggests: "The only way art and design departments can survive is to go totally modular, be totally flexible and start to offer programmes that are almost individually written." She adds that being innovative with the available hours and resources could ultimately release time and money for lecturers to pursue research and professional development work.

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