Alma Mater of some great creators

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
The late Ian Dury studied art at Waltham Forest College between 1961 and 1964 under celebrated British painter, Peter Blake. Ken Russell met his wife, Shirley, during a lecture in the college's main hall. Another film director, Peter Greenaway, was an art student here from 1962-1965. "A fellow student introduced him to film by taking him to a series of films at the British Film Institute," says marketing manager, Alf Desire. "His introduction to Eisenstein came because he attended a showing of Battleship Potemkin at the local film society in 1966."

But for Penny Holden, the head of art, design and fashion, Waltham Forest's precise relationship with its famous alumni has been lost in the depths of time. "It's possible that something magical has been passed down," muses Ms Holden, who has been associated with the college for 20 years. "We certainly seem to get very good staff."

Perhaps the reason for this relaxed approach is that the department has such a long-established identity. Here, drawing skills are still considered the basis of a solid art education. "We are educators, not trainers," explains Ms Holden. "Our fundamentals are drawing, life drawing and staff who are practising artists and craftsmen. Technology is important, but standing back to look and think from an easel is much more so." Studios are open five days a week. Each student is given their own permanent space to work in. "Some might call us old-fashioned," she adds.

Ms Holden was shocked when, during a recent open day, a student from a sixth-form college explained that he was used to using A4 paper because there were too many students and insufficient space to use the more capacious A1. Visiting a first year advanced GNVQ life drawing class, it is easy to distinguish the students who have previously studied at Waltham Forest: they don't squash their self-portraits apologetically into a corner of the page.

The department has a very diverse student population. Many have financial constraints and personal problems, and often arrive with few academic achievements. One outstanding student, Evie Small, is a single working mother with a clerical background. Sue Royle, who teaches GNVQ fashion, explais that her intermediate-level students have often under-achieved at school: "Art is a salvation for them," she says.

Staff are keen to help students who need to work to support themselves, while attendance can be arranged to suit individuals. The college offers part-time HNDs and was one of the first colleges to run art foundation part-time. "With the part-time students you really see the growth in confidence," says Peter Robinson, who is in charge of the art BTEC diploma.

The department prides itself on its strong progression routes. "Someone can start with us at entry level and end up pre-degree," says Ms Holden. "During my time here, I have seen students who came to us with no formal qualifications go on to study at the RCA."

Tom Whelan, a former hairdresser, is finishing his art foundation course and has been accepted at Middlesex University to study fine art. "I had no idea when I came here," he says. "I couldn't even draw." Roger Ashton-Griffiths, a successful film actor, who is also on the foundation course, thinks the chief advantage is that the group is small. "You get out what you put in, and you have to put a lot in," he adds.

Waltham Forest's commitment to staff and staff commitment to students is self-evident. Lecturers put in unpaid hours - witness their annual alternative fashion event in Spitalfields market.

Penny Holden would like to see a greater investment in resources, but also says that the staff have always been the most important asset. She is finding that she needs more permanent staff to cope with administration. It is difficult to get them together at the same time, so instead the department tends to hold more mini-meetings, while e-mail is also proving a godsend.

"Looking at Curriculum 2000 from an optimistic point of view, there's an opportunity to break up traditional programmes and allow for more flexibility and individual learning programmes," she says. "What I'm concerned about is that students don't lose hours in the studio because if as a country we lose our craft skills, then we're doomed. I hope we can consolidate all this before there are more changes - our staff are wonderful, but they're at the edge."

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