But is it art?

28th October 1994 at 00:00
You spend a long time designing and building a beautiful house, perfect for your needs, in a remote setting - idyllic. Then other houses are built nearby and you are told to make drastic alterations to the appearance of your building, to make it conform to the style of the others. Crazy? Not in education, and not in the new draft criteria for GCSE art.

Many years ago there was a new 16-plus examination, the pilot for the all-new GCSE examinations. In the case of my subject, art, we embraced this 16-plus exam with enthusiasm. An ideal combination of the good parts of CSE and O- level, it also introduced the concept of "contextual studies". It was developed and refined into GCSE - an examination which seems as near to ideal as we could get for art. There is coursework, a test piece and a requirement for pupils to show preparatory studies. I imagine that few art teachers are unhappy with this system, which encourages exciting and lively work.

But nothing stays still for long. The national curriculum for art, although still in a state of evolution, appears to be about right - simply underlining the good practice which takes place in most schools. Sadly, the subject is optional at key stage 4. Because of the "street" of national curriculum subjects built up around key stage 4, we are now told that the homely and highly relevant GCSE art examination is to be demolished and rebuilt in line with other subjects.

Difficulties arise in two key areas. My school uses the excellent University of London Examinations and Assessment Council exam for art. Within that exam, work is currently looked at as a whole, with no emphasis on any one area. The new criteria suggest a weighting of between 40 per cent and 60 per cent for the examination.

So what? Art is different from most other subjects. There is no right or wrong. You cannot apply mathematical weighting to work which should be judged on creative, aesthetic and technical merits. Often the best work is the exam piece, but not always. Weighting will put undue stress upon students and may result in stifled work which plays safe. Never mind, art will then be aligned with other subjects.

The most contentious issue is the notion of two-tiered assessment. A folly in many subjects, it is certainly another crazy element of the proposed art exam. Mixed-ability teaching is common in most departments, so will we now teach students to two different levels? (Like O-level and CSE?) One group doing "easy art" while others do the really hard stuff? How? Art is art. Clever ones will get marks between the starred A grade and E whereas the less creative will only muster a C-G. In effect this means that the lower tier will be those capable of F-G. How demotivating. Do we then have "easy" and "hard" examinations? Possibly drawing champagne bottles for the top band, milk bottles for the low band?

This is divisive and unnecessary. Art is a different subject - why can't it be recognised as such? Please don't demolish the most beautiful building in the street simply to make it conform.

Martin Child is head of an art department in a Norwich secondary school and a moderator for ULEAC's art and design GCSE

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