It's not the art but the taking part

5th May 2000 at 01:00
FROM a parent's point of view, the Government's recent messages about the importance of creativity in schools conflict with what is happening within schools. In reality, creativity still has very little room for manoeuvre. This is exasperated by the common and mistaken belief that it is something that belongs to the gifted few.

This has been brought home forcibly to me by the nature of submissions to Artworks, the new national schoolchildren's art awards. One had the feeling from some of the letters enclosed with the Artworks projects that teachers believed they had taken enormous personal risk to deliver even the most basic experiments in the art room. Many seemed not to trust their own creative instincts when developing briefs, and felt unsupported in their ideas. For me the outstanding work came through collaboration between schools and artists-in-residence.

Teachers appear to feel that they have to be able to tick the boxes, to show that their pupils have done the still life or worked from the Kandinsky or Monet. They seem more concerned with a polished, finished product, with getting through to the end, than with the process which has gone into making it. The process is where children grow and make new connections.

Of all subjects it is probably art that suffers the most from the dilemma of assessment: what is good or bad art is up for broad cultural debate. But given that these are the years for "emerging" gifts, there ought to be more leniency of interpretation and experimentation.

A successful culture is based on innovation. That is where this country is going to be making the money. But education has to match that vision, otherwise we are lost. It is difficult to see how creativity can be the key message if art is not considered to be a core subject or unless we reconsider the notion of core. There needs to be a different balance, so that core skills are included within a highly flexible framework that can quickly adapt to new knowledge and skills.

The boundaries between industries and disciplines are blurring, yet in education they remain rigid and subject-led. I see the art class as the place in schools where the nature of multi-disciplinary work can be experimented with without falling into the trap that ar can be some sort of baggy excuse for free expression. Imagination and rigour do, and ought to, go hand-in-hand.

Judges were saddened at the apparent decline in the skill of drawing. The ability to sit still, concentrate and observe, flies in the face of teenage energy. The great challenge is to find ways of re-introducing drawing which harness young people's interests and imagination. A beautifully executed pencil drawing of a Playstation console, submitted for the awards, shows that pupils are more than willing to apply themselves if inspired by subject matter. This submission symbolically cries out for the art curriculum to take note - you cannot develop skills if you ignore the things the young are imaginatively drawn to.

Some of the best art happens when teachers learn from pupils. My 14-year-old son will sit at a keyboard surfing the Net for hours. On the web he speaks to kids from six different countries. Schools should be harnessing those skills and adapting the curriculum. For him, the opposite is happening. He is faced with having to drop art, history and media studies because it is deemed more important for him to speak French or Spanish.

Developing and implementing the notion of creativity as a thread in the teaching and learning of every subject as the Government is now urging is a mammoth and commendable task. It will require in some cases a change of mindset for teachers, schools and inspectors. I think it would be brave to attach more value to the process over outcome and likewise to build in a facility that could respond to developments in post-school life for those still in their early learning years.

The place for the encouragement and use of self-knowledge, crucial in the learning process, is often best explored through the arts and is currently underplayed and could be greatly developed. Artworks will, I believe, encourage and reward teachers who take the kind of creative risks the art class ought to be taking, and in so doing help them to raise the status of the creative agenda for the whole curriculum.

Helen Storey, artist and designer, is professor and research fellow at the London Institute and a judge for Artworks, the new national children's art award.

Friday magazine, page 21

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