Lasting impressions

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Laurence Pollock discovers the innovative ways schools use to keep art on the timetable

In a hard-edged competitive world, art has always had to fight for position and time in mainstream education. This inferior status exists despite art's role in therapy, the development of self-expression in young children and the scope for collaborative work and lateral thinking. The arrival of the national literacy and numeracy hours has increased fears that art will be squeezed. Last year the Department for Education and Employment's National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education sounded a general alarm about arts and the humanities.

Recommending that the distinction between core and foundation subjects be removed, it called for a new balance in education after 10 years of "downgrading" arts and humanities.

Concerns have particularly centred on the shorter teaching week for primary school children, who embrace art with most enthusiasm. Can "visual and tactile elements, including colour, pattern and texture, line and tone, shape, form and space", as specified in the national curriculum (key stage 1), be successfully taught in just 45 minutes a week?

There is evidence that art teaching is flourishing in some primaries. But it may require a particularly impassioned or gifted member of staff or some creative accounting with the timetable.

A visit to Priory Lower School, in central Bedford, offers a vision of art as central to children's educational experience. There is no unadorned brickwork in the school's Victorian building. Fabric prints with Indian woodblocks and photographs of arrangements of grass and dandelions, inspired by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, line the school's narrow corridors.

Eighty per cent of Priory's pupils are from ethnic minorities, many of them bilingual Bengali. Art plays a key role in helping these very young children express their perception of the world when language and the written word are challenging, according to headteacher Jean Edwards.

On one day a week, literacy and numeracy are shifted from their prime time morning slot - "the children are quite drained in the afternoon", says Jean Edwards - to allow other subjects, including art, some "quality time".

She acknowledges that numeracy and literacy pressures have had an impact: it is visible in the less frequent changes of the displays showing children's art work on classroom walls. But having been art co-ordinator in her previous school, and being herself an etcher who has exhibited her work to the public, she wants to maintain Priory's reputation for its art teaching. Some may say her leadership is atypical. But Priory's success is cited by Barney Payne, curriculum consultancy manager for art at Bedfordshire local education authority, as grounds for his "cautious optimism" about art teaching generally.

"When the literacy hour first came in we thought there would be no subjects such as art left but I now believe schools in Bedfordshire are delivering a broad and alanced curriculum," he says. He is critical, though, of radical timetables which, for example, give a child one term of art and then one of design and technology."The danger is that young children can spend months without using a paintbrush. They need 'little and often'."

Boughton Heath Primary in Cheshire aims for a lot as well, but also for often. It has a formal commitment in the school development plan to the visual arts and trips to galleries and museums and visits from artists are part of the goal of teaching art for up to two hours a week. The school uses residencies extensively in Northumberland and Snowdonia to develop pupils' art.

"Through our thematic approach we have concentrated energy and resources into whatever cross-curricular topic we are working on," says headteacher Kevin Pinder. "Art will feature in history and geography, but it is also a subject in its own right. Sculpture will range from a wire and mud-rock figure of Rameses II to installations in slate carried out while on residencies in north Wales." He says the school manages "a good two hours a week on average. Sometimes a whole year group will spend a day in the school hall with an artist, lots of polythene and other materials". He does not believe that literacy and numeracy are squeezing art, though he concedes that encouraging "illustration" techniques would not be "art" to a purist.

Behind this impressive record, however, is that tell-tale factor - one teacher who is a trained artist, with the rest described by Kevin Pinder as "enthusiasts who pick up themes and techniques".

What does a school do when it is not lucky enough to have an etcher or a painter on the staff? The whole staff from Hazelwood Infants School, in Enfield, north London last year used an in-service training day to visit the Tate Gallery. A rush of enthusiasm prompted the school to commission a Middlesex University sculpture student to work with children in producing a "solar seat". The pound;3,000 installation was funded by the parent teacher association, but its design and construction became a whole-school activity and the result has found its way on to the Enfield urban sculpture trail. Hazelwood's headteacher, Peter Gordon, believes there is a ready connection between sculpture and numeracy and literacy, and other cross-curricular work.

"With Lego, Duplo and other brick constructions, the children create their own sculptures, and yet they are learning sorting and matching. In literacy this sculpture work helps them with concepts of similarity and dissimilarity," he says.

Sculpture and installation seem to have a particular place in primary school art, interesting teachers and crossing curriculum boundaries.

Public installation art, by throwing off conventional definitions, can court huge controversy, as with the work of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Ironically - or appropriately, some would argue - it could also be showing primary schools how art can breach the orthodox dimensions of the national curriculum.

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