Leadership - How to paint an appealing picture of art

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Tempt students into creative subjects by showing they can lead to an exciting career

As the head of department for a subject that's optional at GCSE and A-level, you are in a constant fight for students.

I am a course leader for art at Ludlow College in Shropshire, so I feel the struggle particularly keenly. Since the start of the economic downturn, I've witnessed a clear change in direction: students are selecting more traditional subjects such as maths, English and history, and there has been a renewed interest in business studies. Suddenly, creative subjects are perceived as risky, and with England's education secretary Nicky Morgan telling students that pursuing the arts will hold them back in their careers (bit.lyNickyMorgan), art departments need to show their worth more than ever.

But how do you convince students, and more often than not their parents, that a post-16 arts course is a positive option? At Ludlow, we've faced this challenge head-on and are now reaping the rewards of strengthening our arts offer. Here are my top tips, which should be equally applicable to other subjects:

Get your provision right

A key change has been emphasising the employability skills to be gained from each subject. We have made the relevance of our provision clear by focusing on three subjects - fine art, graphic communication and photography - and allowing students to tailor their course around them.

We also practise key skills, such as responding to design briefs using actual industry examples. The students have to "pitch" their ideas in as professional an environment as possible. This involves dressing appropriately and presenting not just to their tutor and peers but also to a graphic designer, who then gives feedback.

Perfect your planning

Once we decided what we were going to offer, we made sure that the courses were well planned. We revisited our year plans and looked at each week's lessons and learning objectives, asking ourselves the purpose of each task and either refining or discarding it. This has led to much more focused courses. The year plans remain flexible and tutors can adjust them.

Make the students feel part of something

If numbers are low, retention becomes even more critical. With that in mind, we dedicate the first two weeks of the year to settling students into college life. For example, we ask photography students to shoot portraits in the style of photographers such as David Bailey and Irving Penn. They have to direct and model for each other, which serves as a fun way to form friendships. A curator then works with the students to create an exhibition of their work in the college gallery.

Showcase real opportunities

Each year, we put on a careers day. This year, two universities, two art colleges, an illustrator, a graphic designer and a photographer all came in to talk to our students. A handful of recent alumni also discussed their university courses. This helps students explore the various routes that are available post-college. Working creatives are the best ambassadors for demonstrating to any doubters that exciting art careers are possible.

Develop a specialism

We have two unique selling points in the department: our first-class printmaking and darkroom facilities. It is important to focus on your strengths and show them off. We make sure the darkroom is set up and open every time prospective students come in to look around. In addition, we have a technician who is a print specialist. Drawing on her knowledge and enthusiasm, we have developed a dedicated print room. This is not timetabled but instead open to students on all pathways through a mixture of group sessions and individual support.

Set up a gallery

Find an area you can turn into an exhibition space. A freshly painted wall with a pool of frames is enough and it is well worth the investment. Give your gallery a name and then start your exhibition programme. We showcase work by our learners, alumni, university art students and practising artists. It is worth taking the time to frame the students' work and showcase it to the public. We link this to our specialisms, aiming to have regular print and photographic shows in community centres and cafes. Displaying our work outside the college keeps our arts provision at the front of people's minds.

Hannah Day is course team leader of arts and media at Ludlow College in Shropshire


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