GCSE pass rates in art have rocketed at a Coventry school that is taking the mystery out of the subject. Gerald Haigh sits in on some 'visual literacy' lessons
Sometimes you just have to take notice of statistics. Since Ann Andersen came to Finham Park School in Coventry as head of art in 1994, the proportion of pupils gaining GCSE art at grade C or above has risen from 68 per cent to 100 per cent in 1997 - nearly half of them As. And just to show it is no fluke, in the four years she was head of art at her previous school A-C passes rose from 9 to 67 per cent.
So what's the secret? "There isn't one," says Ann Andersen. "We are here to teach, and that's what we ought to do - and ensure everyone gets there."
Implicit in this is a denial of the "separateness" of art as a uniquely creative discipline. "I disagree with those who say that art is somehow different because it's creative. I don't see that it's different from English in that respect, for example."
Ann Andersen refuses to criticise other approaches to art teaching, but when she says of her pupils, "They are not artists, they are children learning at school", she is clearly distancing herself from a host of cherished assumptions.
For her, art is too important to be left to the chance lightning bolts of creative inspiration. "We live in a world where much of our information comes to us visually, and this is the subject which introduces students to visual literacy," she says.
"Visual literacy" is a phrase to which she often returns. Explaining the structure of the art curriculum at Finham Park, she says: "We teach visual literacy in a variety of materials and media." The heart of her approach is to provide pupils with as much experience as possible of different media and techniques. "They find out that art is more than painting and drawing, and drawing is more than using a pencil."
So, for example, Year 7 pupils confronted with a group of objects might be asked to produce a still life not with paint or pencil or pastel but with bits of stuck-down tissue paper. The aim is to provide a wide range of media and techniques; the expectation is that every pupil will find a pattern of working that suits them.
A class works on a different theme each term. For example, Year 7 is currently looking at "Natural Forms in Our World" through painting, drawing, collage, and 3-D work.
Ann Andersen says: "We are identifying potential from their work; finding the materials that the student can work well in. It's structured, with limited room for personal scope; there is room for creativity, but within well-defined parameters."
A lot of effort goes into boosting pupils who have been brought up to believe that they "can't draw". "Consequently, as a department, we don't use pencil much."
From this relentless search for growth points and small successes comes an often startling rise in confidence. "They surprise themselves with what they can do." As part of what she calls her "pushing and challenging" approach, Ann Andersen breaks some artroom taboos. "When I was training, people used to say that the teacher should never touch a child's work, but I believe that we can sit down and show them; if you make some marks for them, then they want to reach that standard."
The didactic approach, the carefully constructed syllabus, and the talented teaching team all obviously have their part to play in what happens at Finham Park. The "X" factor, though, is Ann Andersen herself. Recruitment experts in business place great store by how a person talks about his or her work, and when you listen to Ann Andersen you can see what they mean. The briefest conversation becomes a fascinating and well-delivered exposition of what she believes about art, children and their visual education. It is the kind of enthusiastic commitment and confidence that pupils appreciate.
Here, I guess, is the real story behind those figures. Chris Hunt, the headteacher, and the governors at Finham Park are backing up both the excellence of their art department, and their faith in the importance of visual literacy, by seeking visual arts specialist school status. There are ambitious plans for physical improvements in the art department, such as the installation of photographic equipment, and for work with the community, and with partner primary schools, in teacher training and curriculum development.
Finding the necessary sponsorship - to qualify for the pound;100,000 that goes with special status, the school has to raise pound;100,000 of its own - is proving a real challenge. All schools looking to specialise in arts subjects have an uphill task, and visual arts is probably the most difficult of all packages to sell to businesses.
Chris Hunt says: "There is some scepticism about art. We have been told half a dozen times that, had we been looking at technology, they would have been more interested." He is disappointed, but not downhearted, and believes in the eventual success of the project. "This is a job we can do for Coventry."