Shaping forces

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Reva Klein discovers how art residencies and creative curriculum co-ordination have raised the status of craft and 3-D work in a London primary

It's almost a truism to say art education is a low priority in many primary schools because of the emphasis on the core subjects. The value system this breeds leads to an unspoken but strong current in schools that sees art as somehow not "real learning". And if there is a Cinderella languishing in the scullery of art education, as pointed out by the Office for Standards in Eduction, and many working in the field, it's three dimensional and craft work.

The reasons are simple. Few teachers have specialist training in art. This would not spell disaster if the teacher training curriculum took it into account by giving all generalists a firm foundation in all areas of art they are required to deliver. But too often it does not. It's also true that for those with no passion - let alone aptitude - for clay, construction work, sculpture and the like, the mess these invariably entail represents the ultimate deterrent. This is not helped by few schools now having people trained to use kilns, or by resourcing for 3-D work being, to quote the 19934 OFSTED review, "poor".

Even when the will to support 3-D and craft work is there, the way is scuppered through lack of support. Advice and specialist help must be bought in for the majority of schools, whose local education authorities no longer have advisory teachers for art and unless there is a particularly strong voice making a good argument for it, it doesn't happen. Jenny Parsons is registered OFSTED inspector and general inspector at Islington with responsibility for art and drama. She says: "The truth is that no time or clout is given to curriculum co-ordinators for art. Many schools give the responsibility for art to anything that moves." But enlightened practice and thinking comes in all shapes and sizes and sometimes in the least expected places. Take Islington, notorious for being the LEA where Euan Blair does not go to school and, more to the point, the authority below which no LEA in the country sits in the national GCSE league tables. While the middle classes flee in their droves ever westward, many Islington schools are quietly but assiduously putting 3-D and crafts into a cross-curricular agenda that is as imaginative and effective as you're likely to see anywhere.

At Penton School, sandwiched between velvet-draped Georgian terraces and vast estates, a powerhouse of thinking and creativity goes into planning and implementing an art syllabus that is supported by three resident artists. Under the direction of art co-ordinator Sarah Tilling, who has the distinction of having been through art school, a ceramicist, a painter and a collage makerpainter work with every class in the school, from nursery up. Every child has the experience of making ceramics, sculpting, designing and printing textiles, painting, lino cutting, batik and tie dying.

Each will also have been taken to see the national museums and galleries London schoolchildren have at their fingertips. The visits tie in with topic work as much as possible. Key stage 2 children go to the National Portrait Gallery to look at Victorians; Year 1s went to look at figurative artwork to tie in with a project on the theme of "Ourselves". When the children were working on weather, it was off to the National Gallery, which customised a mini-tour of paintings including Renoir's "Umbrellas" and Rousseau's "Storm in the Jungle," to bring another dimension to the subject.

Still on "Ourselves", a class of five-year-olds works with painter Ros Hatton exploring the senses. To illustrate touch, they created textured pictures. Now they are on hearing, and are making musical instruments. Drums are being made from long cardboard paper rolls with plastic firmly fastened at each end. Shakers are plastic juice bottles filled with lentils. The children will get inspiration for decorating these instruments from Matisse paper cut-outs.

Last year, Ros helped the children making machines to complement the technology work. In collaboration with the class teacher, the children were engaged with making a computer board with light switches and a washing machine.

Although not every school has the space available to have artists based in it, short-term residencies are becoming more popular. But it is planning and top-down commitment that needs to underpin this area of art practice, more than anything else. As Kate Kelly, Islington's arts and sports education co-ordinator, says: "It's about using the available resources, seeing opportunities, being in touch with what's around. There are resources around but a lot of people don't know about them."

Jenny Parsons sees 3-D and craft work as going far beyond a tight syllabus. "It's important that these skills are not just something you bring in on a wet Friday afternoon. They should be seen as part of the cultural and aesthetic curriculum."

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