Have you ever settled back into the seat on a train only to realise that the view flashing past is not familiar? Suddenly, you realise that you are going in the wrong direction. If you have, then you know how I am feeling now, as a teacher of art. The train is large, unstoppable, and the track seems to be leading me away from the things that make art such a special part of the school curriculum.
I began this journey in 1975, and in that time art teachers have passed through a number of major junctions such as Rosla, GCSE, GNVQ, and now the national curriculum. As the carriages rocked across these points, we moaned, but we got on with the business of our journey, reasonably happy in the knowledge that we were moving with a common purpose towards a truthful destination.
But recently it seems that the Fat Controller has arrived - in the form of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - along with his minions, the examination boards, who act as timetablers and apologists. At the next station, we'll disembark from this metaphor - I wish I could do so in real life.
So, what has prompted me - a quiet, slightly introverted art teacher - to express my concern about the way art education is moving? I have just attended a course held by an exam board whose aim was to familiarise teachers with the marking criteria for the new AS and A2-level exams. It was well organised and useful, fully achieving its purpose. But it has left me with the feeling that assessment has gone mad. That it has begun to shape and drive what we teach, and the way we teach it.
Without going into too much detail, each piece of coursework produced by a student will have to be marked using an assessment matrix that contains eight areas of attainment. All areas have equal weighting, so that the ability a student employs to compare his or her work to that of existing art and culture has the same value as the skil required to create the work. By dividing the assessment process into these areas we are in danger of losing sight of what art, and good art education, is all about.
By dividing a student's work into neatly defined areas of measurement, we are asking that person to be all things to all men. Each move he or she makes will be assessed against the matrix, so that both student and teacher will be looking over their shoulders rather than experiencing the freedom to follow what is, or may become, their passion.
At this meeting, I voiced dismay at what seems to be another step down a path to conformity. The exam board representatives could only answer by saying that the submissions their organisation made had to match up to QCA specifications. Who are the people who hold the power to ratify the syllabus, and make these final decisions? What is their experience of teaching art? I am a pragmatist and, like most things in life, on paper the assessment procedure looks fine. But in practice I see art teachers debating with colleagues as to whether the brushwork of one student holds within it subliminal references to post-modernist abstraction. If not, that student is likely to lose 25 per cent of the available marks.
Until the 1990s, we had a more holistic approach to assessing the work of students, where trusting the art teacher's professional judgment, backed up by a stringent moderation system, was at the heart of assessment. Generally speaking, it served all parties well. It allowed for students to pursue what motivated them, with guidance and direction provided by the teacher.
I would like to ask the Fat Controller: is this obsession with measurement going to lead to better artists, wiser citizens? I wonder what is next down the line? Stop the train, I want to get off.
The writer, who wants to remain anonymous, is head of expressive arts in a Midlands comprehensive