Technique is the key to an artistic licence

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh discovers a way of teaching that some may find too prescriptive, but which gets results.

When I was a young primary teacher, my art lessons always landed me in trouble - with the cleaners, with parents whose children's clothes had been ruined, and with the head whose stocks of materials had suddenly been depleted.

The problem, seen in hindsight, was that I was left to do my own thing. Enough of my colleagues were good at art teaching to give an overall impression of solid achievement, and so there was never any question of looking at progression from one year group to the next; at teaching techniques in a disciplined way; or at the idea that there could be a whole-school policy about the physical organisation of an art lesson.

That was in the early Sixties - and yet, I suspect, you could have visited many schools much more recently and found the same - art patchily taught; the cracks covered up by a few teachers who knew more or less what they were doing and were able to make the school look attractive with display work. (There is a parallel with music here, where in the past, classroom work has often not lived up to the quality of a school's showpiece choirs and orchestras.) According to Jayne Murray, art co-ordinator at Sacred Heart primary in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, the result was that many children experienced "a great sense of failure in art. Children knew that what they did wasn't good, but they didn't know how to put it right."

Sacred Heart has responded to the demands of national curriculum art by completely changing the approach. Jayne Murray explains: "When I came here, a lot of art was done as part of topic work, but it wasn't really art at all. It was making artefacts for other subjects. I wanted to move away from activities like making an outline of a Tudor person and sticking bits of material on it."

Over two years, she has made two related changes to art teaching at Sacred Heart. First, the subject has been detached from the task of illustrating other curriculum areas. And second, art is now taught from a base of technique. The art policy defines the skills to be taught in each year, and the children, from reception on, practise each of them - drawing a line; mixing colour; producing different tones and textures - before they use them in a finished product. Then, when they go on to a complete piece of work it may, in the upper age groups, take up to a term to finish.

To someone like me, steeped in another sort of primary curriculum philosophy, this sounds slightly heretical - a little like suggesting that you have to teach grammar before you can let children write. And yet to see that it works you only have to visit Sacred Heart, and experience not only the care and enthusiasm of the pupils in their art lessons, but also the quality of what they turn out.

The secret is that the technique practice itself produces feelings of success and progress. Colour-mixing exercises, for example, produce interesting blobs and lines of colour changing gradually across the page. There are colour "swatches" on display, too - card versions of the samples of material of varying colour that you might see in a fabric shop. A page of thick parallel brush strokes, each altering subtly in colour from its neighbour, looks attractive in its own right, especially when carefully mounted and displayed by the teacher.

Similarly, when I watched the youngest children "taking their pencils for a walk", I saw them drawing lines which were, by choice, curly, zig-zag, wiggly or bubbly. So far as they were concerned, they were making interesting patterns that covered the paper. At the same time, of course, they were gaining strength in the fingers and wrists, and increasing their control of the pencil.

Jayne Murray supports all of this with detailed planning sheets which go down to the level of individual lesson notes. One sheet sets out, in a diagram, how a child's desk should be arranged for an art lesson - the water there, the paint here and so on. Another insists on correct terminology - "prussian, cobalt and sky blue" for example. There are instructions to teachers which tell them how children should hold their brushes, and admonitions such as "Do not use thin brushes to mix paint."

Was it all not, I tentatively suggested - well, a bit prescriptive? (another horror word for someone of my generation).

Jayne conceded that it was, but pointed out that someone confident with art teaching could find their own way through. What she is aiming for is support for the non-specialist. "They genuinely didn't know how to teach art - if a child didn't know how to do something, they didn't know how to help."

Looking at some pictures of tropical rain forests painted by older juniors over most of a term, I saw where the policy can lead. They were not only beautiful but also deeply atmospheric.

As I left Sacred Heart, I saw on the noticeboard an appreciative note from the Cambridgeshire art inspector, Oliver Nicholson, and I phoned him to check whether my own feeling about the quality of the school's work was well-founded. Indeed it was, he told me, and was delighted that someone was taking notice of art, which is not always a national curriculum priority. "They decided as a whole staff to change their approach to the teaching of art. It coincided with a series of county courses that promoted a much more systematic approach, not only to children's techniques but to the improvement of teacher competence. "

Improving children's techniques, far from being a matter of dull exercises, "gives them a repertoire of skills with which to liberate their creativity". Too often in the past, he suggested, poor art teaching was tolerated. The change, he believes, has come with a generally more systematic, national curriculum-driven approach to curriculum planning and coverage.

Not every school has a qualified art specialist who can drive things along as Jayne Murray does, with the support of her head. A look at Jayne's planning sheets, though, reveals that they contain things that every teacher knows - what they need is the confidence to make them work in the classroom. The ideal support in this case would be a visiting art advisory teacher, able to spend a term in a school. But since local management of schools, how many art advisory teachers are left? And how many schools can afford to buy them in?

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