Those who can, teach

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Schools need not call in outsiders, says John Steers of NSEAD

The researchers of Arts Education in Schools: Effects and Effectiveness, the report the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce commissioned from the National Foundation for Education Research and launched last month, reach some very interesting conclusions, and not all make comfortable reading for arts educators. Nevertheless, the report is very welcome.

Claims that the arts boost general academic achievement remain unproven but strong evidence is provided that the arts are of value in themselves. The report establishes, on the basis of credible research, some of the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits of arts education and how these relate to the different art forms. Some of the weaknesses of current arts provision and some characteristics of good practice are reported and an agenda for action emerges that needs to be addressed. But, as the authors warn, "there are no easy solutions to the questions and problems raised in the research report".

One emphasis of the report is on the importance of specialist arts teachers and it concludes that "... individual teacher factors were probably more important determinants of effectiveness than whole-school factors". Not surprisingly, effective practice was found to stem from teachers with high levels of personal involvement, a passion and commitment to their art form and an ability to demonstrate their own high levels of practical accomplishment. This point in particular seems to have caught the attention of Sir William Stubbs, chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and rector of the London Institute.

In a response to the report in the current issue of the RSA Journal, Sir William acknowledges that the arts in schools have survived a stormy passage in recent years - but at a cost in terms of the breadth of experience that schools can offer their pupils. True enough. But I take issue with Sir William when he suggests that schools could learn from the art colleges and that a solution would be to employ practising artists as visiting teachers. He proposes "attractive packages (that) would attract skilled and committed young artists and designers to teach in schools". He suggests that these people would be able to pass on their expertise whil maintaining their professional practice.

Is there an underlying assumption here that "those who can, do, and those who can't, teach"? If so, Sir William does a grave injustice to those thousands of committed arts teachers who would like nothing better than an opportunity to pass on their expertise while continuing to develop their own creative practice. What prevents this is not their training or commitment to the subject.

For example, secondary art and design teachers follow exactly the same degree courses as those who subsequently go into different forms of professional practice. The problem in schools is that the ever-increasing demands on teachers leave little time for the continuing creative professional development that would make them more satisfied and effective teachers and, in turn, contribute to raising standards of arts teaching. It also needs to be understood that effective arts teaching involves creative risk-taking, by teachers and pupils. The present "high stakes" education climate too often encourages a safe approach to arts teaching with reliable but predictable outcomes.

The artist-teacher model is a good one but it does not need the recruitment of thousands of artists and designers - assuming that there are such numbers willing to be drafted into our secondary schools. There is a limited role for artists and designers in schools programmes, but one inevitable effect of Sir William's proposal would be to further undermine the confidence and role of those who, often for the very best of motives, chose to teach the arts.

I would like to suggest an alternative approach. Provide more administrative support and resources to allow teachers to do what they do best - to teach. Strip away or reallocate the stifling bureaucracy. Provide the means to allow arts teachers the time and economic freedom to have a proper opportunity to continue to develop their own creative practice. I think, Sir William, that you might be surprised by the results in terms of effects and effectiveness. It might even be a cheaper option than your proposal. How about giving it a try?

John Steers is general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art amp; Design, The Gatehouse, Corsham Court, Wiltshire SN13 0BZ. Tel: 01249 714825. Web: www.nsead.org


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