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Young at art

Art is a seriously underestimated subject. Arnold Evans shows why students should opt for it. Sally Ashton, an art teacher at Cathays High School in Cardiff, is finalising her lesson plans for next term. She is arranging for pupils to spend a day at the gallery of the National Museum of Wales, where they'll study how painters through the ages have tackled landscape. Back in the classroom, they'll work with professional artists to create a metaphorical landscape of their school - one which reflects its multicultural diversity and which will give them the opportunity to experiment with a variety of media.

This sort of exercise is usually so expensive and difficult to organise that it is restricted to small GCSE or A-level groups. Even then, they have to dip into their own pockets to subsidise the event. But Sally Ashton is having none of this. She plans for all the pupils in Year 9 to share this experience. And they won't be charged for entrance to the museum, the coach trip or the services of the visiting artists. No, she hasn't gambled the de-partment's budget on a few lucky scratch cards - the venture won't cost a penny.

Cathays is one of eight Welsh schools selected to participate in the second phase of an ambitious project that is being pioneered in the Principality. Opt for Art, which is organised by The National Association for Gallery Education (engage), is part of a concerted effort not only to enable children to come into direct contact with art and artists, but also to ensure that the subject retains its status within the secondary curriculum.

It is undoubtedly going to be an uphill struggle. Teachers complain that art is treated as "a second rate subject", "a soft option" or "a dumping ground for re-jected pupils". Engage's director, Christopher Naylor, recognises the extent of the problem: "Art and its potential students don't get a fair deal in the melee of exam choices. While other subjects tempt with apparently clear career paths, art tends to be written off."

It's a view that's endorsed by Nigel Meager, a Swansea-based artist who is co-ordinator of Opt for Art. "Children at the end of key stage 3 are put under awful pressure by parents - and often by teachers - 'to do the sensible thing' and to drop art. We want to open their eyes to what the subject really has to offer before they make their crucial option choices."

The project, which was launched in the spring of this year, certainly seems to be delivering results if Lewis Girls' School in Ystrad Mynach is any indication. Here 71 children in Year 9 opted for art, compared with 39 in the previous year. It's easy to see why when you look at the work they produced. The bevy of Barbie dolls in the jacuzzi, for example, may or may not be great art, but it was great fun to produce.

Dave Daggers, the photographer who collaborated with the pupils throughout the project, took pictures of the final artefacts. Then the icing on the cake: the children were able to see their best efforts exhibited at a Cardiff gallery - not in some kiddies' corner but alongside the work of professionals.

They were lucky to have the help of Dave Daggers, an artist who identifies closely with the aims of the project. As a schoolboy, he did "the sensible thing". It wasn't until he was an engineering undergraduate that he found the self-confidence to transfer to art college and follow his true vocation. "When I was in school I liked art but thought there was a kind of a wall. On the other side of it, were the people who could understand art, who could do it, and I assumed I could never be one of them. But we've given these children the chance to create images and see them exhibited. They've discovered there is no wall. That there is no magic. That there is nothing to stop them being artists too."

Engage doesn't miss a trick. Every Year 9 pupil involved in the project receives a series of eye-catching flyers which spell out the advantages of opting for art. As well as improving the quality of their lives, they will discover that the subject is, in fact, the gateway to a variety of eminently "sensible" careers, ranging from being an architect to designing computer graphics.

Opt for Art has already cost more than Pounds 50,000 and wouldn't have been possible without generous donations, particularly from the Gulbenkian Foundation. It's unlikely to be extended beyond Wales unless it receives substantial support from the National Lottery. That would ensure that art teachers and their classes across the UK could benefit from scratch cards without having to spend the department budget on them.

A full-colour magazine describing the Opt for Art project costs Pounds 3.50. It is available from engage, 46a Streatley Road, London NW6 7LS.

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