Susan Ogier

Susan Ogier, Associate Consultant Primary Art and Design

Adore it or abhor it, the subject area of Art and Design in primary schools can evoke strong emotions amongst teaching staff! There are many reasons for these feelings, and it might be that you recognise some of these from your own experiences in this subject. When working with teachers, I often hear the words ‘I’m no good at art – I can’t draw!’ However, I’m sure those same teachers would not dare say ‘I’m no good at English – I can’t write!” or ‘I’m no good at PE – I can’t move!’  There are a few misconceptions around the subject area of Art and Design, and in this article, we shall explore a few of those myths and attempt to refocus our attention towards a deeper understanding of the values and possibilities that are unlocked for children through good art teaching.

Myth 1 – Mastery

There is an issue with the current drive towards the goal of ‘mastery’ that comes through government policy within the national curriculum (DfE, 2013). The language around the perception of ‘mastery’ is problematic in primary and Early Years Art and

Design, as it implies that the emphasis is on developing children’s skills until they are perfected, and that this should result in children producing artwork that looks like an adult has done it (and presumably an adult who is ‘good’ at art!).  This is sometimes narrowed down further to developing certain skills, such as pencil work, so that monitoring progression can be easily justified. But in fact, the art classroom should be a place where exploration and experimentation are at the heart of our lessons. As teachers we can develop children’s confidence in trying ideas and processes out, without the fear of their efforts being right or wrong – or judged in this way. Children can feel a sense of excitement, satisfaction, and ownership over their own work through engagement with a wide range of processes, materials, and techniques – and this is how children will make progress over time.

Myth 2 – It’s nice to have – but not really necessary.

Art and Design is sometimes side-lined to make more space in the timetable for the ‘core’ subjects of English and Maths, which are deemed most important in the primary curriculum. Many primary schools have been forced to reduce subjects such as Art in an effort to help children ‘catch up’ in core subjects since the Covid 19 pandemic began, but time for arts subjects in the curriculum was on the decline before 2020. Providing a broad and balanced curriculum for children in schools is written into law (Education Act 2002), but this seems to be becoming more difficult to action in the classroom as pressure mounts for children to perform in measured tests. Whilst we appreciate that it is important for children be literate and numerate, the focus on narrow subject areas could not be a more miscalculated move for many, many children, who like to learn in different ways – ways that are facilitated through engaging in arts subjects. We must reflect on our beliefs on what education is for, in that it is to develop the whole child in a holistic way. We can do this by providing rich experiences in the arts,  and by using the distinctive nature of learning in and through the arts, to offer children a glimpse into a future of possibilities for their own lives.

Myth 3Expense

We all know that school budgets are very tight, and resources can be scarce for any given subject area. It is easy for us to assume that the subject of Art and Design is going to be an expensive one, as specialist equipment and materials will be required. The annual budget for a typical two-form entry school of 450 children can be as small as £250, which amounts to approximately £1.80 per child per year, which is pretty terrifying! Thinking about it in this way could be of-putting, but resourceful and resilient primary teachers will find a way to provide children with a great experience in Art without huge costs. Art subject leaders can spend their budget wisely by purchasing good quality materials that will last a long time, and encouraging the school community to be respectful and not wasteful with them. Using everyday materials for making art, such as recycled or natural objects, cardboard etc. alongside the specialist equipment can be very freeing in terms of availability, as it reduces the pressure to be overly precious with the media. This will also allow for discussions around the need for us all to be aware of our impact on the environment, perhaps backed up by showing children artworks made by artists whose themes include using reclaimed objects, such as the examples here.

Myth 4 Mess

How many teachers do you know who are afraid of mess and chaos in the classroom? Art is often perceived to be a chaotic subject, as children will be up and out of their chairs; they will be  moving around the space – filling up water pots or collecting resources; there will be chatting and a buzz in the room. It is much more manageable if only they were sitting quietly filling in worksheets! This is where the teacher’s relationship with the children comes together with their expertise in organisation skills to create an enabling environment where creativity can thrive. Art need not be messy if children are taught to be respectful of materials, and of each other. Involve them in both resourcing and clearing up, so that they learn that caring for equipment is part of the job of being an artist. Art need not be chaotic if it is well planned to allow for a logical, flowing structure, with pause points to refocus the learning and refresh ideas.  Build in opportunities for mini tidy-ups between stages of the lesson, to keep working areas purposeful and clear. Children will learn important personal skills and will become independent and able to make choices in a safe and creative learning environment, and the teacher will be able to relax and enjoy the lesson without the worry!

Myth 5Assessing art: it’s all subjective

Assessment in primary art and design is an area of anxiety for many primary teachers. I am often asked to explain how teachers should make judgements based on children’s outcomes when often the work produced is aligned with a sense of taste – do we like it or not? How can we tell who is ‘good’ at Art? The idea that Art can be assessed by ranking children’s work into categories of ‘best’ and ‘worst’,  and everything in between is, however, unhelpful –  because art is about individual responses rather than looking for uniform outcomes that can be judged in this way. Art and design is a subject unlike any other and cannot be assessed in the same way that other subjects are – although we can apply the same principles.  We can still use criteria from our learning intentions for making judgments about children’s developing understanding and achievements, just as we would in any other area of learning. We can focus on a dialogic approach that utilises formative assessment through learning conversations with the children. We can document a child’s learning journey by asking them to reflect and articulate their own learning, and by keeping portfolios of their work. We can enable them to critique and discuss art – their own and that of others – to help them become critical thinkers and to accept constructive criticism. All of this takes time (something I know we are always short of!), but that is what we are aiming towards, and what primary teaching is all about: children making progress over time.

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