Rescue Our Schools

A good art provision in primary schools supports well-being.

My name is Emily Gopaul and I am an artist, art teacher, author and art education advocate with Rescue Our Schools. I recommend approaches that primary schools can adopt to ensure children have access to a high-quality art curriculum.

The arts are steadily being downgraded across our education system, but primary art education should be non-negotiable and should not be side-lined for other subjects, or SATS preparations. There are many reasons why I advocate art in the primary sector but on a fundamental level, creativity is our human right and it makes us feel good.

Recently, I read an article by Andy Cope about children’s mental health. The article highlights that statistics show that one in 10 children – an average of three in every classroom – has a diagnosable mental health problem. I agree with Cope that we should be looking at how we can prevent young people from experiencing mental health difficulties in the first place.

Stresses in life, whether as an adult or child, are inevitable, but creativity – be it the visual arts or otherwise – can serve as an outlet for stress and anxiety; this does not have to be in an art therapy context. Creative endeavours can be a way to express emotions that are difficult to process or vent in other ways. Sometimes art communicates the artist’s experiences so well that we, the viewers, are informed or moved by the work. I am reminded of the many famous artists who did this so well: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Billie Holiday and Edvard Munch with The Scream, to name but a few of my personal favourites.

Other times though, outcome is not important. It is the creative act, the process in itself that provides us some respite from life. When we are absorbed in making, nothing else matters, the rise of the adult colouring book is an example of how many of us have realised this. Some of us are fortunate enough to have found or rediscovered some such creative activity, one where time passes without us realising and we enter a focused, almost meditative state.

In my experience, when children have the time and the space to be creative, without the pressures of achieving a particular outcome or grade, they experience a sense of calm and freedom that can feed into their lives and even enhance their academic achievements. In my thirteen years of teaching art, I have spoken with many primary and secondary school children about why they enjoy art, and there appears to be a consensus. Children report that art makes them feel free, that art is good because there are no rules, that they feel peaceful when they create art and that they feel happy and calm in the art studio. More times than I can count, teachers have happened upon a class of mine working in absolute silence and commented upon it. What is always remarkable is that I hardly ever demand this silence. It happens naturally when the children are absorbed in their art work, and when that happens the creative, calm atmosphere is tangible; I call it being ‘in the zone’.

Many times, I have known children who are disengaged with school or experiencing difficulties at home or otherwise to seek out the art studio as a refuge and quietly sit and create during breaktimes or after school. I was one of those children, and had it not have been for a love of art that was inspired in me by my primary teacher, I would not have known that I could utilise art and the art department as a safe space, when life as a teenager became overwhelming.

As an art teacher, I am passionate about the skills and visual language that primary art can impart, the visual literacy that it can support, the beautiful artworks the children may produce, the history and geography that can be learned through art and the cultural enrichment to be gained through a good primary art curriculum. Almost more than all of this though, I am sure that space and time to be creative is vital to us as well-rounded human beings.

A good art provision contributes to a positive primary school atmosphere, which reflects the extent to which the school takes care of the needs of the children. Furthermore, if we are introduced to the magic of creativity at a young age, it can serve as a resource for us throughout life, and support our emotional and mental well-being as adults too.