Rescue Our Schools

Schools like quantifiable results, they are institutions that are judged on outcomes, and senior staff and teachers are under pressure to evidence progress for each student. I believe that the subjective nature of Art and Design poses a challenge for the school environment because art is not easily assessable by teachers, and if it is assessed, it needs a different approach to that of other subject areas.

In my role as an art educationalist and art advocate I often consider the role of assessment in the primary art classroom. I am interested in how, as art teachers and teachers who have to teach art, we can incorporate assessment without dampening creativity and negatively impacting the environment conducive to making art.

In my regular part-time teaching post, the children use sketchbooks and I never mark/grade their work. I often feel guilty about the time and energy that ‘normal’ class teachers spend marking compared to me, but my not defacing the children’s art or interfering with their books, is a deliberate art teaching approach. I have discussed this ‘no marking method’ many times with the children, I ask them how they know they are making progress in art without my grades, ticks, crosses and written comments in green pen. The children always report back that they like not having their work marked, that they know they have made progress because they feel it and they gain confidence using the relevant medium. The children that I have spoken with about art assessment say that they like being in the art room because they feel free and that they are not better or worse than anyone else, they say this is a contrast with other subject areas.

The art room environment is a special one and it feels like a safe space where children gain confidence in their own time, through exploring different materials and processes. They use their own ideas, experiences and imaginations to create art and that work is individual to them, like real artists. It is not my place to say what is right or wrong and to do so could do harm to the children’s self-esteem, rather than building their confidence in art.

As a specialist primary art teacher, I am fortunate in that I teach all children every year, this means that I can play the long game. I am not limited to one year with each child. So, if Tommy doesn’t quite get the proportions of the face right in his self-portrait, but he is enthusiastic and happy in his art lessons, I don’t need to worry (or worry him) about it. I know that there is time and he’ll get there at some point with my help – not all children develop at the same pace and that is okay.

The other important element to this no marking method, is that I am constantly modelling how to use the materials and teaching the children new techniques, I do this when I, as the teacher, can see they are ready for this input. In the classroom, I am continually responding to individual children, or as I call them, artists, as they are working. This is the best way to develop their skills and help them to manifest their ideas i.e. as they are in the act of creating. Feedback given during the lesson means they can implement changes and review and refine work in real time. The primary art classroom can and should feel like an artist’s studio, with artists working away, engrossed in the creative process, experimenting with materials and evolving works of art.

None of this is to say that I don’t know whether the children are making progress. I know that they are because I plan all their art lessons, and I believe that good planning is key to pupil progress. I map the art curricula out across year 1 – year 6 and I ensure that there is progress built in across key skill areas i.e. drawing, painting, collaging, sculpting and printing, of course I include other mediums but these are the main areas that I tend to cover. I also know they are making progress because I see it in their work and I give them specific praise about that e.g. ‘I can see the way you have used different brushstrokes there has been really effective at showing the movement in the water. Would you mind showing the rest of the class how you did that?’

I believe that primary children should keep the same sketchbook all the way through school, unless it gets so full of art that it needs replacing. With this in mind, if you were to look at a year 1 child’s sketchbook you would see progress in their drawing, but better still, if you looked at that same child’s sketchbook in year 4 or year 6, you would absolutely see progress. Furthermore, if you sat with that child and discussed their work as you flicked through their sketchbook, then you would hear a genuine understanding of how that child overcame challenges with media, how they developed their ideas and in which cases they were inspired by other artists.

As far as I know, no one in government is asking for grades in primary Art and Design, and I have not really heard of parents asking to see Art and Design results. I have however, repeatedly seen parents, governors, Ofsted inspectors and all manner of visitors walk into a primary art lesson and respond to the uniquely calm, focused and creative environment with awe and wonder.

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.