Harder times and higher standards


Jenna Luxon takes a look at the challenges facing Key Stage 3 art students during the pandemic and why even pre-Covid-19 art was suffering in the education system.

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Image by Sigmund

By Jenna Luxon

The pandemic seems to have ushered in a renewed respect for the arts in society. There have been wide-spread campaigns to improve arts funding and an appreciation for how art serves our society both when it's struggling and during so-called ‘normal’ times too.

Yet, this recognition of the professional arts has not been equally extended to arts education. With all the talk of at-home learning, little has been said of how art students are faring. Over the past couple of decades supposed ‘soft’ subjects like art have been slowly squeezed out of timetables to make room for core subjects.

This issue with the value we place on art in our education system has now been compounded with the practical challenges posed by the pandemic and at-home learning for art students and teachers alike.

One of the main difficulties that comes with teaching art during the past year is the question of resources. Unlike other more knowledge-based subjects, art courses are far more skill-based and therefore cannot rely on online resources that quiz students on topics. Rather, art courses depend on students being able to create art work from home, requiring not only somewhere to work at home but also crucially, something to work with and something to work on.

This is a big ask. Teachers cannot assume that all students will have access to a table or desk to work on, and those who do may be sharing that space with other children or parents working from home. In many cases it is more likely that children will be trying to create GCSE level art work from their beds.

Even if they do have the space to work, students may well not have the resources to work with and will almost certainly not have the breadth of materials that would be available in a school environment. Plain paper, which some of us may consider to be a household staple, is, of course, not present in all homes. Therefore, when setting practical tasks now, art teachers can only really assume that their students will have access to a pencil.

Technology has brought some benefits to art teaching; greater use of photography, tablets and online software to draw or manipulate images means that technology can be used by students in a way that wouldn’t normally be possible in school. But this is limited to only those with access to such devices and hardly makes up for the many materials that would normally be available in art classrooms.

Challenges, although varying in nature, have been present for students and teachers from all subjects during the pandemic, so art is not unusual in this respect. But what compounds the challenges art teaching has faced this past year are the attitudes in the British Education System to creative subjects that had been developing long before Covid-19 reared its ugly head.

Our education system prioritises English, Maths and Science. The all-important league tables used to compare schools nationally and internationally take the top eight grades of each student, including at least one English, Maths and Science. Meaning that other subjects, like art, are pushed out of timetables to make space for these subjects and their additional booster classes.

Art is also not assessed at all at Key Stage 2, which means that it often becomes a Friday treat for pupils if they have been well-behaved, rather than a valued and time-tabled part of the primary school curriculum. Research completed in 2017 on behalf of the Higher Education Policy Institute reported that nationally, 89 percent of primary teachers in state schools indicated that the time allocated for Art and Design has reduced in the previous five years.

This reduced focus on art in primary school means that children are coming up to secondary school with less hand-eye coordination and poorer art skills overall. Pair that with the fact that children are far more likely to be gaming online in their free time than drawing for fun, and we have a recipe for the deteriorating art skills of the British youth.

And yet, despite the lower standard of overall artwork when children start secondary school, GCSE Art standards are getting higher year on year. Whilst there are fewer students taking art courses at school, with Ofqual reporting last year that between 2010 and 2020 there was a decline of 37 percent in the number of creative arts GCSE entries in England, those who are sticking with the subject are producing work of a higher standard than ever before.

With less curriculum time, art is only becoming more exclusive and expectations for student’s artwork are increasing. Where once children’s artwork would only have been compared with that of the others in the school or local area, through the internet and social media, artwork can now be compared on a global scale.

As we teach art less, standards will go up and the subject will only become more inaccessible. The average standard of children’s art ability will diminish alongside their appreciation for the importance of the arts.

Education is not simply about training children for future employment. It is about creating well-rounded individuals who are equipped with the skills to support themselves throughout their life. Art is imperative to our well-being, but even if the education system was only there to train children for future trades, art would still be hugely important.

Schools are quick to tell their students about the job opportunities that come from STEM subjects, whilst failing to point out the vast array of careers available in the arts. According to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, in 2020, more than two million people were working in the creative industries, a sector that contributed £115.9 billion to the economy in 2019.

Art is important. It is valuable to our society and it is valuable to individuals, whether you choose to class yourself as someone who can draw or not. Our education system is currently perpetuating the idea that art isn’t for everyone, in the way that subjects like English and Maths are, only for the few who can pick it up without a lot of school time. This is a mistake and whilst we embrace a renewed enthusiasm for what art can offer us as we come out of lockdown, we should also be thinking of what we put into the arts.