Arts in Schools

Veteran educator Dr Dave Allen recalls the thrilling moment when he introduced the radical new discipline of media studies to his Portsmouth school – and the rearguard action against it.

Almost exactly thirty years ago, as Easter 1985 approached, I was coming to the end of a ten-year career teaching art – and the arts – in local comprehensive schools. I had started to teach drawing, painting and ceramics in one school and after five years moved to another in the heart of Portsmouth where I was Head of Expressive Arts.

The term “expressive and creative arts” was common in schools in those days, generally as part of a strategy for organising an expanding curriculum. In my case I was responsible for art and design (although not the newly designated craft, design and technology) plus ceramics, needlework, music, drama and dance. Our pupils entered a range of public examinations including A-levels in art and theatre arts and O-levels or CSEs in other subjects.

One condition of my appointment was to take on photography CSE from the science department. In many respects that shift was indicative of different approaches to the same subject in different curriculum areas. I inherited a photography course using real film and chemicals, that valued precision, measurement and a conventional aesthetic of tone, focus and a nod towards abstraction.

It bore almost no relation to photography as we encountered it in everyday life – to take a simple example, there was no requirement on students to incorporate texts into their work and the titles were often pithy, single words like “decay” or “contrasts” which were both blindingly obvious and unhelpfully broad. Back then, in pre-internet days, most people encountered photographs in two main ways – via journalism and publishing or as domestic records of lives lived. But this photography course stressed technical skills with a kind of “tasteful” approach to matters of composition and tone – and it was all black and white.

I was very happy to teach the technical skills, both with the camera and in the darkroom, for which I retain a memory of “magic” in these days of multiple images and Adobe PhotoShop. But I believed that students should be encouraged to understand photography as a contemporary practice all around them and so I began encouraging them to make images which might tell stories – sometimes in sequences – and wherever appropriate, to add texts. The purpose was partly creative, making images, but it was also to encourage and develop and analytical understanding of how images play an increasingly central role in our sense of our world. To extend this work, I drew upon the use of photography by visual artists as well as photo journalists, sharing with my pupils, older work by the surrealists, Walker Evans and others but also contemporary artists like Cindy Sherman or Victor Burgin whose work was blurring the lines between art and the mass media.

The problem was that I was still entering the pupils for the same CSE examination which, like art and design, was marked internally and then moderated in an exhibition day involving all the local schools and teachers and attended by an external examiner. The work of my pupils did not really fit the criteria and conventions but it wasn’t fair to penalise them on a matter of pedagogical and artistic principle. I would have happily handed back the photography course since I was running art and design as well as taking overall responsibility for all those other arts subjects – fortunately my Headmaster had an answer which might seem surprising in these days of central control.

I was to write a new CSE course, called a mode 3, in “media studies”. What I wrote would not resemble contemporary media studies courses – particularly in its links to contemporary visual arts practice – but I was able to draw on some more typical teaching materials prepared in those pioneering days by the British Film Institute and teachers’ groups from the Inner London Education Authority. I was also fortunate by being in the first local school to have access to a video camera, and by using linked domestic recorders we could some fairly basic editing.

But you may be wondering, what is a mode 3? It was, simply, an examination course written by one teacher for the pupils in that school and approved as part of a subject group with its own external examiner. A few miles away another art teacher (Arthur) had developed a mode 3 in 8mm film animation and we were put together to joint mark the work of our pupils before arriving at regional English subject group meetings that had to moderate any media studies courses.

For the first five years of my career I had been a pretty traditional teacher of drawing, painting, ceramics and art history but now I was simultaneously continuing with that work, developing an innovative course in “new” visual media and learning a great deal about conventions and practices in the teaching of the other arts. It was interesting to take the new photographic work to an English teachers’ moderation meeting because their media studies approach was much more concerned with getting their pupils to carry out largely written projects about mainstream media products – in those days particularly television soap operas, Hollywood movies and so on. They worked around a set of key concepts, studying among other things stars, narrative, genre and audiences. Eventually the British Film Institute (BFI) whose education department was a prime mover in these pedagogical initiatives, published a set of key concepts and questions for teachers developing work in media studies.

The subject is of course a highly contentious one. Conservative (and “conservative”) politicians and media commentators take every opportunity to ridicule it – as they do with most subjects that include ‘studies’ in their title – but this is not really because they consider it trivial or an easy option. It is because media studies is concerned primarily with issues of power, politics, industry and representation. It is not designed to make the powerful comfortable and it also presented a challenge to teachers like me who came to media studies obliquely from a predominantly “creative/expressive” subject background – and incidentally I’m treating those terms as somewhat problematic but to explore that further is for another day.

During the early 1980s, while running this large department, I was becoming increasingly conscious of the pedagogical differences between the various arts subjects – especially where that designation embraced newer subjects like photography and media studies. Then in 1985 I moved out of the day-to-day classroom and went to London as a civil servant to work on the Arts in Schools Project (AiSP).

This was housed at the government’s School Curriculum Development Committee (SCDC) in Notting Hill Gate. SCDC had succeeded the Schools Council, a largely academic research-based approach to pedagogy. By contrast, SCDC stressed the central importance of teachers in the curriculum development process. SCDC ran a number of school-focused projects, for example in mathematics and science and AiSP was one of these, embracing all arts subjects in schools and colleges from 5-18 and working closely with the Arts and Crafts Councils, BFI and other influential organisations. But the principal structure was a collaboration between our central team of five or six people and teachers and advisors out in the local education authorities. In particular, we worked with 18 LEAs from Devon to Kent and Hampshire to North Yorkshire. Typically each central team member liaised with five or six LEAs on a specific theme and they arranged for a group of perhaps a dozen teachers to have “free” time to meet together and work on Curriculum development. Each LEA had at least one full-time coordinator with whom we met as a group and we would also meet regularly with teach LEA group on their territory. The role of the central team was to structure, stimulate, coordinate and summarise all the findings over the three years of the project, and turn these into coherent publications to stimulate further curriculum development across the country.

Three years would take us to the summer of 1988. By the time we got there, Margaret Thatcher’s Education Secretary Kenneth Baker was introducing the National Curriculum from his recent Education Reform Act. A couple of arts subjects – art and music – would have statutory orders, aspects of theatre might appear within English, dance within PE but a hierarchy of arts subjects was established and more significantly, SCDC became the National Curriculum Council. They turned their back on the notion of teacher-led curriculum development and set up subject groups which largely comprised the ‘great and good’ – but very few classroom teachers. AiSP published all its findings, recommendations and ideas and as far as I’m aware they disappeared beneath the new wave of bureaucratic expectations around the National Curriculum.

Nonetheless those of us involved in AiSP took away some very rich experiences and new understandings and for me the most valuable of all was what I learned from the assumptions, beliefs, ambitions and activities of teachers in the various arts subjects

A great deal has been written and said in recent months about the challenges facing arts subjects in the current economic and political climate. The word “creative” is bandied about with some regularity. But underpinning this contemporary discourse is a mistaken assumption that arts teachers are in it together and doing similar things for similar ends. It’s not that simple.

One of my strategies from the days of AiSP when working with groups of teachers for the first time was to ask them to draw on their own memories of schooldays to “imagine” an art class, an English class, a music class and so on. One key point of course was that in the 1980s there were no teachers who could recall media studies as a subject, very few who had ever studied dance and the majority only had memories of drama or theatre as a part of English or as extra-curricular activities. Some of course had been in drama classes as that subject grew rapidly through the 1960s and beyond but it was a mixed response whereas all of them could remember art, music and English classes.

That then was a good place to start and from their specific examples we were able to draw some broad distinctions about teaching in these “creative” subjects. Most of them remembered art lessons as essentially practical; probably two dimensional drawing and painting, perhaps print-making, occasionally ceramics or other three dimensional work. It was rare for initial responses to suggest any specific engagement with the work of the ‘great’ artists. By contrast, English lessons were rarely remembered for opportunities to write ‘creatively’ and more likely to stress the study of literature (“read and discuss”) or lessons in grammar, précis and other technical activities. Literature in this context might mean fiction, poetry or theatre. Music often brought a mixed response – there was certainly singing and at certain ages, music-making with recorders or non-tuned instruments but by secondary school these lessons were more often listening, discussing and writing. Drama lessons seemed to centre on improvised, small-group work on social issues of relevance to young people.

However, by the late 1980s, these teachers were able to share, compare and contrast their collective memories of their own education in the 1960s or 1970s with more detailed examples from their own teaching and the influence of significant practitioners in their subject areas. For example, Art Advisor Rod Taylor had been spearheading an initiative in Critical Studies which focused on introducing young people to the work of notable artists – some from art history hung in galleries but also artists working in residence or meeting students at shows of contemporary art. This was not art history and its principal purpose was to inform and enhance their practical work. However, despite visual evidence of its success, some art educators opposed this initiative, insisting that children’s art was cognitive and developmental and essentially different from Art with a capital A. On the other hand, art teachers like me who had begun to embrace work in new visual technologies and the concerns of media studies, found a tendency in so-called Critical Studies to examine expressive rather than “critical” criteria – the main purpose seemed to be to enhance pupils’ own practical work rather than to explore issues of representation, power or politics. The latter topics were emerging in something then labelled the “New” Art History but that was not finding its way into schools.

There were interesting debates too in drama, where role-play and improvisation was often used principally to enable young people to explore issues of current concern to them. By contrast, those few students who went on to Theatre Arts A-level might suddenly find themselves studying the complex theoretical and practical ideas and texts of Brecht, Piscator, Stanislavski, Pinter, Beckett and others.

These descriptions and distinctions are necessarily somewhat brief and therefore superficial but on the whole they offer a fairly accurate picture. Each subject had its own traditions and status with English at the top of the hierarchy but constantly pressed to deliver basic skills, followed by Art and Music, which now had their own statutory orders. Drama declined from its heyday in the 1960s-1980s but clung on and Dance often depended upon the interests of specific teachers – sometimes from drama, just as often from PE. Media studies and photography found themselves swept up in the massive and rapid shifts in technology that came with the digital revolution of the past quarter of a century.

I have observed that arts subjects are being championed currently in the face of an economic and temporal squeeze on the school curriculum. Those debates beg the question what exactly do we think the arts are for in the school curriculum? In fact there has never been a clear consensus – for example, we might consider that 150 years ago art teaching was essentially drawing copies of drawings to improve the hand-eye coordination of young people who would be the backbone of British industry. It had nothing to do with being ‘creative’ or ‘expressive’ – that would come later. At its heart, we might suggest that all the arts are concerned with forms of “literacy”, where literacy means reading and writing – and in both cases that involves a kind of making. In visual art for example, writing means making images and artefacts while reading is about making meaning from examining images and artefacts. But as we have seen, the balance traditionally has not been consistent, with art generally emphasising “writing” (ie making images) and English more concerned with reading.

It’s a somewhat crude distinction but it holds as a guide for preparing pedagogical practices and my experience on the Arts in Schools Project all those decades ago, suggested that of greatest benefit was encouraging teachers of different arts subjects and ages to share their ideas and practices with each other. Sadly, over the years since then, the idea that teachers might be at the heart of curriculum design and development has gone entirely out of fashion. These days it is the politicians and civil servants who define what happens – and their priorities no longer embrace the arts.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton