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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Calls for review of art education
Tracey Emin's bed
Tracey Emin's bed: No drawing required
Is the teaching of art in schools and universities as good as it might be?

The English education system is not teaching children enough about art and is preventing their visual literacy from developing, experts say.

While children as young as three in Italy or Spain are regularly taken to art galleries, children in England are missing out on a discipline which provides young minds with crucial visual and conceptual skills, they say.

"The art education curriculum in England must be totally reviewed," said the general secretary of the National Society for Education in Art and Design, Dr John Steers.

The secondary school curriculum was focused on basic numeracy and literacy.

"The government must decide: do we want an education system that prepares students to be clerks or do we want an education system that allows students the chance to pursue more far-reaching occupations such as in the arts?"


The government prided itself on its art institutions and galleries such as Tate Modern, and UK universities had a very strong reputation internationally.

schoolgirls at Royal Academy
Gallery visits are time-consuming
"But art teaching in secondary education is still very poor as teachers are not allowed to take chances in what they teach," he said.

Teachers complain that there is too little flexibility and a lack of scope in the secondary school curriculum in general - and in art education in particular.

They say the current system demands that teachers continually assess students as well as conduct tests for league tables.

Chris Keates, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, said: "Art and other creative subjects have been relegated in many schools' curriculums as teachers are forced to meet the government's agenda to raise standards in English, maths and science.

Teachers 'overloaded'

"Schools often deliver these subjects in out-of-hours classes, which adds to the pressure and workload of pupils and teachers.

Students want to learn drawing or practical skills such as illustration but find they are simply not being taught

Art magazine editor David Lee
"Teachers have also been overloaded by the rigorous assessment demands in subjects such as GCSE art," she said.

"As students' work tends to be one-off pieces, teachers must write reams of supplementary evidence to support their assessment."

And she said the loss of creative subjects in schools was widely believed to have had a detrimental impact on pupil behaviour.

'What art education?'

But some commentators in the arts think art education is a travesty of what it should be.

According to David Lee, editor of The Jackdaw art magazine: "Art education in Britain is an oxymoron because it is so bad.

"It just doesn't take place at either a school or college level."

He said the teachers employed now in schools and universities were the products of an education system that focused on conceptual art and relativism.

Conceptual art is readily recognized in works by artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, where the concept or idea of an art object is what is important, not the execution or technique.

Lack of basic skills

Born out of philosophies of the 1960s, and now absorbed into most art and humanity syllabuses in higher education, relativism preaches that all points of view are equally important. The idea grew up alongside conceptual art.

Paris painting
Things are different in France
"I get two or three letters each week from students at university studying art complaining of exactly this problem," David Lee said.

"They want to learn drawing or practical skills such as illustration but find they are simply not being taught these skills."

He does not argue that all conceptual art is bad.

"But if you want to learn any other form of art, such as illustration or restoration, you will probably do very badly at college as it is not given credence.

"You may even fail as a result."


Poor calibre students and tuition resulted in low quality graduates and teachers - and so on, he said.

Anna Somers Cocks, editor of The Art Newspaper, said her daughter was studying art at Camberwell where "the range of teaching subjects is excellent".

But in general she agreed.

"The real problem of teaching at the moment in this period of postmodernism is the reluctance of most teachers to express any kind of value judgement.

"This is the difficulty of relativism that is the heart of postmodern teaching. There is a lack of critical assessment as a result."

Cultural issue

Even so, more intensive teaching in art schools does not necessarily mean a more art-enriched population.

"Italy is probably the most art-rich country but few teachers of art are prepared or trained in any shape or form.

Teachers need to feel that they can take chances

John Steers, society for education in art
"It is more a case of students from a very young age being taken to see art in art galleries and developing their visual sense."

David Lee said: "Any parent knows that a child's visual sense develops with her or his verbal sense.

"But the art education system in the UK prevents this from continuing. It just doesn't happen and is so poor.

"In countries such as France visual culture is much higher prized.

"Most families will have an original painting on the walls, but not in the UK. The best a British family can do is hang a print of The Hayfields on the wall."

Need for overhaul

So how can the government improve matters?

"This system will continue in perpetuity until someone in government realises how undervalued visual literacy is. Really it's about funding," said Lee.

"Firstly, schools and universities need more funding and secondly our national museums need to be on a sound financial footing.

"No cultural or education minister has addressed this problem yet.

"As the system is, a lot of teachers are teaching a lot of children nothing at all."

John Steers of the National Society for Education in Art and Design said: "We need a total review of the curriculum.

"Basically little has changed in the school curriculum since the 1880s, with a focus on numeracy and literacy.

"Teachers need to feel that they can take chances and be more creative in the classroom."

See also:

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