A bleak picture for future artists

Many art departments lack the materials and equipment needed to meet th e demands of the national curriculum, says Fran Abrams `You can't afford to fail so you take a safe option, which might not produce great art'
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The Independent Online
It is five years since the Government scrapped plans to make art compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 16, a decision which roused fears that the subject could, along with music and physical education, be squeezed out of the timetable by othe r elements of the national curriculum.

Now there is new evidence of other, less widely predicted cuts in the arts. Pupils in primary schools now spend less than half as much time on arts and crafts as they did in 1985. Meanwhile, in secondary schools, the demand for GCSE art courses has barely declined but pressure on budgets for technology and computing equipment seem to be leaving the creative subjects increasingly starved of cash.

A survey of almost 200 secondary schools' art departments by the National Society for Education in Art and Design shows that increasing numbers are facing budget cuts. In 1993/94 almost half the departments in local authority schools experienced cuts, compared with a quarter in 1992/93 and just 14 per cent in 1991/92.

Only four out of 10 described their accommodation as "good" or "excellent", while six out of 10 said it was "satisfactory" or "poor". Seven out of 10 said their departmental budgets fell into one of the last two categories. The picture in independent andgrant-maintained schools was brighter, with six out of 10 regarding their budgets as good or excellent.

In primary schools the story is no more optimistic. While levels of resources are harder to judge in schools where art specialists and art departments are rare, the subject has certainly dropped down teachers' lists of priorities.

A study published in September by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at London University's Institute of Education showed that time spent on art had dropped dramatically since the introduction of the national curriculum. While seven-year-olds spent a fifth of their time doing art, crafts and construction work in 1985, by 1993 the proportion was down to less than a tenth.

Ironically, a planned new emphasis on the three Rs had failed to materialise, with reading time rising slightly but with writing remaining the same and maths dropping slightly.

The arts are also causing concern among other organisations. While Ofsted, the school inspection body, was broadly happy with the quality of teaching in at least two-thirds of art lessons when it published a survey of the subject in 130 primary and 46 secondary schools a year ago, it did have worries about resources. The inspectors found that a quarter of primary schools lacked sufficient materials and equipment to meet the basic requirements of the national curriculum, and that more than half had inadequate accommodation.

In secondary schools they reported that while painting and drawing were well provided for, crafts and sculpture were less so. Few departments had received extra funding to help them implement the national curriculum and fewer than half had sufficient information technology resources for art work.

The Secondary Heads' Association has launched a survey of resources and curriculum time given to the arts in secondary schools. John Horn, a past president who is co-ordinating the work, says the association hopes to encourage schools to give the subjectarea a higher priority. His early findings show that more schools seem to be increasing the time they allocate to the arts than are reducing it, but the subjects still needs support, he says.

"We definitely feared that the arts were being squeezed and that the time allocation was being reduced," he says. "I would say the picture emerging isn't as black as we anticipated."

John Steers, general secretary of the NSEAD, says the picture is complex. But it is becoming clear that the arts are not a high priority for schools at the moment, and extra staffing needed to teach sculpture and art history is not being made available.

Schools are tending to play safe, he says, and are having to gear their lessons increasingly towards exam success. In a coursework-based subject such as art, every piece of work counts.

"Students lose the opportunity to have a go at something and fail," he says. "You can't afford to do that, so you take a safe option which doesn't necessarily produce great art."