Education: Art evolves into a class of its own: The modern world has given children greater 'visual literacy'. Diana Hinds looks at new approaches to creativity in schools

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The Independent Online
'LET'S go picture-making,' the art teacher at my secondary school used to tell us, a large grin on her face, as she distributed the powder paints and all-too-familiar pieces of A3 sugar paper. But her benevolent approach failed to inspire many of the 13- and 14-year-olds sitting in front of her, and perhaps as a result only a small minority opted for art O-level.

Art, in those days, was not regarded by many people as a serious subject, particularly in the more academically inclined schools. At my school it was almost an extra, something you fitted in if you had time on top of your other subjects. It became the province of the few pupils with exceptional artistic talent, the ones 'who could draw'.

Although such attitudes persist in some places, for many schools they are anathema. It is not unusual to find substantial displays of high-quality art work in secondary schools, or flourishing art departments recruiting two-thirds of their 14-year-olds for GCSE and 30 or more candidates for A-level.

One of the reasons for this, according to some teachers, is that art has become a more 'respectable' subject with schools and parents. Career possibilities in related fields have widened - graphic design, industrial design and teaching, for example. Others argue that the past 10 to 20 years have seen a significant increase in the volume of information conveyed visually, and that this has contributed to a greater 'visual literacy' in young people. Pupils now have greater access to art books, videos and exhibitions, which all help to improve their visual awareness.

But while today's pupils may have a keener interest in the visual arts, that does not necessarily make them better artists, according to Vincent Stokes, head of art at Marlborough College, Wiltshire, where a quarter of the sixth form are taking art A-level.

'They don't necessarily know how to read images better - and it's important that they learn to be critical of the images thrown at them. Another problem is that they are so used to scanning images that they find it very difficult to look at things contemplatively. In their own work, some of them tend to want an immediate result - if it looks punchy that's good enough, and if it's going to be a struggle they don't want to know.'

The quality of art teaching at secondary level, the resources available and the status of art departments in schools still vary widely. But Roy Prentice, chair of the department of art and design at the London Institute of Education, believes that the GCSE art exam and the national curriculum for art, implemented last year, offer a broader approach to the subject and a useful framework for redressing disparities between schools.

GCSE art stresses the importance of working from direct observation, researching and investigating the work of other artists, and using that as a basis for experimenting with different media and developing personal work. Vassos Papas, head of lower-school art at Acland Burghley School, a comprehensive in north London well known for its art work, says: 'With O-level art, you could get a grade A by doing pretty pictures. But with GCSE you get an A by having an idea, developing it, and showing an awareness of other people's art.'

In enlightened art departments, this broader approach to the subject encompasses a less exclusive notion of what drawing is - helping to avoid the traditional 'I can't draw' lament from pupils who then decide that art is not for them.

'Drawing is very important, but there are lots of different ways of doing it,' says Joe Kusner, head of art at Acland Burghley. 'You don't have to draw with a pencil, for example. When children find a medium they are comfortable with, they find their niche and discover they can draw and record what they're seeing.'

The early art education provided by primary schools is crucial in fostering a thoughtful approach to the subject. Keith Gentle, in his book Teaching Painting in the Primary School, says a common problem in infant classrooms is that painting at the easel is presented as a sort of relaxation or reward for finishing set work, and there is little or no discussion about the experience of painting, thus restricting the chance of the child's work developing.

The national curriculum for art requires two main strands of work: 'investigating and making'; and 'knowledge and understanding', which draws on the work of other artists. But because of the heavy curriculum load on other subjects, many primary schools say they have not yet had time to concentrate on the requirements for art. They admit that the subject is being squeezed.

Mr Prentice says there is a far greater unevenness in the quality of art teaching at primary level than at secondary, and believes most primary teachers and trainees are anxious about their ability to teach the national curriculum for art. 'The primary schools where art has flourished over the last 20 years are those where there has been a curriculum co-ordinator for art, with a specialist knowledge of the subject.'

Another challenge facing art teachers at both primary and secondary level is the rise of technology, which demands large amounts of curriculum time and in some schools is threatening to engulf art altogether. 'It's vital that art should make a positive contribution to technology, but at the same time it must retain its own identity,' says Mr Prentice.