Elisa Reynolds: Art is about creativity, so why was mine crushed?

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The Independent Online

Two years ago, when I was choosing my GCSE options, art seemed like a great idea. My other 10 subjects were all inherently academic, and I thought that art GCSE would allow my creative side an outlet in the midst of all the hardcore academia that I was undertaking. I had heard vague whispers from older students that art was a "a killer subject", but I ignored them: how could it be that hard? I had always enjoyed painting and drawing, and I thought art would be my refuge from a world of essays, calculations and in-depth analysis.

It was only a couple of weeks into the course that I realised what art GCSE is really all about about – copying other artists' work and conducting laborious, tedious research on them. I found myself spending hours scouring the internet for information on an unknown artist who came from an unknown tribe in the heart of Africa. Where is the creativity in that?

The other thing that disappointed me was that a lot of our work was just copying photocopies from art books. Most of us managed to keep up to date for the first month, but, after that, my peers began falling behind with the subject. As each piece of work took, on average, four to five hours, once you fell behind, it was very hard to get back on track.

It was a dispiritingly mechanical process that meant you didn't have to be good at painting or drawing to get your coursework done – you just had to be a motivated hard worker (which most teenagers aren't). Every week, we were told exactly what to do and how to do it, and our creativity became so contrived and controlled that the enjoyment simply faded.

The art department at our school is notoriously high achieving – but the teachers put expression second after hard slog. If this is the price for top grades, then I don't think it's a price worth paying.

"Quantity, not quality" sums up art GCSE. Getting an A* depends on how much work you do, not how good it is, and this means that really talented students – many of whom produce brilliantly creative work, but fewer high-quality pedestrian copies than the conscientious students – don't receive the grades they deserve. I can't fathom how the exam boards justify this.

Could it be that art GCSE suffers from an inferiority complex because it has previously not been seen as a serious subject? In its desperate quest to prove this stereotype wrong, art GCSE has strayed far away from the ideals of freedom and self-expression that should be at the heart of the subject.

Apart from all the hard work and the wasted hours, the real tragedy is that it has put me, and many of my contemporaries, off the thought studying art at all. I always wanted to do art A-level, because it's relevant to many of the careers I'm interested in – but I really can't face another two years of being consumed by it. Many people I know have decided that they would rather cultivate their creative qualities outside school, on the grounds that they haven't been allowed to flourish in the classroom.

Studying art has caused me, and everyone I know who has studied the subject for GCSE, considerable stress. In the weeks leading up to my art exam at the end of April, I was continuously tired, because art was taking up so much of my time. The inevitable result was that revision for all of my other 10 GCSE subjects has been neglected. During those last couple of weeks, I've been working all the time, taking days off school and staying up into the early hours of the morning, with only pencils, paints and industrial amounts of coffee to help me finish my artwork. The other art students in my class all recognise that particular stage of exhaustion you reach where you absent-mindedly start dipping your paintbrush into your tea.

Studying art for GCSE has numbed my artistic tendencies to a point where art no longer holds any appeal. The prescriptive and formal way in which the subject is taught at secondary schools needs to change dramatically.

The writer is a 16-year-old pupil at a popular comprehensive school in south London. She is writing under a pseudonym