Students fight for sacked anatomy teacher

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The Independent Online
ONE of Britain's leading artists has backed an art students' campaign to stop one of the last remaining teachers of anatomy being sacked by their college, writes Suzanna Chambers.

Leonard McComb, Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, has criticised the Working Men's College, which has decided that Joan Hargreaves, who is in her 70s, should give up her classes because of her age.

Ms Hargreaves has been running an anatomy, life and movement class at the college in Camden, north London, for several years.

Anatomy lessons have not featured in the vast majority of art schools and colleges since the Sixties, when they were deemed to be unfashionable and unnecessary. Finding teachers who offered anatomical training is consequently a rarity, and all the teachers are elderly.

"Her class is very, very unusual and I would definitely support its continuation," Mr McComb said.

Ms Hargreaves, who trained at the Royal College of Art, is part of the old school which valued anatomy, and her classes have proved very popular.

Last week the college, which boasts that its purpose is "to increase educational opportunities for adults" - regardless of their age - told the students that the anatomy lessons were going to stop because Ms Hargreaves was too old. Its decision, taken without consulting pupils or Ms Hargreaves, has infuriated students.

"The class was not designed for beginners because the models move around quite a bit and the work is quite quick," said Natasha Hodson, 53, who has been going to the classes for more than two years. "Life-drawing classes are getting much fewer now and a lot are closing. [Ms Hargreaves] also gives us drawings of muscle groups and gets us to draw anatomically. It is a very good drawing skill because it helps to train your eye."

News that Ms Hargreaves was being forced to take retirement was broken to her students through a letter sent by the college asking for a whip- round to buy a leaving present.

Ms Hodson is adamant that the college will never be able to find anyone to replace her. "They say the class will begin again after the summer break but they haven't said who the teacher will be and we know they won't be able to get anyone else like her

When asked why teachers like Ms Hargreaves were being made to retire at 70, the college said it was "to avoid embarrassment".

Ms Hodson said: "They said they didn't want to get to the stage where the teacher gets incompetent. We think it's disgusting."Fellow pupil Barbara Stewart said she was "devastated" by Ms Hargreaves's retirement. "I am very upset about it. The college's reason for Joan's leaving is fairly feeble."

But the college is unlikely to bend the rules for anyone. Jon Parry, the vice-principal, said: "The college governing body has taken the decision that part-time teachers over 70 like Joan will have to retire. Seventy is a reasonable age for people to retire. We are not being ageist."

If a suitable teacher could not be found to replace Ms Hargreaves, the class would be stopped altogether, he admitted. "We are hoping to find someone, but if we don't the course will not run. There is no indication that people want the class to the extreme. All colleges get letters from students saying, `Don't shut my course'."

However, Ms Hargreaves and her students have indicated that they do very much want the class to continue. They have written letters and called for meetings with management at the college, stressing the uniqueness of the course.

Ms Hargreaves said she had been "shocked" by the unexpected news that her services were no longer required. "I didn't get much warning that I was being sacked. I got told to say I was retiring."

She said that because anatomy had not been taught for more than 40 years in most colleges, any teacher qualified would be aged 60 or over. "The college don't realise that. It's not like English literature or French."

She and her pupils have pledged to fight the college's decision, finding another venue to hold the class if necessary.