TAITMAIL Taking a byte out of the curriculum for art

Andria Zafirakou is the Brent secondary school art teacher who became famous in 2018 by winning the $1m Global Art Teacher Prize and ploughing her prize money back into her vocation: teaching art

“The Best Teacher in the World” The Guardian dubbed her. She sees arts and creativity as the bedrock of sound education in a multi-cultural society. “I can see from the work that I do in my school that the arts are a lifeline” she says.

But she is resisting despair as she watches art being consistently pushed out of teaching: “We are on the brink of deskilling our students on a massive scale”.

Why? There are acknowledged truths that art teaching is a whole world more than simply applying pencil to paper, and research statistics back them up: participation in the arts can increase cognitive activities by 17%; learning through arts and culture develops skills in children and improves behaviour; students from low income families that take part in arts activities are three times more likely to get a degree; just short of one in eight UK businesses are creative, 95% of them employing nine or fewer people. And, what should be a clincher for government bean counters, the creative industries delivered £115bn in gross value added to the UK economy in 2019, more than aerospace, the automotive industries, life sciences and oil and gas put together, and the sector was growing four times faster than the economy as a whole.

Yet since 2010 there has been a 28% decline in GCSE arts entries; between 2012 and 2017 the number of hours that art is taught in state schools went down by 16.5%; two-thirds of primary school teachers in England say there is less arts education now than in 2010, half say the quality of what there is has declined; there are 20% fewer art teachers in secondary schools since 2010; 97% of National Union of Teachers members said that an arts-lite SATS preparation did not give children proper access to a broad and balanced curriculum. 

In 2019 the Durham Commission, a joint research collaboration between Durham University and Arts Council England, published a report. “All schools” it said “from early years to post-16 education should be better enabled to support the promotion of creativity for all young people, whatever their background. Teaching for creativity should be practised across the curriculum and accessed by all. It should not be confined to certain subjects; creativity in science is different to creativity in drama but is valuable in both”. It called for all agencies from the DfeE and Ofsted to the BBC and ACE to work with teachers, parents, carers and employers to “enable a positive shift in the way teachers teach and children learn, which will nurture creativity”.  

So in its 2019 election manifesto the Conservative Party responded by announcing a budget commitment of a £270m arts premium for schools. Less than a year later it was on indefinite hold “due to the focus on new priorities as a result of the Covid-19”. 

Opposition politicians led by Keir Starmer, teachers, even Tate, have waded in to try to get the government to shift and put into action a professed recognition that the value and importance of art and creativity in education at all levels. Last year’s 50% cut in university level arts education funding was described by the Public Campaign for the Arts as “an attack on the future of UK arts, the creative potential of the next generation, and the people who deliver our world-leading arts courses”.

But what can you do? Well, something, and the story behind this week’s presentation of the first Art Bytes national awards for primary and secondary school children shows that you can push back against political indifference, insincerity and downright ignorance to show what art in schools can do. It hasn’t happened overnight.

 This story starts in Liverpool with something modestly called dot-art, an independent gallery founded in 2006 by Lucy Byrne, who had just graduated with an art history degree, to connect the public with creativity and artists through courses (there’s one on “How To Cartoon Your Pet”) and links with other galleries,. It went on to showcase artists’ work at different venues and ten years ago (I said it wasn’t overnight) she was approached by an art teacher who felt that the arts were being side-lined in her secondary school and wanted Byrne to enter a realm she knew nothing about by creating a showcase for pupils’ art. It was launched a year later as dot-art Schools and since then 10,000 kids have participated.

“It’s a simple approach and wide coverage meant that schools saw incredible benefits for their students with very little input from them – teachers told us from day one that although they valued the arts, they simply didn’t have any spare capacity” Byrne says. “So we didn’t have a theme, meaning work that was being created in school anyway could be submitted, and took as much of the work as possible away from the teachers; they just photograph and upload student artwork and we do the rest.”

When Covid descended on us dot-art was looking for the next move for its schools programme, a national one, and teamed up with EdTech, the hub dedicated to propagating the use of digital technology in education, to create a hybrid that replaced the physical exhibition with a virtual one, but getting face-on with audiences by teaming up with major venues across England to hold smaller prize giving events where, as Byrne puts it, “the doors to the digital gallery would virtually open, and national and regional winners would be announced”.

The planning had to go on hold for six months, but the collaborators realised that the format was ideal for the post pandemic world and in February 2021, the middle of the third lockdown, Art Bytes was launched coming to fruition 18 months later. Ninety-six schools across nine English regions were recruited and you can see that art at the Art Bytes Virtual Gallery, artbytes.co.uk/virtual-gallery-2022. The venue partners for this first run have been the Camden Arts Centre; the Arnolfini in Bristol; Modern Art Oxford; the Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire; the Whitworth in Manchester; Baltic, Gateshead (pictured); Leeds Art Gallery; Derby QUAD; and the New Art Gallery, Walsall.

The winners in the two age groups come from Manchester and London but there are also runners up and nine regional winners.

“Wow!” said Marlene Wylie, president-elect of the National Society for Education in Art & Design, one of the judges. “What an achievement, it is excellent knowing that close to 100 schools have participated nationally in this competition. I remember vividly my experience of taking part in competitions at school and the important part it played in receiving recognition for something I was passionate about. Opportunities like this allows young people to develop, self-esteem, confidence and a sense of achievement. I am delighted to be involved in such important work.”

Recruitment for Year 2, Byrne says, has already started with a target of at least 200 schools this time with communities, schools, children, parents, and arts venues together finding ways to negate the effects of the lacuna in the official curriculum. “The feedback we are receiving demonstrates that the programme has translated perfectly from the local to national scale and we are very excited about the future” she says. 

“We make a big thing of it in the hall” said one teacher. “You know, it’s just amazing how the whole school gets caught up in it. So I saw it and signed up for it and my head was fully behind it, and we've been there ever since”.

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