Jenny and the vanishing art classes

Jenny and the vanishing art classes

How does it feel to be head  of art in a school where  creative subjects aren’t valued, redundancies are underway  and you’re teaching subjects well  outside your specialism?

Jenny (not her real name) is 45 years old and disillusioned. She’s been teaching art at a state secondary school somewhere in England for 20 years .  A head of department, she also teaches some classes in English, history, personal social health and economic education (PSHE)  and religious education (RE). These are subjects  she hasn’t studied since her own O level days.

Her local authority school  was forced into becoming an academy because it was  failing. It has been taken over by another academy  and from September  becomes part of a two-school  multi-academy trust (MAT).

Jenny doesn’t believe her creative skills are valued. “The students appreciate it, but at a level above that – a level above me – management don’t appreciate what goes on in the classroom.  All the creative subjects at our place are located right at the back of the building. No-one comes.”

There is a “complete lack of interest”  at management level  in the work of her department, she says. “We get paraded out when people want to show the ‘amazing’ stuff that goes on. But on a day to day basis it’s not appreciated at all.”

What impact will this change to being part of a MAT  have on the provision of creative subjects, in her view?  The hours allocated to art and other creative subjects are being reduced at Key Stage Three  (ages  11-14) from September.

She added:  “We’ve  lost an hour a fortnight  (for art) for key Stage 3. That’s equivalent to a part-time member of staff.  My groups for AS and A level are being put together to reduce classes. Music and drama are also being dropped from two hours a fortnight to one hour a fortnight for Key Stage Three.”

Jenny says the loss of hours for creative subjects and reduction in the number of classes is not a sudden new development, but has become more common recently  –  “especially since the English Baccalaureate (EBacc)  came in”.  The government wants all pupils who began  Year  7 (11 year olds) last September to take five core  EBacc subjects – maths, English, Science, a language and history or geography – at GCSE. The EBacc is not a qualification as such, but schools will be measured on and held accountable for the proportion of pupils who take the subjects.

Jenny says she’s always had to teach a few lessons a week that have been outside her specialism such as PHSE or RE. “But in the last four or five years it’s gradually building up. I’ve taught history, and I’ve taught English to a bottom set  of  low ability students. It  just  happens to be a group  that I also teach art to. They like that they get to do an extra lesson of art, but we have been using it to engage them in their English a bit more.

“I have taught history to a bottom set  Year 9, It’s thought they are not going to be choosing it anyway, so it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a specialist (teacher). Some-one else is making an assumption that they are not going to be choosing to continue with history.”

She says she is being asked to teach challenging  groups of pupils subjects she has not trained in. “I don’t even have A levels in these subjects, because I went on and did a BTEC after O levels. These students are getting a teacher who only has the equivalent of an O level in English, History or RE.”

Morale at the school is low because of a number of voluntary and compulsory redundancies involving support staff .  “That includes office, admin, teaching assistants and technicians. They are having a really big cull on those.

“The atmosphere in the school is awful at the moment. We’ve already had 12 teaching assistants told they  will go at the end of the year. We’ve got other technicians and support staff who have gone and who won’t be replaced. We’ve got 12 staff in the admin office doing a huge variety of jobs and they are going down to five jobs. They are having to pitch themselves against each other when they apply for jobs.”

Teachers  in subjects including technology, drama, and outdoor education are leaving  and not being replaced. “So we’ve had a reduction in time in design and technology lessons as well as PE. The attitude of those making the decisions is that these are hobbies and kids can do that at home.”

In art, four groups are going into GCSE classes from September. But she says very few of the pupils who are most able at art have opted to do art. When many of the best students tried to opt to study it, “they have been told they shouldn’t take it as it’s not seen as a good qualification to have when they want to get into a Russell Group University”.

This week  MPs debated the decision by the government to leave expressive arts subjects out of the EBacc. During the debate Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on art, craft and design in education, made a cross-party case for promoting the creative arts in schools.  She said “all of these (creative arts) subjects provide a space for young people to push boundaries, widen their horizons and explore what it means to be human”.

Creative industries contributed an estimated £84.1 billion to the UK economy last year, she added. She concluded  that the “EBacc’s narrow-minded approach and prescriptive nature is sadly leaving very little space for creative subjects to flourish.”

Jenny’s experience offers a look at the consequences  for pupils and teachers at one school  of the new focus on EBacc subjects.

These include fewer opportunities for younger secondary pupils to find out if expressive arts are their strength, talented pupils being actively discouraged from studying art to GCSE level and the skills and experience  of well-qualified specialist teachers going to waste. Finally, what’s the impact on the pupils being taught by teachers without any qualifications in a subjects beyond a rusty O level? How many of those young students aged 11-14  will lose faith altogether in the value of education?