Teaching art history in schools today

We talk a lot about getting more young people into museums, into cultural spaces and into a greater understanding of both their own and others’ identities. Yet, simultaneously, we are witnessing the biggest cuts in secondary school funding in generations, and an academic ‘progression’ route which virtually eliminates both choice and the Arts. Is it any wonder that things don’t seem to be going in the right direction?

The charity, Art History in Schools, was set up to tackle the challenge of increasing visual literacy and cultural empathy in schools across the country. First, our efforts got derailed by AQA’s decision to axe the A Level, and are now threatened by the invidious EBacc. (This ranks schools by their students’ performance in Maths, English, Science, History/Geography and Modern Language GCSEs.) Despite mounting evidence of the negative effect on the value and take up of creative subjects, the government remain committed to a ‘target’ that 90% of schools should follow this programme by 2025. As the new, more ‘rigorous’ GCSEs take hold against a backdrop of relentless grade measurement, many schools are increasing their GCSE programme to three years instead of two. This means the Arts get cut another year earlier and also means that an increasing number of Arts teachers (and I include Music and Drama here) are losing their jobs too. So, we now have a situation where few primary school teachers have any specialist Arts training, and Arts are taught in a one hour a week ‘glance’ for just the first two years of secondary school. This single hour is often split in an ill-named ‘carousel’ system, so that the reality is just one term of art, one term of music and one term of drama for our young people. Certainly, no time to develop any skills in that. Nevertheless, this lack of specialist provision has been an effective way to eliminate protest from students and their parents because they never get to realise what they are missing. And spare a thought for the teacher who is trying to teach (and remember) upwards of 400 students in a week!

Despite the despair, we have been hugely encouraged by the desire and recognition from teachers – and some brave heads in schools – who can see the undesirable and short-sighted nature of this trajectory. At Leeds University in the summer, the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies and the Association for Art History hosted 24 teachers on a three-day residential to explore ways of bringing art history into the broad curriculum as a way of teaching diversity, inclusion, resilience and empathy as well as to support and extend the teaching of Art, Modern Foreign Languages, English, History, Politics and Sociology. Ideas were practical and hands-on, as the group responded to architectural briefs; reworkings of 15th century marble commissions; reinterpreted 17th century portraiture requests and thematic links between works from across the globe. All the materials, lesson plans and ideas were given freely and the discussion groups revealed the very clear excitement at the flexibility and potential of this kind of visual learning. This kind of teaching is a far cry from the traditional lecture, but steers a course between the requirements of Ofsted and the high expectations of a generation of individuals who, though young, are more connected than ever before. These links are vitally important, and visual literacy is an all-inclusive tool: access Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ via the Instagram footage of Les Bleues returning home, and the debate around identities, social class, rights, opportunities will be fierce. Then unpick the history of the French Revolution, or of the stylistic priorities of Romanticism, or the impact of the Napoleonic Code, and you get living learning at its best. This approach champions interrogation, investigation and understanding, rather than simply regurgitating ‘the facts’ (and the expectation of a single ‘right’ answer). Use Donald Rodney’s ‘In the House of My Father’ to preface a Biology lesson on sickle cell anaemia and those Year 9 students gazing out of the window in frustration will return to the debate: our human stories are what connects us, and these lessons show the Arts and Sciences united in collaborative progress rather than divided by competition. Art history has to be the most interdisciplinary subject of them all: we need to recognise and celebrate this before it is too late. There will be time enough for young people to become highly specialised academics if they choose later on, but open access to visual literacy and the keys to unlock different readings of the past for all are vital to the creation of a more optimistic future.

Sarah Phillips is Head of Art History at Godalming Sixth Form College and a teacher and writer for Art History in Schools.

Images: ‘Les Bleues’ photo by Paul Offeron of celebrations when France won the football world cup, next to  ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1880) by Eugène Delacroix