Art & Design in Focus
By Sasha Kanal
The world today is a vastly different place to what it was in 1988. That was the year the Education Reform Act was introduced, followed shortly after by a national curriculum that would change the way Britain’s children received their education.
One area of thinking behind this new era was that some subjects, such as metalwork, woodwork, electronics and home economics, should no longer be standalone entities on the curriculum. The new thinking called for an education that encouraged the nation’s future workers to think and act flexibly and creatively.
This meant that topics covering art, craft, design and technology were taught in a more coordinated way. A school pupil would now be required to draw upon a wide range of skills, inputs and influences to achieve.
A generation on and after countless updates and revisions, what do today’s Sussex school children actually study when it comes to art and design? How does 21st century learning help children develop a deeper understanding of concepts? And how do they apply skills learned in one subject to other tasks?
Designs for Life
Design Technology (DT) is compulsory in UK schools until the age of 14 and amalgamates many different skill requirements and disciplines to achieve an end result. Secondary school pupils studying DT are, amongst other things, called upon to mine their imaginations and creativity to design and make products within a variety of real and everyday contexts. Cooking and nutrition also come under the DT mantel, with the aim of helping youngsters understand the principles of a healthy diet and food provenance. Often drawing on a wide range of disciplines such as maths, science, engineering and art, pupils studying DT can potentially gain a broad knowledge of other subjects in the process. For example, a Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14) project to design and create metal badges based on the designs of ancient civilizations incorporates history, practical soldering techniques, chemistry and ICT in the form of Computer Aided Design (CAD).
Similarly, a recent DT competition project undertaken by a school just outside Haywards Heath involved the design and manufacture of a school biscuit to be sold at their summer fair. The processes the children were exposed to were manifold, learning about food technology, hygiene and handling, as well as healthy eating messages and daily calorie and fat allowances. They learned through trial and error how best to package their product, before presenting their finished item to a team of experts who judged the winner.
For many of these 11 year olds, this was their initial foray into the world of marketing, as well as their first ever time presenting to outside professionals other than their teachers. The skills gained from projects like these are obvious. Working as a team, problem solving, resourcefulness and risk-taking are all things that translate well to the real world and the workplace. Indeed, many design industry leaders have voiced their concerns over DT being only an optional subject in KS4. This has prompted debate about the future of design in the UK and the impact on the economy of marginalizing its study in schools and beyond.
It’s not just secondary schools that can benefit from design topics. For younger pupils aged 5-7, a structured, goal-oriented, themed task (such as the design and making of a felt bag for Little Red Riding Hood by one Sussex primary) can help them make sense of the world and put their learning into a context that they understand. Crucially, it also gives them their first exposure to the concepts of self-discipline and critical thinking.
Art for Art’s Sake
Research has shown that teaching art and craft to children from a young age can have a positive impact on their cognitive, emotional, social and sensory motor development. Art can excite a pupil’s imagination, acting as a conduit for them to express their feelings. Studying art can also encourage children to develop original ideas, learn about other cultures and consider another person’s point of view. It is multi-faceted so can cut across the curriculum, giving children the potential to become open to new pathways for learning. Like DT, art and design is mandatory in schools until the end of Key Stage 3, with painting, drawing and sculpture all on the menu. As well as learning about different artistic techniques and honing their own, as they progress through the key stages, pupils are taught about the great artists, architects and major art movements of the past and present day.
A recent Year 7 project at a Lindfield school saw children investigate the confectionary industry and it’s variety of offerings, before creating their own composition and then embarking on an acrylic painting of their product. Says Head of Art at the school, “Looking at sweets provided the children with a contemporary theme and unsurprisingly they were very enthusiastic! The project encouraged the pupils to explore and develop the visual world around them, building valuable life skills and creative techniques. Art provides every pupil with another important means of communication within an inspiring and nurturing environment.”
If we’ve learned one thing about the national curriculum it’s that it is constantly in reform, and it would be reasonable to expect more change. But with the ability to adapt and remain current, schools in Sussex seem well placed to cope with this and will no doubt continue to offer art and design both imaginatively and successfully for future generations.