primary arts are in trouble

This is a piece that Pat has just written for a forthcoming NUT publication on primary assessment.

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The national curriculum guidelines affirm the value of cultural education for all children. The arts – including art and design, music, dance, drama and media arts, design and technology – are an integral part of the national curriculum up to age 14. The guidelines for art, craft and design for example begin by stating that these subjects “embody some of the highest forms of human creativity” and that a “high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge pupils, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works of art, craft and design” (Department for Education, 2013).

The four domains of cultural education – knowledge, the development of analytic and critical skills, skills based in particular arts forms, and the development of personal creativity – are to be fostered through a formal school programme, as well as informal opportunities. Influential arts advocates John Sorrell, Paul Roberts and Darren Henley argue that a commitment to cultural education also means that all children should, for instance, engage with artists, visit a wide range of cultural institutions, enjoy extra-curricular arts activities and experience the pleasures of being audience, participant and producer (Sorrell, Roberts, & Henley, 2014).

There is research which shows that cultural education offers even more than subject-based learning. The arts support children to build a wide range of communication skills, to exercise responsible leadership, to learn and practice team work and to take initiative (Thomson, Coles, Hallewell, & Keane, 2014). Research also suggests that primary schools with robust cultural education programmes have improved attendance (Cooper, Benton, & Sharp, 2011; Durbin et al., 2010) and a more positive school ethos (Bragg & Manchester, 2011); teachers and students alike have a greater sense of well-being (McLellan, Galton, Steward, & Page, 2012).

There seems every reason for primary schools to embrace the arts enthusiastically. Cultural education is part of what they are meant to do, and has well evidenced positive benefits.  Yet a comprehensive primary cultural education offer is not the reality.

The regime of national tests, with their overwhelming emphasis on particular types of literacy acquisition, makes it very difficult for schools and teachers to offer the broad and balanced cultural learning experiences envisaged in the national curriculum and by cultural education advocates. The most recent survey by the National Society for Art and Design Education (2016) for example showed that

89% of primary teacher respondents in all state schools indicated that in the last five years, and in the two terms before key stage 2 National curriculum tests (year 6), the time allocated for art and design had reduced. In contrast, a decrease in time was reported by only 54% of independent school art and design respondents.

In practice this meant that:

35% of key stage 1 respondents in state primary schools and 63% in independent primary schools said pupils in their schools access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

 31% of key stage 2 respondents in state primary schools and 70% in independent schools said pupils in their school access curriculum time for art and design for one hour a week on average.

This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extra-curricular arts activities for their children (The Sutton Trust, 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting & Ipsos MORI, 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlement to arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Some primary schools of course have not reduced their emphasis on cultural education. They make sure that time for the arts is not eroded by test preparation. They employ a primary arts specialist as part of their core staff complement. They use Arts Mark as a framework to manage time spent on creative and cultural education, commissioning artists and arts organisations to work in partnership with them. They employ arts specialists to provide programmes which then release teachers for planning time. They use their pupil premium funding to ensure that children from low income homes are able to participate in extra-curricular activities and excursions. They are in regions or cities where there is additional support for cultural and creative education, perhaps one of the fifty Cultural Education Partnerships recently established by Arts Council England [1].

But cultural education should not be left to accidents of geography or the commitment of individual schools, governors and teachers, any more than it should be the gift of parents who can afford it. Education policy-makers in England must do better and do more to ensure that all children, regardless of their situation, are able to “participate fully in cultural and artistic life’. This means, as Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Children puts it,  that government must take deliberate steps to “encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity”[2].

The national curriculum expresses the learning that is important for the next generation, it spells out the kinds of learnings that are fundamental to our society and are an entitlement for all children. As imperfect as the national curriculum now is, it still has the arts as foundational learning. Policy-makers must do more than set out guidelines – they must make the outcomes achievable. Testing regimes and care-less policy are currently pushing schools away from ensuring that cultural and creative education is available to everyone. This is both inequitable and unacceptable.

References

Bragg, S., & Manchester, H. (2011). Creativity, school ethos and the Creative Partnerships Programme. London: Creativity, Culture and Education.

Cooper, L., Benton, T., & Sharp, C. (2011). The impact of Creative Partnerships on attainment and attendance in 2008-9 and 2009-10. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

Department for Education. (2013). Art and design programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2. National curriculum in England. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239018/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_Art_and_design.pdf: Department for Education.

Durbin, B., Butt, S., Saltini, F., Sharp, C., Teeman, D., & White, K. (2010). The impact of Creative Partnerships on school attainment and attendance. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

McLellan, R., Galton, M., Steward, S., & Page, C. (2012). The impact of Creative Partnerships on the wellbeing of children and young people. Newcastle: Creativity, Culture and Education.

National Society for Art and Design Education. (2016). NSEAD Survey Report 2015-2016. http://www.nsead.org/downloads/survey.pdf. Accessed August 24, 2016: NSEAD.

Sorrell, J., Roberts, P., & Henley, D. (2014). The virtuous circle. Why creativity and culture count. London: Elliott &Thompson.

SQW Consulting, & Ipsos MORI. (2013). Evaluation of the Find Your Talent programme: Baseline quantitative findings from ten Find Your Talent patfinder programmes. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/le/182401/DFERR089.pdf: DCMS.

The Sutton Trust. (2014). Research brief: Extra-curricul inequality, . http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Extracurricular-inequality.pdf: The Sutton Trust.

Thomson, P., Coles, R., Hallewell, M., & Keane, J. (2014). A critical review of the Creative Partnerships archive: how was cultural value understood, researched and evidenced? Swindon: Arts and Humanities Research Council.http://www.creativitycultureeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Critical-Review-of-the-Creative-Partnerships-Archive.pdf

Notes:

[1] http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/sites/default/files/download-file/Cultural_Education_Partnerships_20.10.15.pdf

[2] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Publication-pdfs/UNCRC_PRESS200910web.pdf

the Ball Run factory

Earlier this year Roma Patel and Louisa Penfold were approached by the Lakeside Arts Centre to develop a children’s creative play environment that embodied the theme of ‘invention’ as part of the annual Wheee! International Children’s Theatre and Dance Festival (June 4 & 5 2016). We were interested in constructing a space that people of all ages could explore through collaboratively making and playing. The parameters of the family festival required us to design an activity that could be accessed at multiple levels of complexity and therefore relatively open-ended in nature.

The idea of building a Ball Run Factory came to us after seeing the work of the Tinkering Studio and makerspaces that design creative activities for children at the intersection of art, science and technology. We also thought it could be a fun to explore the concept of a ‘creative factory’ in Nottingham with the strong industrial history of the East Midlands. We were particularly interested in exploring these ideas with an early years and art-based framework.

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In our practice as artists, and within our PhD research, Roma and I have both been drawn to Simon Nicholson’s theory of ‘loose parts’ [1] in which artists and architects construct a creative environment which includes an assortment of materials which can be used, transformed and manipulated in a large variety of ways.

Ball Run Factory was split into two parts. The first was a dedicated area for babies and toddlers featuring a cardboard ‘factory’ with tubes and plastic pipes extending out of it. The pipes and tubing were designed in such a way that children and their parents could move them and roll different balls down, allowing for the space to become a place of continuous transformation. The second area of The Factory was a much larger space where older children could use recycled and quirky materials such as cardboard tubes, plumbing pipes and wooden tracks to design and construct ball runs. We wanted the activity to be intuitive so that when children walked into the space they could have a look at the demo model and what other children were doing and immediately understand the essence and possibilities of the activity with little verbal instruction required.

In the weeks leading up to the Children’s Festival Roma and I collected an array of materials from our recycling bins, charity stores, discount shops, Roma’s daughter’s toy box and the Scrapstore in Nottingham. We also got our friends, family and colleagues to collect materials from home such as cardboard rolls, plastic food containers and cardboard boxes. This allowed us to accumulate a large amount of materials in a short period of time and within our limited budget.

Over the festival weekend we were amazed to see the large variety of ways in which children appropriated the materials. The simplicity and limitless possibilities of the materials and objects seemed to trigger children’s imaginations (pictured below):

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We also loved observing the ways in which people’s creations provoked even more eccentric and creative responses from others. For example, on numerous occasions we observed a family complete their ball run and leave the space. Another family would then enter the space and start adding and changing the previous family’s run to make new constructions. The focus of the space was not on the creation of a particular physical thing but rather for children to explore the creative process, develop their own learning strategies and collaborative practice alongside their peers and adults.

It was fantastic to observe how children creatively problem solved the unexpected glitches in their runs. For example, many children experienced the issue of the balls being too bouncy and discovered that placing soft materials and fabrics along parts of the runs created enough friction to slow down the ball and prevent it from bouncing off.

After the festival, Roma and I met again to watch over the visual documentation we took of the children. We used video and photography to critically reflect upon our initial intentions and how children’s appropriation of the materials reaffirmed or challenged these notions. Whilst reviewing the footage, we talked about how the children used the space in unexpected ways. For example, the baby and toddler area featured three different sized balls and three different sized pipes. The toddlers in particular spent a lot of time investigating which balls went down various pipes. When we were making the initial selection of the balls, we did so based on their sensory qualities (i.e. one had bells inside and made jingly noises, another was soft and squishy and the third had soft plastic spikes) and did not really consider their size. In out next iteration of Ball Run Factory, whenever that may be, we would like to explore this idea further to see what other sized pipes and balls could be included.

Overall the construction, delivery and critical reflection of the Ball Run provided a fantastic opportunity for us to explore the construction of a ‘creative laboratory’ in a site of informal learning. We have plans for future of Ball Run Factory and the development of new ‘creative laboratories’ in Nottingham in the future.

 

Roma Patel is a scenographer currently undertaking her PhD at the Horizon Research Institute and is based in the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham.

Louisa Penfold is a children’s curator currently undertaking a PhD in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham in partnership with Tate (United Kingdom). Her research is investigating the construction of child-centred practice in early year’s immersive environments in art galleries. Louisa blogs on creative environments for children in art galleries.

 References

  1. Nicholson, S 1971. How NOT to cheat children – The theory of loose parts. Landscape Architecture, 62, p.30-34.

 

Further Links

The idea of a ‘marble run’ has been explored by many scientists, artists, engineers and children. Here are some links to help create and inspire making your own runs at home or at school:

The Tinkering Studio at The Exploratorium

http://tinkering.exploratorium.edu/marble-machines

Instructions for how to build the wooden frame of a ball run:

http://tinkering.exploratorium.edu/sites/default/files/Instructions/marble_machines.pdf

 

Rube Goldberg

Rube was an American cartoonist who drew cartoons of crazy contraptions that perform simple tasks in very complicated ways. His pictures have inspired many people to create their own contraptions, including these:

http://coolmaterial.com/roundup/rube-goldberg-machines/

Pythagora Switch

This popular Japanese TV show always starts with a Rube Goldberg-inspired contraption. Here is a sample:

https://vimeo.com/13420214

‘Raceways: Having Fun with Balls and Tracks’ by Bernie Zubrowski is a great introduction to marble runs and track making:

https://www.amazon.com/Raceways-Having-Tracks-Childrens-Activity/dp/0688041590