Not Failing but Caring: A New Plan for Arts Education

Find out what Dr Becky Parry unearthed on a visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park prior to our Caring and Creative Think In.

Dr Becky Parry is an independent arts educator and the arts evaluation partner for Chol. Becky is also a Lecturer in Digital Literacies who established and now teaches on the new MA Digital Literacies, Culture and Education in the Department of Education. She has had a long-career in film and arts education and is especially interested in creative pedagogies. Becky’s research focuses on cultural and creative education.

Last week I spent a wonderful day at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), but rather than walking through the park, encountering the wise and wonderful art, I squirrelled myself away in The National Arts Education Archive (NAEA). If you have never been before, I strongly recommend it. As healing and fulfilling as YSP is, for arts educators, the NAEA is equally a treasure trove for the body and soul. Here you can connect with the work of the pioneers of arts education in the UK, in the warm and comforting knowledge that these exciting innovators found their home in Yorkshire – or rather The West Riding – a local authority led by Sir Alec Clegg, who started a systematic and rigorous post-war revolution in public education in schools in our region, which influenced the rest of the country. At the heart of this work, was arts education.

Connecting to this history gives me hope, in what often seems like strange and troubled times. Clegg believed that the teaching of art was important because he also believed that freedom of expression was important. And here, he meant freedom to express feelings and explore ideas, to think through the creation of art (as opposed to a more contemporary understanding of free speech as the opportunity to state random, unfounded opinions).  Clegg connected arts education to thinking and learning and especially to curiosity, creativity and criticality. He inspired and supported teachers who wanted to take their professional practice seriously, and who wanted to develop agency, even if it took them in new directions Clegg was unfamiliar with.

Clegg suggested that the aim of art education was: 

  1. To keep alive that desire to create, and the joy in creating, which is natural to every child.
  2. To help retain and foster the love of the beautiful, whether in Nature or in Art.

Well, perhaps revolutionary ideas are always quite simple. In his numerous talks to teachers, Headteachers and the great and good (whose hearts and minds he had to win over), he talked about the freedom of the expression of the art studio as something that should permeate the whole school. He was extremely critical of testing and believed that much learning of value could not be easily measured. Here, he was referring to the 11 plus and O and A levels which in the late 1940s he was predicting the demise of. He truly believed that a teacher who had worked with a class for a year, could be trusted to understand the learning of their children – radical. His concerns about tests, is something I share. Whatever arguments we have about how well a test might measure learning, drive improvements and create accountability, we often overlook the other, no less real results of tests – that they fail children. Being labelled by schools, teachers, tests and scores as a failure is harmful. If we base our education system on the relatively negligible differences in test scores between young children, we are not creating a meritocracy – rather a caste system and this is inhumane. 

As you enter the NAEA there is a beautiful piece of work which everyone notices, and many have been entranced by. It’s a It’s a painting of a young boy on a large sheet of newsprint. The title of the work? Portrait of a Failure.

Images courtesy of the National Arts Education Archive

The ‘heart-stopping’ realisation that a fourteen year old boy could paint a self-portrait and label it as that of a failure, reminds us of what is so badly wrong with an education system based on ability. Ability is such a nebulous term and in years to come I think we will realise that we are all much more similar in ability (talent / gifts / merit) than our education and status might lead us to think.

How about basing an education system instead on the concept of care? We certainly need people to care about each other as well as the environment and the many diverse species that co-habit it. What if our whole education system was underpinned not by the determining of ability, but the moral imperative to care. What would such an education system be like? This is not an idle question – it is in fact the genius 10-year plan of Chol.

On May 20th we will be visiting The Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the National Arts Education Archive for a Think In about arts education and care. What will this be? It’s easier to say what it won’t be! It won’t be using art as a sticking plaster to cover the world’s ills. It won’t be using art as a solitary means to offer children recovery from being labelled a failure. It will be something that evolves and is collective and involves doing and then talking about doing. It will include being part of a community perhaps similar to those communities of practice established by Alec Clegg in the West Riding. We are not afraid of our ambition, we are more afraid of any lack of ambition. We will imagine together new ways of putting care at the heart of what we do, and we will welcome you to join us on our journey!


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