Despite fears that art subjects would be side-lined as a result of the government’s education reforms, in 2013 GCSE Art and Design figured in the top ten of GCSE subjects taken – although it is in tenth place, taking up 3.36% of all GCSE entries (this compares with the highest percentage of entries, for maths at 13.96%).
Whether it remains near top in future will be interesting to see: although numbers taking the subject have fluctuated over the last decade, the 2013 figure of 183,090 is around 29,000 candidates fewer than the peak of 212,000-plus in 2006. A National Society for Education in Art and Design (Nsead) survey carried out in March 2013 which found 44% of schools reported a 35-53% reduction in young people studying art, craft and design at GCSE level. The Crafts Council has also observed a decline in craft education over the last four to five years, especially in disciplines that require space, teaching expertise and pricey equipment or materials.
The gender bias against boys in arts subjects is also very strong, with only around 33% of candidates being male. The girls attained higher grades too. A study in 2009 by Ofsted showed that boys needed better teaching, with topics that stretched their imagination and greater access to computer design and digital photography if their interest – and thus their exam results – were to be improved.
The national curriculum in art and design up to Key Stage 3 has been redesigned for teaching from 2014, and the government will be revising the programme of study for the art and design GCSE – whether these changes can reflect the concerns of industry about poor preparation for the real world in art and design remains to be seen.
The arts industries are becoming increasingly vocal about their worries that students are not being well prepared for careers in design. That A level art still does not set pupils up well for university courses is evident in the continuing need to take a foundation course before applying for a specialist art college – an unusual state of affairs when for other subjects school pupils can progress straight onto university degree courses without an intervening year of preparatory study. There is perhaps a need for industry experts to work more closely with schools to give students an understanding of how their artistic talents could be applied in the world of jobs and industry – it’s not just about becoming a professional artist or a famous fashion designer.
Lack of understanding
‘Parents and teachers might understand what it means to have a career as an accountant, lawyer or doctor, but they probably don’t understand what it means to have a career in the creative industries,’ believes Sir John Sorrell, co-chair of the Sorrell Foundation educational charity for art and design, and UK business ambassador for the sector. ‘It’s difficult to communicate this because there’s such a variety of things school or university-leavers could do within the sector.’
‘Another problem is that the arts industry moves at a very fast pace. It’s hard enough for people within the industry to keep up, so it must be incredibly tough for teachers. Industry needs to help teachers to stay in the loop so that they can offer the right guidance and real-life examples to young people,’ Sir John adds.
Nsead reports a lack of funding for teacher development in craft education. Some 60% of those coming on the organisation’s courses pay for themselves. The effect is that teachers can’t keep abreast of fast-developing contemporary practice, including the use of digital within craft. As Simon Ofield-Kerr, vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts (UCA), says, ‘We need much greater recognition by government, and indeed all levels of education, of the importance of material research and making, both in terms of personal development and the maintenance of our longstanding national strength in areas of cultural production.’