Reflections on an Entitlement to the Arts – Mervyn Benford

“Schoolsweek” and NAPE’s “Primary First” recently featured work I did in the 1960s under Nuffield Junior Science- designed to produce what employers have consistently claimed missing when recruiting- people who can think for themselves, make decisions, take responsibility, work in teams and solve problems. Science suffers political ideology. Children’s entitlement is left a lottery. One result sees employers increasingly disown grades and certificates that parents, politicians and, paradoxically, those same employers have so hallowed. Those same intellectual virtues empower the Arts: the same conclusions emerge. In art activities, the brain investigates, adapts, appreciates, solves problems, at times involving teamwork. In the first school in which I taught- a large 420-pupil urban junior Y3-6 in Essex, I had scavenged for Nuffield science work from Marconi’s a heap of mixed scrap from which one pupil actually made a sculpture rather than a science investigation.

Painting was the major form of weekly artwork in most primaries, though in many cases coloured pencils, later felt-tip pens, were more usual. Paint was less used to support topic work then the regular curriculum diet, certainly not in the way a NET advocacy school in Slough treated studies of Chinese art. There is also the Y3/4 teacher in a small Cheshire village school, who had been a former bank employee but in mere minutes brought such as Picasso and Kandinsky to breath-taking life. Art really is exploited in good schools.

My commitment to the arts derived from having seen what teachers could draw out of children using their own talents and interests. It had encouraged me in two classes in my second large urban junior school to ask each to compose a Cantata, words, music and acting.

In the small village school (Lewknor) I led for 15 years I was determined to open the doors. For the first five years, entire Thursdays for the 50-60 pupils were devoted to art, later just the mornings as we reviewed aims rarely inspected or tested. I welcomed offers from artists and enthusiasts in the wider community. Staff, parents and local community all had good levels of skills on which we could draw, not least sewing and knitting. At age 14 my granddaughter has just been told by her art teacher she should take ‘A’ level now and by-pass GCSE. One of her great personal delights is making family birthday cakes of exquisite individualised design and careful construction. Art invades most human practical activities if recognised.

Printing in many forms was regularly undertaken both as a taught activity or a means to illustrate other work. Our adjacent church often appeared left to right reversed before they realised how printing worked!

Children learned that art in its great variety used hands and mind to convey meaning, appreciating certain qualities like line, form, colour, texture, relevant medium and in the 2D work composition. As an Ofsted RGI I was impressed by a 3-class school where older and younger pupil pairs did more than the reading that had become a norm, but also shared computer and art work, producing remarkably effective “master/apprentice” experiences!

In my later work helping develop quality in Swedish schools, derived from my Ofsted years, I observed pre-school children learning from a local expert to make traditional winter mittens from sheep’s’ wool. In another pre-school framed paintings down the wall by the stairs, much as I remember in a superb NET advocacy special school in Banbury, had started as group paintings on long lengths of paper roll before the extension task to select a piece for individual framing, effectively composition! The Arts are now seen as highly effective in lifting overall performance for disadvantaged children.  Does anyone remember Maud?

2017 also sees fresh affirmation of music strengthening language and Maths in all children. This has been observed for decades but is still not recognised enough by those prizing textbooks and computer programs. The sheer satisfaction of personal achievement raises self-esteem, in turn prompting effort and achievement in more difficult tasks.

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