Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted)
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Amanda Spielman launches the art and design research review

Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, spoke at the launch of the art and design research review at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Good morning

It’s hard to imagine a better place than the V&A to be talking about art and design education – thank you Tristram for allowing us to be here.

And since all of you have chosen to be here, I’m quite sure that you already share my belief in the extraordinary enriching power of this strand of education. You don’t need me to rehearse all the excellent reasons why children should study art.

More than 40 years on, I can still remember the 3 paintings that did most to open my eyes and mind in my childhood and teens. The 1st was by Salvador Dali – Christ of St John of the Cross, viewed from above – in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where I grew up; the 2nd by Bellini – the Venetian Doge Leonardo Loredan, in the National Gallery; and the 3rd a riverside scene by Corot, with his astonishing skill in conveying light. Each of these has influenced what I have learned since.

A teacher blogger who publishes as Solomon Kingsnorth illustrates the enriching power of knowledge of art, as well as practical skills, rather well:

“Person A and Person B are standing outside Rouen cathedral, looking up at the spire. A series of thoughts and impressions pop up in each one’s respective consciousness, like paints on a canvas.

Person A:

  • Big church.
  • Nice.
  • Looks like some others I’ve seen.
  • Not paying to go in. What time is lunch?

Person B:

  • Looks gothic; different to the Baroque cathedrals I’ve seen.
  • I can see - and feel - what moved Monet to paint it so many times. My mind is conjuring up impressions of those images now, which seem to be intermingling with the cathedral itself!
  • The ground beneath my feet has an ancient significance - a church existed on this site before the cathedral was built – it perished in the Viking raids.
  • Strong musical tradition here - choir famous - bringing to mind beautiful choral music – I can actually HEAR it!
  • And apparently some of the windows still decorated with stained glass from 13th century, famous for a special cobalt blue colour. Is that it there?
  • I’m metres away from a tomb containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart. My own heart is racing.
  • I’m going in!”

As Kingsnorth puts it, if you are Person B you have ‘a private tour guide to the universe LIVING IN YOUR BRAIN, ready at a second’s notice to give you a plethora of information which will enrich your experience of everyday life’.

And yet it is so easy for art to be seen as something of an afterthought. But of course, it rightly has its place in the national curriculum for all children up to age 14, and for many beyond that. That is as it should be.

As the national curriculum document says:

Art, craft and design embody some of the highest forms of human creativity. A high-quality art and design education should engage, inspire and challenge, equipping pupils with the knowledge and skills to experiment, invent and create their own works. As pupils progress, they should be able to think critically and develop a more rigorous understanding of art and design. They should also know how art and design both reflect and shape our history, and contribute to the culture, creativity and wealth of our nation.

These aims are ambitious, especially in the context of the increasingly limited time that most schools are allocating to art. But they are important nonetheless.

And the specified subject content is tantalisingly brief – less than half a page for each of key stages 1, 2 and 3. Viewed one way, this leaves a satisfying amount of freedom for schools to shape their curriculum and teaching. But it can also make life harder, especially for primary schools, which mostly won’t have a specialist art teacher.

Which brings me to the review we are publishing today.

Our curriculum research

In my time as chief inspector, I have placed great of importance on curriculum. This reflects an understanding that the content and processes of education are valuable in themselves, not just a means to a graded outcome.

In this context, our series of subject reviews serves 2 purposes. They provide a clear and grounded platform for our conception of quality. We use this for the inspection judgements that we must make. But the reviews also help schools by laying out the factors that can contribute to high quality and authentic education.

The reviews are rigorous but clear. They have proved to be extremely popular with schools – they have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

In the context of art and design, this review explores the practical knowledge, the ‘how to draw, paint or sculpt’. It also discusses the theoretical knowledge, such as the history of art. And it includes the disciplinary knowledge, the big questions: what is art? How do we judge and value it?

Setting art alongside other subjects in this series shows how we are recognising its value, and makes it clear that art does not sit beneath or apart from the rest of the curriculum.

And it has other benefits too. We have heard from schools how the coherence of the series helps with wider curriculum thinking and planning, illuminating the parallels and linkages between subjects as well as the fundamental differences.

Of course, there are practical constraints. We know how hard-pressed schools are, and that there is less taught time for art and design. But I take heart from the fact that exam entries have held more or less steady through all the changes of the past 20 years, showing that young people’s willingness and interest is not eroding. They want to grow and flex their creativity. They want and need the richness, excitement and satisfaction that art and design bring.

The subject is also fortunate in having the wonderful depth that comes from the wealth of subject associations and artistic institutions who do so much, working with young people directly, and also working with teachers to help them strengthen their curriculum and teaching. Because I am a trustee here at the V&A, I know a lot about its education work, including the V&A Innovate competition, and the planned Young V&A in Bethnal Green, which will be opening this year. But so much else is being done, by many local institutions, and by national institutions like the Tate and the Royal Academy, as well as through the Arts Council and of course so many more.

All this should give us some cause to be optimistic for the future, and help us lift our sights beyond what I know to be the continuing grind of post-Covid challenges and funding pressures in schools.

I’ll finish by reminding people of what I have said in the past about the purposes of education. Of course, education must prepare young people for work. But it must also broaden their minds and their horizons. It should help them enjoy our culture, and use their creativity to add to it. It should help them hold a conversation, not just a job. And ultimately it should help them contribute to the advancement of civilisation, not just to economic development.

All of you are of course an important part of that. Thank you.

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