Turning the tide of art education starts at primary school

If we want children to value art, we must give them access to it early on in life. Here’s how primary schools can make space for creativity






messy boy in art class









For schools that find it difficult to dedicate an hour a week to art, teachers should still aim to include short bursts of creativity in the school day.
Photograph: Alamy

It’s no secret that arts subjects are increasingly being deprioritised in many schools, and that there’s a fall in the number of pupils taking arts subjects at GCSE. Yet the arts matter, not only to individual learning but to the UK as a whole: the creative industries currently contribute £84.1bn a year to the economy.

Enthusiasm for art should really start at primary school – by the time students reach year seven, attitudes about what matters in education will have already been established. The national curriculum for art and design is sparse and leaves a lot open to interpretation, meaning that provision varies greatly between schools. With pressures on pupil progress for reading, writing and maths, it’s not uncommon for a whole term to pass without one art lesson.

Most of the primary teachers I’ve spoken to say they miss teaching art. Even those who don’t think of themselves as artistically minded acknowledge that pupils are missing out on a vital part of education and life if art is excluded. So what can primary schools do to offer more opportunities for creativity? There are a number of small improvements that can make all the difference.

Map out a curriculum for the whole school

Most teachers won’t have the time to develop a comprehensive art curriculum by themselves. But if school leadership creates time for staff to work together and share ideas, it’s possible to create something worthwhile.

Robust art curricula should cover a range of artists, styles, genres, websites, books and galleries. Look to design lessons that build on prior learning, can be connected to a wider context (historical or geographical, for example) and provide opportunities to further develop visual literacy. Teachers can be encouraged to help children to think critically about images by asking open and closed questions, and giving them sentence starters as a way to talk about art. For example, “I like the way the artist has … ” or “In this artwork I can see … ”

Most importantly, make sure the subject matter is broad and includes culturally and ethnically diverse artists. Children need to understand that art is made by all sorts of people, in a variety of ways, and should feel represented by the art and artists they are exposed to.

Link art to other lessons

Creating an art curriculum from scratch can be daunting, but teachers can make use of other topics that are already being taught at school. For example, a history lesson about the second world war would lend itself to learning about artists such as Henry Moore, Goncalo Mabunda or Laura Knight, who have all produced works that can be used to prompt discussions about war.

Links can be made to science and maths lessons, too. Younger children could look at the use of shapes in artworks, such as those by Paul Klee, or learn about the science illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, one of the first to show the full life cycle of an insect. The internet makes it easy to find artists that link to various topics.

There are many great artworks with fascinating narratives and symbolism. If you can reference art while ensuring that the children are learning an artistic skill or technique and have the chance to express their own ideas, then you’re providing a pretty well-rounded art experience.

Try bite-sized classes

Primary art lessons often happen in the classroom with class teachers, rather than a specialist teacher, which makes it easy for other subjects to overrun and for art to be forgotten. For schools that find it difficult to dedicate an hour a week to art, teachers should still aim to include short bursts of creativity in the school day.

Bite-sized classes (anything from 10 to 30 minutes) could include looking at a piece of art and discussing it, practising drawing skills, or free-flow doodling. Such activities are mess free, easy to deliver and better than nothing when the timetable is tight. Of course, this should not completely replace longer art classes – working for a sustained amount of time on creative endeavours is always worthwhile.

Be resourceful

Funding has left many schools struggling for money. Historically, many artists were forced to use alternative materials because of a lack of funds, and this could potentially be a source of inspiration for ways to keep costs low. Artist Abdulasis “Aziz” Osman began painting on cereal boxes, for example, and Jean-Michel Basquiat painted on doors and tyres before he made serious money from art.

Space permitting, have a collection point for cardboard and other junk in class. Cardboard can be chopped up and used as canvas to paint on, as a glue spreader, as sculpting material, or as pallets for mixing paint. Plastic pots make superb water pots and glue containers, and salt dough, which is frequently used in nursery and reception classes, is a great alternative to clay. When learning about cave art, children could even use mud, sticks and leaves to paint with. Ask the children to come up with ideas to make art on a tight budget – just like real artists do.

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