Some years ago a young man from Sierra Leone started work at my school as a cleaner. A cheerful chap, he wandered into my classroom asking me politely if it was okay to start hoovering the carpet even though I was preparing lessons for the following day.
Subsequently he would comment on the artwork on display. Plucking up more courage with every visit, his critical analysis began to indicate that this man knew about far more about art than I did; a trained teacher teaching children to use their creative skills to interpret their world.
Eventually, the man admitted that he was indeed an artist and was only working as a cleaner from necessity for the interim. He had escaped the civil disruptions in his homeland and had fled to the UK but couldn’t earn a living from his creative pursuits.
A colleague and I continued to talk to him and eventually persuaded him to bring a collection of his work into school for us to look at.
The portfolio was brilliant, vibrant, eclectic. We took it to our head teacher, who happened to have a vacancy for a classroom assistant. We persuaded her that it would be a welcome addition to our school if we employed this man as an artist in residence, working with our children to create their very own masterpieces.
He started work in the classrooms throughout the school within a week; all delighting in this experience. The children’s work flourished and so did our friend.
Art was opening doors.
He was commissioned to draw the school for its centenary celebration and worked with our pupils to create all manner of decorations and exhibits. He was promoted from his job as cleaner to supervisor. From this role, he became the school keeper whilst simultaneously continuing with his art classes and taking courses in developing his skills as a classroom assistant.
Currently, he is overseeing the development of the school building and continuing to be an integral part of the school that he joined over a decade ago.
Art does open doors. It also opens minds. It is a vital source of enjoyment for many. As I write, the radio is explaining how the Leonardo de Vinci exhibition in the National Gallery is going to be so oversubscribed that it is going to be difficult to spend quality time at each of the exhibits, such is the demand for people to see his work, such is the interest in art.
Last weekend, Mick Waters, former head of curriculum at the QCA/QCDA, spoke to a group of significant people who are committed to ensuring that all arts subjects do not slide into a vacuum at the expense of the so-called traditional subjects and the English Baccalaureate. They were backing a report, “ImagineNation: The Case for Cultural Learning” from the Cultural Learning Alliance.
Mr. Waters stated, “A lifetime in teaching has taught me that giving children the chance to visit galleries and museums is invaluable. The report comes against the backdrop of the government questioning the value of wider education. Children should paint, photograph, build, sing, move and dance, sew and cook. Surely we want our children to live their lives joyously?”
The report provides evidence that it is the most disadvantaged who benefit from lessons in the Arts. It claims that the arts also develop the transferable skills that are beneficial to individuals and desired by employees. The incorrectly named “soft skills” are the essentials in life and children who are free to develop their own passions and creativity clearly have much to give to others as well as satisfying a need for themselves.
Look at the case at the top of this blog. My friend from Sierra Leone is a case in point.
We would all do well to support this campaign, ensuring that all arts are given appropriate time in schools for the benefit of all. Not everyone has the eye of an artist but they can be enabled to have a go. Not all pupils will be proficient singers or players of musical instruments but they should at least have the opportunity to try. Not all people are perfect in the art of photography but capturing special moments and places should be encouraged, allowing pupils to develop their own spiritual intelligence as they look at the world around them.
Our intelligence and the school curriculum is not just about mathematics, reading and writing skills. The school curriculum and the lives of the pupils within an educational institution are greatly enhanced by the breadth of subjects and the development of skills and attitudes to complement the necessary acquisition of knowledge.
Sadly, this is not the first time that a group of celebrities and educationalists have combined to look at this very subject. In 1999 “All Our Futures” was a similar report, encouraging the policy makers to ensure that the Arts were given the credence and the time in the new National Curriculum of 2000.
On our website, which is relaunched on Friday, you can find a copy of this report plus a wonderful speech from its chair, Sir Ken Robinson entitled “Changing Education Paradigms”.
Both are essential reading and viewing for anyone committed to the intelligent education for all.
The Arts do open doors but they also open the mind and the soul. As Mick Waters states, we want a joyful life for our children. We want them to be able to explore their interests and feel valued for their passions. Of course we want them to be able to read and write. Without these core skills they will not flourish or even necessarily enjoy the Arts to the full.
But just like my friend from Sierra Leone, these children need to express themselves and be enabled to find different ways of exploring this world and commit themselves to a long life of learning – and joy.