Avoiding a cultural backwards step

A few weeks ago I posted about the British government’s plan to scrap Art History as an a-level exam subject for eighteen year olds:

Culturally stepping backwards

I would like to claim that my post made all the difference to the debate. But the truth of course is that the likes of Simon Schama and Anish Kapoor weighing with their hefty opinions has led to a rethink. Surprising? Well yes, in the world we seem to be living in of intellectual dumbing down. But good news non-the-less for the British cultural climate.

Art history a-level saved

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Culturally stepping backwards

img_2314I view the UK, my home country, from the short distance across the North Sea from my home in the Netherlands. Geographically it is a small distance and yet somehow it seems to be drifting slowly away, certainly in a cultural dimension.

Yesterday it was announced, in changes set in motion by former education secretary Michael Gove, that art history, as a so called ‘soft’ subject, was to be removed from the national A-level exam programme for eighteen year olds. It is not an announcement that is going to directly affect tens of thousands of teenagers, it is indeed a subject that is only chosen by relatively few students. But the numbers involved aren’t the reason being given for the scrapping of the subject. A spokeswoman for AQA, the exam board, was quoted as having said,

“Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level.”

It would seem that the priority is the grading of the exam is more important rather than the actual content of the programme itself. It is a perspective that those who work in education have heard often enough before. Babies and bath water seem immediately to spring to mind.

This is one more drop in the increasing filling bucket of news stories that reflect a shift in perspective and hardening of attitudes that is increasingly effecting the cultural fabric and riches in the UK.

There is irony here in the outrage shown in the destruction of world heritage sites and cultural history in Syria during the last few years, and yet we seem to be offering reduced perspectives for those who actually want to contribute to understanding why these high points of human creativity are actually important to us.

On a more contemporary note art history and a deep understanding of the cultural world is perhaps more important than ever. The modern world is increasingly one that is driven by a visual culture and art historical perspectives have an important part to play in developing a visual literacy that is needed to engage and understand.

For a more background on this backward step see:

Last art history A-level

Last art history A-level II

 

The loneliness (and rewards) of the long distance examiner

Around April and May each year I am reminded of a stressful few weeks I endured in my last year at school as a eighteen year old doing my final art exam. A three hour drawing paper and a twelve or fifteen hour painting paper that came on the back of two weeks preparation time if I remember correctly. The end result was C grade, it was OK, but it wasn’t the A or B that I hoped for.

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Now, quite some time later, I’m an examiner for the visual arts exam of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma program. I’ve done it for years (and they don’t mind my C grade a-level!). It used to mean that each April I would go and visit a couple of schools, interview eight or ten pupils per school, be wined and dined at the school’s expense when necessary. Each pupil mounted an exhibition of their work, presented their work books and I would interview them for thirty to forty minutes. It was all very interesting and enjoyable, and also, it has to be said, quite an experience for the candidates.

All this changed two years ago when the IB switched to a fully digital examination system. Nowadays, for each exam candidate I am supplied (online) with the following:

· A fifteen minute interview or a 1000 word statement

· A 300 word statement about their work

· 30 pages of documentary photos from their research workbooks

· Up to eighteen photographs of studio work.

That’s quite a few documents for each candidate……and I have 69 candidates to work my way through, mark and write a short report about. That is quite a few hours staring at the computer screen. But on the positive side, working as I do in a secondary school in Western Europe, it is incredibly interesting to see work made by pupils from all corners of the world. This year for me it England, Norway, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the US and China.

Although I don’t actually teach the IB Diploma course myself I am a pretty big fan of the possibilities it offers, in particular the way it interweaves the practical work of candidates with their art historical and contextual studies. It is interesting to see what the candidates have produced during the two years that the course takes, but it is almost as interesting to read a little between the lines and see how different teachers in a variety of countries approach the curriculum.

Yes there are definitely positives about doing this examine work, but it is something of a relief when you reach the end of your allotment of candidates, a point that I have just about reached.