Part A : The Foundation Art Curriculum at New College Nottingham

With an increasingly skills-based educational system, the case for knowledge and the kinds of creative values that do not simply reflect measurable aims and outcomes has to be made even more strongly.

(Watts, The Guardian Review 27.04.04)

A series of planned events that are intended to have educational consequences for students

(Eisner, 1979)

This first part of the essay will explore the Foundation Fine Art syllabus as delivered over a term at Nottingham New College in 2004. Appendix A consists of project handouts given out to students and should be referred to alongside the following analysis. I previously considered the nature of contemporary fine art teaching in the delivery module essay and investigated the current ‘crisis’ in fine arts delivery within the curriculum (Belcher, 2004).

This essay acts in some ways as a further development of that enquiry. I shall be commenting on the project-based syllabus and whilst not designing a complete replacement for it will offer comments on how I think it could be extended or improved. The notion of ‘creativity’ and its place in the National Curriculum has already gained national press with no less a commentator than Prince Charles becoming involved.

A basic knowledge of art is still too readily dismissed by too many as a luxury
that has little to do with the business of life, of course it has everything to do with the business of life.
( H.R.H. Prince Charles quoted in The Guardian, 31.10.2001)

These comments were supported and built upon by John Steers (General Secretary National Society for Education in Art and Design) a year later who feared that the National Curriculum had forced the arts off the agenda by allowing opt-out at 14 and that art teaching was becomingly increasingly ‘prescribed’ which..

..produces ‘safe’ work of a kind on which teachers can rely for the award of good examination grades (Steers, 2004: 31)

The following analysis draws upon Curzon (1997) for an interpretive framework. Using his 6 categories I will examine the syllabus as presented in appendix B. The pressures of filling H.E. places meant the foundation courses were in danger of being circumvented by zealous university departments keen to fill places. Foundation Courses remain in a dangerous position in the present funding and outcome ‘driven’ educational climate. The certification is useful in fulfilling H.E. sector entrance requirements at least and most students opt for a route B approach to H.E. thus keeping the Foundation Courses alive.

1. Content: What is being taught? (nature of the course).
Fine Art probably has the widest interpretative remit of any subject. The wide potential of the subject is however not reflected in general National Curriculum practice. Steers and Hughes have both highlighted that it is informed by ‘procedures and practices that reach back to the nineteenth century’ (Hughes, 1998: 41). In light of this ‘conservatism’ the Foundation Art ontology is predicated upon the ability of the school art rooms to ‘develop’ the students before entry to the course. The New College online prospectus defined the course content as…

To decide which HE course right for them, to get a portfolio that will get them on to a course of their choice, have an experience that will support the transition to HE. (New College Nottingham website. accessed 19/02/2004)

Thus nineteenth century values inform the targeting of the student group as this process has been an established part of the art-school ‘system’. The process can be traced back to the ‘Kensington System’ of ‘art learning for empire’ which ensured a ‘steady stream of artisans for manufacturing industry’ (Steers, 2004: 32). The contemporary assumption is that our modern ‘artisans’ will engage in meaningful art-related work once graduated despite statistical evidence to the contrary. A collapse of some of these assumptions in relation to the arts post National Curriculum 2000 and an increasingly ‘vocational’ climate has questioned the Foundation Course’s very existence.

2. Shape: The presentation of the syllabus.
The online prospectus further defines the course content as including ‘gallery visits, overseas trips and a stimulating environment’ these all designed to appeal to a middle-class student base in an area where South Nottingham College is main competitor. These are useful advertising features. The actual course is subdivided by the three terms into separate ‘phases’. When one peels away the rather pretentious ‘exploratory’ ‘pathway’ and ‘confirmatory’ labels one finds a traditional three term foundation course ethos of introduction, portfolio preparation and final show with life drawing, printmaking and photography all on menu.

3. Objectives: What is taught to ensure the syllabus is covered?
The course is driven by the over-riding objective of achieving ‘placement’ of students on to HE courses, preferably their first choice college if possible. To this end the syllabus engineers as smooth a certification as possible. ‘League-tables’ of previous year performance and a staff-room photo checklist confirming placements was in evidence rather like a bingo card. The students were made very aware of this from day one and it appeared to have an overbearing relevance to all that was taught. In student terms it produced a ‘competitive’ environment and in staff terms it was a ‘funding’ imperative as a higher number of high-ranking placements meant job safety in the face of regulatory Ofsted/ college funding initiatives. Nowhere was there talk of objectives in terms of skills gained.

4. Instruction: What do the objectives necessitate is taught?
There appear to be no requirement to complete or be assessed in a particular areas. The syllabus itself defines a nebulous ‘variety of art & design skills and techniques’ as ‘skills learned’. This comment has disappeared altogether from the prospectus for 2004-5. The overall programme consists of the following:
Fine art
Print making
Life drawing
Product design
Graphic design
Contextual Studies
Computer design.
Movement is possible across areas and is part of the foundation process in selecting suitable area for student.

5. Assessment: How is this instruction to be assessed?
The syllabus as defined online states

Assessment method Continuous formal assessments. Final assessment at end of year.

This included self, peer and tutor review thus the actual one-to-one assessment was proportionally smaller than that I experienced as a foundation student in the late seventies. A measurable cost saving is apparent. The fine art department contained many part-time staff and was about three full-time posts lower in terms of staffing than my comparable course in 1977. There is a great deal of focus on ‘process’ and attendance not just finished work.

Qualification Awarding Body Consortium Certificate

This certificate is awarded at the end of the course and acceptance on to HE courses is virtually conditional upon its being awarded and its grade. The H.E. sector regards Route A admissions (direct from school) as more problematic as the student would be accepted before going through the foundation ‘sorting-room’ and may have chosen the wrong course and drop-outs later at university incur financial penalties.

6.Allocation: How does time/resource planning affect outcomes?
Provided in full and part/time format the course is lucky in being housed in brand new purpose built venue. New College’s financial mismanagement will impact heavily if cuts are made in this area. If anything the arts building was a case of over-resourcing in that many rooms/facilities were under-used. The Foundation room however suffered from some cramping due to housing three separate groups (fine art/ applied/ graphics) in one large space. Materials budgets seemed light and a great deal of reliance on the ability of students to self-resource was in evidence. One-to-one tutor time allocation was in shorter supply. Timetabling appeared to rely on block booking and student-led demand. These approaches fit neatly into the pattern of peer/self review/ unmonitored practice. Theoretical components of the timetable seemed marginal and ‘contextual studies’ is a noticeable addition to the prospectus since last year. I encountered tutor revision of written work suggesting a basic/key skills component was needed especially with overseas students and apparently was partly in place.

Part B : A Foundation Art Course Curriculum for the 21st century?

Following an analysis of the foundation art syllabus I will now consider the current debate surrounding the subject and consider two solutions. The following comment in a newspaper article highlights a survey in ‘Curriculum for The Arts’ (Bonaventura,P & Farthing,S: 2004)

..colleges and university arts departments in Britain agree on very little when it comes to the curriculum for future artists, except, bizarrely, black and white photography and silkscreen printing. (Macleod, Education Guardian: 2004)

Previewing this year’s Royal Academy summer show ..

Someone must have had an idea that the art curriculum should be modernised and so they abolished as examinable subjects at art school, all objective forms of study : life drawing, perspective, anatomy.
(Allan Jones interviewed in Education Guardian 26.05.04)

It appears that we have moved in the F.E/H.E. sector to a progressive and student-centred system that has all but de-skilled the practice of fine art. At the same time the influence of National Curriculum 2000 has not only allowed the opt-out from the arts at KS4 but also meant that the delivery of the school curriculum has become progressively more conservative by the need to produce ‘assessable’ student work. This complete contradiction is now tearing the art and design education world slowly apart. On one side are the ‘conservatives’ like Jones and on the other progressives and ‘post-modernists’ aflame with their new ideology arguing for a student-centred and self-assessed not terminally assessed curriculum. Portfolio assessment and ‘projects’ are the important ‘buzz’ words here… the context of our rich and varied post-modern, post-colonial, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society ..(Steers, 2004 :41)

Assessment in this area is a matter of informed judgement rather than the application of fallible, standardised criteria based on knowledge of the assessors connoisseurship not prescription..(Steers, 2004: 42)

Steers is at the sane end of this postmodern utopia. Others are so bamboozled by their own floridity there appears no limit to their ambition nor the ability of the pupils save a healthy dose of reality.
‘A Manifesto for Art in Schools’ (Swift & Steers 1999) was an excellent analysis of the progressive ‘dumbing-down’ of the National Curriculum and the arts. Its analysis showed that from the Art Working Group in 1992 onwards a focus on attainment targets had meant that the 2000 curriculum was bound to come up with a four stranded set of targets which can be summarised as

1. Investigating and making art and design.
2. Exploring and developing ideas.
3. Evaluating and developing work and
4. Knowledge and understanding that inform the other three categories.

Steers states that a ‘traditional modernist’ approach is embedded in this curriculum if that is not a contradiction in terms. Domain based models developed in sixties America informed curriculum development in the U.K. In the actual classroom an increasing workload and target driven agendas meant that objective drawing, visual analysis and ‘art history’ held sway despite post-modern rhetoric. Whilst not arguing with the Steers & Swift analysis it does seem that art teachers at the ‘chalk-face’ had very little room for manoeuvre. League tables, inspection, appraisal and threshold payments all added to the ‘quasi-vocational’ nature of art teaching and the deathly cliche of the still life and the sliced pepper to be drawn! However the idea of a suite of new computers and a teacher working exclusively with postmodernist digitisation seems to throw the baby out with the bath water too. Steers continues to argue that diversity and creativity have been squeezed out of the art curriculum by the National Curriculum process. Some commentators like Ross go so far as to declare the outcomes regime as nothing more than a sham that ‘ claims the authority of a financial spreadsheet’ (Ross: 1995). U.S. idealism in the form of Eisner and Wilson seems to have crashed into U.K. pragmatism/ conservatism.

teachers need materials that stimulate their ingenuity rather than materials to which they are subservient ..(Eisner 1985 :37 quoted in Steers 2004:38)

From 1852 onwards and the ‘Department of Practical Art’ British Art Education has worked to a definable set of assessable outcomes be it GCSE or postgraduate degree level. These may have become more flexible, depending on the awarding institution, and the criteria for awarding a degree in 2004 may be very different to that of 1904 but the awards ‘regime’ has survived. From Ruskin onwards the philosophical division of the ‘craft’ worker from the ‘fine artist’ has ensured that the assessing and awarding of ‘fine art’ qualifications has been a contested area anyway but all art education has worked to these ‘outcomes’. The Foundation area is possibly the best place to observe the playing out of the two contesting theoretical directions. On the one side are technically gifted well-off students from ‘good schools’ who have received a ‘classic’ domain-centred education. On the other side at foundation level they experience a teaching by M.A. educated printmakers and ‘practicing artists’ in the manner of their more recent progressive education. In 1981 the life-room was a contested space at Middlesex University’s fine department. Within a few years it was replaced by video/digital arts. Not because of a lack of demand but because the change in fashion and a need to be seen to be ‘contemporary’ in an increasingly cutthroat art school market condemned it. The Foundation course does to a degree work in terms of ‘competencies, processes and skills’ and a quick look at the project handouts show how closely any project work is mapped to rigid ‘outcomes’. To some degree this is also a fudge as no rigid assessable outcomes apply at any point. This means no qualitative judgements are forthcoming either. Peer and self-review and a tutor reliance on a ‘postmodernist’ remit of shifting criteria, viewpoint and analysis of process not result means no value judgements are ever made. Far from Steers notion of ‘connoisseurship’ one is faced by an inability to judge quality at all.

But does any of this matter? Do we need fine artists at all and if we train them what are we training them for? A curriculum may be conservative or post-modern in nature but if there no ’employment’ outcome does it matter? A liberal humanist perspective shouts foul immediately. Of course we need artists. They represent the finest flowering of our cultural life etc. etc. Brit-art and the accompanying furore and Sunday magazine feeding frenzy demonstrate our art schools and our artists the best in the world. Or so the argument of the Department of Enjoyment would have it.
In reality the quality of art school graduates has probably fallen in the past twenty years as fashionable alternatives web design, popular music and the boom in art related administration….curator, critic, etc has risen. Indeed one of the students on foundation course this year had set her sights on a curatorial role and a course which combined curator-ship and fine art developing trend and an area of study unheard of 25 years ago in art schools. The students coming out of fine art courses are more business orientated, more network savvy, more informed thanks to the growth in the media but are they technically better?

From Chris Smith’s manifesto ‘Creative Britain’ (1998) onwards New Labour cross-marketed the notion of a limitless fount of creativity washing around these shores. In our brave new world of a highly skilled, creative workforce the ‘Creative Apparatchiks’ will lead us into a glorious future. This trend has now assumed the force of a mantra as a solution to our social ills. But are present day artists qualitatively better than those who graduated in 1965, 1975 or 1985. The answer is no.

So if after all these remedial actions, these curriculum and social initiatives these glorious new artists are still produced in about the same quantities and with the same abilities is the entire art-school system necessary? Or is it a sham, a way of laying golden eggs that actually remainders the working majority of students to a life of dashed expectations and dismal progress? The art-school dance that in all reality teaches transferable skills, social skills but not academic skills? Are we intent on continually reinventing the colour wheel?

In this final section I will explore two more radical solutions to these problems. One from the early seventies and one from the present and compare these to the National Curriculum approach. I will also add my own ideas for possible future directions for curriculum development.
I have briefly touched upon the historical framework for art education. Fine Art as a University subject hardly existed in the early sixties and only two institutions offered it at degree level, Newcastle and Reading.

Since the amalgamation of Fine Art Colleges into Polytechnics and their subsequent re-branding as Universities it is clear that Fine Art has taken root as a growth area replacing the original ‘technical’ and ‘trade’ subjects that fell away as Britain ‘de-industrialized’. Where once there were plumbers and builders these days there are more likely to be Live Artists and Video Artists. The number of these ‘artists’ who subsist as professionals after training remains pitifully low though. A vocational remit has been supplanted by a liberal humanist agenda and a college sector whose survival is based on student numbers. As these numbers decline demographically and institutions spend more money trying to attract less ‘customers’ what will colleges be offering in ten years time? A curriculum can only operate with a ‘customer-base’. To this end the quality and the vocational relevance of training is once again becoming critical. New solutions will be needed to provide that quality and the ‘new creative jobs’ scenario New Labour clings to as a panacea of all ills.

Paul Oliver (now an expert in Blues Musicology and Vernacular Architecture) started out in the arts field and wrote interestingly about the future of the arts in the curriculum over 30 years ago (Oliver,P 1973). He identified an unconnected art education process that lurched from remit to remit as students progressed from school to H.E. Following a period of student unrest and the Hornsey Art School Riot commentators looked toward utopian solutions to the apathy and ‘static systems in a society committed to dynamic change’ (Oliver 1973: 127).

With the wider perspective of a keen ecological interest he produced some surprising scenarios for the future of the arts in ‘a leisure-based society’ that he saw consuming ever more resources and leading to ‘environmental crisis’. He identified the art system as it then stood as contributing to this malaise and

described it as art policy geared to a view of the future as ‘more of the present’. His visionary solution was an arts education based locally in a ecologically sound community setting. Radical indeed and 30 years later still radical. He called for the exam system to be scrapped and age differences to be ignored. He cited the then growing BBC centres in the regions to act as nodes of this new development. He suggested the BBC could build eco-art centres that would stimulate artistic growth under its remit of serving the ‘people’. Ironically 30 years later the BBC is crawling towards just such a ‘regional’ remit but in a haphazard and lacklustre way. He himself commented on the opposition this would produce especially in traditional art circles ‘but what of the dearly loved curriculum?'(Oliver, 1973: 138). His clarion call went unheeded so much for idealism..

We might devise an educational system which is responsive to change, which is truly life-enhancing, and which makes art and design not specialist activities but meaningful in the lives of members of the whole community.
(Oliver, 1973: 138 in Piper,ed. 1973)

My second example examines a solution drawn up by David Jones in his article ‘Adult, Aesthetics and Lifelong Learning (Jones, D 2000). Jones was educated to teach art following a Fine Art degree in the sixties and once he found himself teaching felt that the aesthetic value system which he professed to have expertise in no longer held firm as a valid system whereby to judge art…his doubts led him to believe that such an aesthetic value system and its criteria were in fact based on opinion and preference. He sought a permanent value system that wouldn’t suffer from this relativity. His opinions were mirrored by other commentators such as Sandy Nairne who stated..

The teaching institutions, art schools and colleges, local and state subsidies to the arts, artist run galleries and art centres, art history books, international public exhibitions, Documenta and biennales, all affect the current assessment of qualities and ideas about art. (Nairne,1987)

He then explains how this realisation and subsequent opening up of the arts to multiculturalism and participatory community arts lead to a ‘paradigm shift’ in art education.

This paradigm shift was seen as empowering ordinary people to participate in this activity called the arts (Jones, 2000: 33)

‘Everyone is an artist now well not quite. Yes a shift did occur but that opening up to the Sunday supplements and Brit-Artists as ‘personalities’ was hardly an empowerment of the nation. Indeed Damien Hirst whom Jones mentions as symbolic of this shift was as cunning an old-stager and purveyor of elitism with gallery owner Jay Joplin as any ‘aesthetes’ that came before. Old guard rims on some new art specs do not a breakthrough make. Whereas I’d like to believe the fable of a ‘new inclusivity’ the fact remains that those factors that Nairne identified remain the true arbiters of taste in art education. The foundation students at New College were in thrall not only to the expanding ‘market-forces’ but the potential to emulate heroes such as Hirst and Emin to the point of fandom. I saw scant acknowledgement of ‘community’ in play. Jones advocates a four-strand set of domains (pace the National Curriculum) only his place more emphasis on societal, multicultural and contextual factors.
1. Levels of perception
2. Exploiting a medium of expression
3. An ability to become involved in the creative process
4. A supportive knowledge base (contextual studies).
These seem not that far removed from the N.C. categories we started with. However there an important thrust to his model that he explains best himself..

The focus of attention has shifted from product to work produced, to the process of creation. (Jones, 2000: 38)

Here we are again in postmodernist territory! Indeed he goes on to state that ‘Grand Narratives’ have given way to ‘Little Narratives’ rooted in the local community. This fine if one accepts that postmodernism is a dominant mode of thought and we cannot judge artists by a canon as the canon is destroyed.

Here I find the argument untenable because a great body of work does accept certain artists as being of more note than others over time in a variety of the arts. If we proceed down this road I would have to accept that Hirst is as good in his time and place as Goya in his. This is patently not true.

Even factoring in social and contextual perspectives one is a lesser artist than the other. This dichotomy in art education is pulling the rug from beneath the feet of a coherent arts policy in all sectors. Even the arts minister Tessa Jowell has pulled back from the implications of an arts policy that defines no values. Her most recent essay and its response by David Edgar in The Guardian reveal an almost modernist attitude to the provision of the arts. Jowell in her essay reverses the predominate trend of the last twenty years towards an arts that required both customer satisfaction and social rejuvenation as a reason for patronage. She cites both social capital and the artists role in almost ‘pre-modern’ terminolog we seem to have gone full circle back to the kind of arts patronage envisaged over three or five decades ago. The roots of aesthetic value systems obviously run deep. Are we seeing the wheel being reinvented yet again? It seems that artists may be again ‘special’ and not just market driven ‘providers’ or ‘community workers’? If this new realism could be harnessed to some real radicalism in provision in terms of the eco-centres that Oliver imagined we may truly be on the verge of a creative ‘breakthrough’ in this ‘country’ whatever its imagined borders. Until then Jerusalem will still be running late and considerably over budget.

By accepting culture is an important investment in personal social capital we begin to justify that investment on culture’s own terms. (Jowell, 2004 )
the exploration of “the internal world we all inhabit – the world of individual birth, life and death, of love or pain, joy or misery, fear and relief, success and disappointment”, revealed to us by artists “who can show us things we could not see for ourselves”.
(Jowell, 2004 : quoted in Edgar, The Guardian 22.05.04)

some knew this all along
the present massive and barbaric retreat into ‘basics’ and the mechanical demand for standardized testing avoid all the primary educational questions (Abbs,1989:32)


Abbs, P. (1989) A is for Aesthetic: Essays on Creative and Aesthetic Education. Lewes: Falmer.

Curzon, L.B. (1997) Teaching in Further Education: An outline of principles and practice. 5th ed. London: Cassell.

Department for Education and Employment.(1999) All our futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. Sudbury: DfEE Publications.

Eisner, E. (1985) The educational imagination. New York: MacMillan.

Hughes, A. (1998) ‘Reconceptualising the art curriculum’, Journal of Art and Design Education Volume 17, No. 1, pp. 41-49, Oxford: Blackwell.

Jones, D.J. (2000) Adults, Aesthetics and Lifelong Learning in The Adult Curriculum. Nottingham: Continuing Education Press, School of Continuing Education, University of Nottingham.

Nairne, S. (1987) The State of the Art, Ideas and Images in the 1980’s. London: Chatto & Windus in collaboration with Channel Four Television Company Ltd

Oliver, P. (1973) Art Education for What Future? in Piper, D.W. ed. (1973) Readings in Art and Design Education 1: After Hornsey. London: Davis-Poynter.

Steers, J. (2004) Art and Design in White, J. ed. (2004) Rethinking the Curriculum: Values, aims and purposes. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

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