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New school curriculum report: Leonardo for seven-year-olds?

A renewed emphasis on Western art is apparent

A report by the National Curriculum Council on the teaching of art in British State schools has strongly recommended an increased emphasis on Western art and its exponents, overturning previous proposals by the Art Working Group, which last year set out in the new national curriculum on art that more time be devoted to studying the art of the various ethnic groups that are now part of British culture.

In his introduction to the report, the Chairman, David Pascall, reported that the Council had strengthened the content of the curriculum “in the areas of the history of art, our diverse artistic heritage and the appreciation of a variety of artistic traditions”. The Council did not consider that the working group had placed enough emphasis on the study of art history and wished to ensure that “by the age of fourteen [the age at which the study of art is no longer compulsory] pupils have had the opportunity to develop an essential core of knowledge and understanding about major periods of art.”

It is in the area of “Knowledge and Understanding”, set as one of the attainment targets in the report, that the renewed emphasis on Western culture is most evident. Projects for seven-year-olds include considering the theme of mother and child in the works of Leonardo, Henry Moore and Mary Cassatt, and the theme of animals in the works of Stubbs and Elizabeth Frink, while at eleven, children might compare the sculptural techniques of Michelangelo, Epstein and Giacometti. At fourteen, pupils are expected to be able to “understand the principal features of our artistic heritage and appreciate a variety of other artistic traditions” by considering the work of Donatello, Dürer, Rembrandt, Poussin, Gainsborough, Turner, Cézanne, Braque and Dali and “analysing the distinctive contribution” each artist made. Projects which do include the study of non-European works usually rely on comparison with Western modes; for example, studying the kite in Chinese, Japanese, Indian and European traditions.

Reaction to the report has been divided. The National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers labelled it “over the top” and pointed out that “hundreds and thousands of our children are not of European descent”, while the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association thought that most adults would be unable to analyse the work of Mary Cassatt (showing that they had missed the point of the project).

More generally the report has been interpreted as expressive of Education Minister Kenneth Clarke’s desire to resist the creeping tentacles of Political Correctness in the classroom and to reinstate a more structured, factual approach. Clarke’s aims have elicited support in the British press: Richard Morrison in The Times deplored educationalists whose policies have produced a generation of “school-leavers who are philistines through no fault of their own”, while The Daily Telegraph felt that the Council’s emphasis on Investigating and Making would ultimately help children to appreciate the achievements of great art and artists.