Art Education - Mixed feelings

David Dye, December 2011

I began teaching part-time at what was then Newcastle Polytechnic in 1980. The structure of the Fine Art Course was similar to that I experienced as a student on my Diploma in Art and Design course at St Martin`s School of Art between 1969-72. Perhaps structure is overstating it: the only event which happened on the same day each week at the same time were Art History lectures. Otherwise there were ad hoc studio discussions around students art work, and tutorials with staff were available if a student asked. Very little was written down: neither students nor staff were required to write reports on their meetings. It was assumed that the dialogue engaged in between tutor and student would be evidenced (or not) in the development of the art work. Reports by staff were only written at the end of each term. Criteria of assessment, as written in the course handbook was not visibly used as a guide. The eventually agreed position of the student was argued out between experienced staff: no marks that I remember, just a 1st, 2.1, etc.. Perhaps this laid back approach was not only because of the traditional `art school` ambiance, but also because in 1980 there were half the number of current students in the Fine Art Department and at least twice the number of staff. Each member of staff knew the development of every student.

Everything changed in 1992: not only did Newcastle Polytechnic become Northumbria University, but I became a full-time Senior Lecturer. Like many artists I originally entered art teaching in order to maintain my own practice. Students gain from being taught by artists- those who may have similar interests and concerns regarding creativity. In my early days as a part-time visiting lecturer, I avoided the politics of the institution and its attendant bureaucracy and the administrative elements which full-time staff must deal with. As a full-timer I did not naturally take to administration, and I found the constant changes over the last twenty years or so, particularly irksome, although a steep learning curve. The University went through the process of, at first unitisation, and then modularisation. What at first seemed a parcelling up of an integrated teaching and learning experience was frustrating and did not reveal its positive and negative aspects until later on. Fine Art then became a part of the School of Arts and Social Sciences: what felt like the art school bubble of previous years became in reality a very small department in a very big University. This point was thrust home more effectively a couple of years ago when management ushered in a University- wide Undergraduate, followed by a Postgraduate, framework. This made clear that the management perceived Fine Art as a subject fit to be taught in the same way as, say computer studies or design. A wrong headed one size fits all mentality.

When Northumbria went through the first RAE research assessment, it was badly managed and so brought a sense of panic amongst the staff. Staff were split into small groups to cover different elements of the evidence of the teaching and learning we offered. I remember taking work home every night over the couple of months leading up to the assessment. A sense of the blind leading the blind was compounded by finding out later that someone in another group was covering the same evidence as me. Work was being unnecessarily duplicated. The only upside was that Art and Design were being assessed together and we all got to know other academics who before we just said hello to in the corridor. When it came to it, meeting the assessment team was an anti-climax: they were academics just like us, and in the event we were well rehearsed and knew our jobs inside out. However, during those two months I got nearest to feeling that I wanted to resign in all my 30 years at Northumbria. During this time I may have become more cynical about art institutions, but I have maintained my love of the value of art teaching and the essence of the way I teach did not change.

But what of the students experience during all these institutional changes? When I was a student the notion of Professional Practice was not on my radar and certainly not on the agenda:at St Martin`s we were not even required to learn how to compile a CV. There were no placements for students in different institutions, as far as I was aware. At Northumbria, Professional Practice modules include lectures by visiting artists, student placements, exhibitions on site and off. Students now are required to evidence their knowledge of the context they are working within. The student experience seems to me now to be much more well rounded with support and guidance offered at the outset.

More students are entering BA courses now without doing a foundation, straight from 6th form, or they do a foundation degree and many find that they flounder during the two years of a BA: independent learning is hard for those who need constant support and assurance. As an art student myself who started at 22 rather than the usual 18, `independent study` was what I mostly did anyway, not a separate part of a module. The wholistic enterprise of creativity is now divided up into too many modules for some students. They often become confused – however much guidance they are given, as to what evidence of activity is assessed in which module. As assessment has become more formalised students become more aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and progress further if they are of a temperament to use feedback constructively.

Although I believe that, overall, art education has improved during my time at Northumbria (apart from the fees), this has been because of the, mostly unsung, efforts of the teaching staff. Over the years I have seen staff take time off due to stress related illness, who work more hours than they are contracted for, in order to get things done properly (in spite of `workload agreements`) Who, like myself, in spite of (`research days`) found little motivation or energy, to maintain an ongoing artistic practice. Colleagues who because of the low staffing levels have found it increasingly difficult to find the time to meet together for discussion.


On a positive note I cannot imagine being suited for any other kind of job, and I have worked with colleagues who have become friends. I consider my years in art education as fortunate.