Bold Art Leadership

Whether we talk about it or not, art as a subject sits outside some of the norms of the other subjects in schools, and if it doesn’t then maybe we aren’t doing it right. Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating a total rejection of school rules or promoting anarchy, but I do want to encourage art leaders to be bold in their art leadership. This means knowing when a standard school approach to something, such as planning, marking or CPD just doesn’t work well for art and design. I have focused on the three areas that stand out to me for these reasons. I hope some of what I write might help you to defend/explain/educate others on your professional decisions.

Planning documents: If you have attended any training with me then you will already know that when it comes to planning docs, I suggest pasting in thumbnails of the (main) artwork that you will be looking at, and including thumbnail images of the artists you will cover. Selecting the art and artists you will look at with students is one of the biggest decisions an art leader makes, and has an impact on how the subject looks and feels in your school. So it makes sense to showcase this aspect in the planning documents.

I also find that visible images rather than text, is a good way to ensure balanced coverage of medium and art and artists. It makes the planning document a visual one, which is in alignment with the visual subject. In addition, any visitors who are handed, for example, a yearly overview of years 1 – 6, will get an instant impression of the fantastic range of art and experiences the children will be exposed to.

I tend to stay away from things like LOs in planning documents, I find them restrictive and they can actually have the effect of limiting outcomes. Being a slave to the planning is never a good thing in art. If teachers stick too rigidly to objectives they might miss all of the other non quantifiable learning opportunities that will happen organically in an art lesson. Yes, we need to have a plan for what we will share with the children as stimulus, which materials we will need and what we want the students to get out of a lesson (tangibly or otherwise) but with art, so much of what we do is about trusting a creative process and learning as things unfold. Whilst the children might need to learn certain specifics in art, these might not be the ‘main’ learning points and certainly won’t be the only ones.

Artists know that as we create with our hands and minds, we are gaining an embodied knowledge that will feed into future work and ideas – it is more expansion than progression that we are concerned with.

The problem is that if art teachers or leaders do not have personal experience of creativity broadly, but also specifically with the materials they are teaching about, then they might struggle to ‘trust the process’. In which case it makes sense that such teachers would try to predict the exact learning that will take place, and in measured stages. That brings me to my next issue, one of CPD.

CPD or CCD: I worked for many years and in different schools as a primary art leader and teacher, and it was often challenging to find appropriate CPD experiences. I had come from a secondary school teaching background and I am an artist, so most of the courses on offer were too introductory for me and not worth the time or money. More recently, I worked part time as a primary art teacher and wrote my book, hosted CPD courses and did some other pieces of writing around my teaching. In this time, because I was so immersed int he world of primary art education, I really found very little in the way of formal CPD to stimulate or inspire me, any more than I could source for myself on the internet or in books.

I came to realise that the ways that I engaged with art were actually CCD in themselves. I have replaced the P for Professional with a C for Creative. Here are some suggestions for Art Leader CCD – an hour or afternoon well spent!

Related to art, artists and art movements:

Watching documentaries

Listening to podcasts

Visiting exhibitions

Reading books – not necessarily about teaching art!

Making your own art – follow a book, video or just play with materials and see what happens!

Talk to a practicing artist about their processes and ideas

Of course, there are some brilliant, more traditional CPD offerings available too. I have online options and a session coming up in January,


Marking and Assessment: This comes up again and again…and again. In late Feb 2021, I will be sharing an online CPD (or should I now be changing this to CCD?!) session that will go into this in more detail. If you would like to know when that is ready to see then please follow my FB page.

Generally though; There are no national levels for art, no specifics we must follow for curriculum content and in my experience, parents don’t ask for grades in art. Senior management ask though, and that is why art leaders feel obliged to develop ways of delivering data around this – and also why when you embark on trying to deliver this, it can feel like trying to place a round peg in a square hole, blindfolded.

In levelling art or logging end of year grades, we must question who is it for? Assessment in other subjects is there to run alongside set bits of knowledge or specific tasks that come via the planning, through the teaching and lessons and hopefully are then seen in the work of the children. We test to see whether the child needs to revisit or move on and extend. In art we do not begin with a clear or specific set of objectives, more often than not teachers have planned the curriculum content themselves, so we have to be really clear on which bits we decide to assess and why. Perhaps the assessment ‘procedure’ needs to be thought out at the planning of the curriculum stage, and will therefore be as varied as planning itself is in different schools.

Generally though, formative feedback is perfect in the art classroom. As the children are working the teacher should be giving feedback to move work on and/or support curiosity and self led learning – balanced with time for the children to be in creative flow. It is a good idea to teach the children ways to review and refine their own work and give peer feedback too, cultivating an environment where the children trust their own opinions and can offer and take useful criticism.

Sketchbooks certainly are not a space for teacher’s marking. If you are an art leader who has never used a sketchbook, then part of your CCD should be to learn about them. The culture of sketchbook use has to be built and nurtured. They are a space for exploration and developing ideas and often they are very expressive and unique to each child (although you might want some basic guidelines). To look at, sketchbooks are similar to scrapbooks and can be very personal objects. I suggest looking at actual examples of GCSE sketchbooks with the children and discussing what makes them different to the books they work in for other subjects. There are also Youtube videos that will help, if you can’t get your hands on an actual sketchbook. When you familiarise yourself with these art books, you will soon see why writing in someones sketchbook is not okay…and you’ll probably want to start using one yourself!

As art leaders we should feel bold enough to defend the fact that art is not about fact learning or attaining levels. It’s about nurturing a visual language (yes there might be some specifics around how to use materials and techniques), being enriched and inspired by creativity, expression of own ideas, multi disciplinary approaches and exploring new concepts and connections…. for starters. These things are not necessarily quantifiable, but part of the art leaders job is to facilitate environments and cultures that are conducive to them. The freedom from competition and trying to do the right thing, often found in quality art provisions, can be an important ingredient.

With all three of these examples, if you have experienced difficulty in getting them to work for you, there is probably a good reason. Trust your instincts and professional judgement. Please don’t waste your time and energy trying to squeeze your subject into frameworks that are not useful to the art learning experiences of the children. It might be that, because of the bespoke nature of your art curriculum, you have to design your own approaches from scratch. Which may seem like extra work, but will probably prove more satisfying than box ticking work.

I am here to support you in leading art, boldly!

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