Thoughts on Assessing Art and Design in Primary Schools

I have often been tempted to proclaim something along the lines of ‘in primary art, assessment is not needed’. What I mean by this is not what it might imply to the ears of the well primed teacher i.e. a badly planned curriculum with children free-falling through a mess of art activities.

However, there is an unfolding of ownership over one’s own learning and ‘progress’ that is an intrinsic part of being an artist; and therefore, should be an integral and natural consideration when planning for art in schools. What has often struck me though, in both my art teaching career and as an art education consultant, is that the act of assessment in art can often prove detrimental to many of these and other naturally occurring benefits possible in a good primary school art provision. It is not the assessment per se that can do this but more how assessment in art is approached and shared with students.

That said, most schools require some form of assessment feedback and documentation to be put in place by their art leaders.

I do not claim an in depth understanding of school subjects other than art. I do however have a sense that for subjects like numeracy and literacy, as well as teacher formative feedback, there are established methods for how assessment is carried out. These subjects, have a predefined structure around how they are taught and often the curricula that schools follow is fairly unified across school settings. This makes assessment a straightforward tool for gauging progress, informing planning and moving the students on to the next stage of their learning – or revisiting prior learning objectives to ‘catch-up’. Not so in art and design.

It is significant here to understand that very often art as a primary school subject, is led by a non art specialist class teacher. I do not mean to discount anyone or their artistic abilities and interests but, in my experience, the pathways into becoming a primary art lead are extremely varied and can result in individuals feeling overwhelmed and ill equipped to design and assess art experiences. The disparity in teacher experience and confidence in teaching art is not necessarily addressed by teacher training courses either, with minimal time spent on art in most PGCE and equivalent courses.

Follow that train of thought with me because, The National Curriculum for primary art is brief and non-specific, leaving a lot open to the interpretation of each school. So, in most cases, it is the job of the art leader to design and plan the entire curriculum for art and design themselves. We are talking about a minimum of 36 schemes of work for your average primary school. The daunting task of selecting the art and artists to look at and learn about, which skills and techniques to be taught and what creative outcomes are to be made frequently falls on the head of one, rather overworked already, art lead. Not to mention the expectations around school display, festive crafts and school events – and assessment.

It is no wonder then, that by the time it comes to assessment in art, most leaders hit a brick wall. I have seen and heard many times, of schools attempting to simply apply the same methods for assessing art as they do in other subjects; but these methods do not always transfer in a way that makes sense, and can lead to further art leader confusion.

Even without the pressure to use pre-existing formats to assess, there are issues. I follow art teacher forums, receive direct messages from teachers and lead CPD for schools and in all these spaces I regularly come across art leaders having the realisation that assessing art is hard at best and just plain bewildering at worst. It can be difficult to pin point exactly what to assess, how useful it actually is to anyone and whether it is necessary at all.

If you have ever delved into art teaching or art curriculum design, you will know that as a taught subject, art doesn’t always fit neatly into tangible strands that have linear progression inherent in them. This makes assessment for progress, in the way that schools and teachers are used to, challenging.

The good news is that for now, the government are not asking for art levels to be submitted or shared; and I am yet to come across a parent demanding to see grades in primary art either. It is not impossible to satisfy the assessment junkies in your school, but let’s acknowledge that we are in fact, free to do this with well thought out approaches that might look different to the status quo in schools.

Art assessment should exist only in as much as it has been designed with an awareness of your school art curriculum, doesn’t compromise the integrity of art and creativity experiences for the students and feeds into a wider ethos about art and creativity.

I will be sharing CPD around approaches to art assessment over the next few months, on The Primary Art Class Facebook page and website.

Rescue our Schools have a page dedicated to alternatives to assessment

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