The news that arts and textiles teacher Andria Zafirakou was the winner of the Global Teacher Prize was fantastic. As a London-based art and design teacher, seeing a subject colleague recognised on an international platform made me brim with pride. Her win was thoroughly deserved, and something we should not just celebrate, but also learn from.
The global recognition of Andria is somewhat at odds with how some view our subject nationally. With increasing budget and performance pressures, the arts can be neglected as a curriculum area; it’s not a core subject so it’s often not a development priority. My secondary teacher colleagues talk of the impact of the EBacc and department restructuring, with fewer children taking arts subjects and arts teachers being made redundant. In primary schools, arts teaching varies, depending on the vision of the leadership. I’ve seen art blocked into as little as once a week over a half term.
This is a shame considering the rich opportunities for learning that the subject allows. I have worked at my primary school in East London as the Specialist Teacher of Art and Design for the past three years. I appreciate working in a school that values the arts, and understands the impact creative learning opportunities have on children. Art is taught to all of our children, from nursery to year 6 every week, and there is also a Specialist Teacher of Music.
For me, teaching art and design in an area of high disadvantage has been extremely rewarding. Our borough faces tough challenges around poverty and inequality; it has a high unemployment rate (7.7%) and the highest rate of children living in poverty (43%) in London. But I have found that the arts can really support our children in school.
For a start, many children enjoy the lessons; I see plenty of fist-pumps when they realise they have an art lesson. I think a big draw is that it gives my pupils the opportunity and autonomy to communicate in a personal way. More than 88% of our children have English as an Additional Language (EAL); art and design is a powerful form of visual literacy which can help children express themselves in a way other than words. Drawing from close observation, exploring the properties of clay to create something three dimensional, or responding visually to a cross-curricular learning theme, are all opportunities for expression encouraging focus, fine motor skills and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.
Take Muhammed* as an example. He is an elective mute but he listens intently to every process taught in art and responds with the most beautiful and carefully considered work. He is EAL, and enjoys experimenting with different techniques after seeing them modelled. He is only five years old, but will concentrate for over an hour in art, adding meticulous detail and proudly holding up his work when he is finished. Muhammed has communicated his understanding in a wide range of topics to me, through mark making and composition.
Ibrahim* has also drawn great confidence from his art work. He struggles with maths and English, but has been recognised for his art. A quiet child who is always the first to turn up to the weekly session, he will talk enthusiastically about the art he has created. His mum told me that he had developed such an interest in the subject that he wanted to continue at secondary school. These accomplishments keep me motivated, as I watch young children grow in confidence and self-esteem.
It’s not just that the arts transform students either – it has real economic impact. The creative industries are a fast-growing sector of the UK economy and offer children many inspiring and varied careers by developing skills in critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. We have arts professionals come into school to show our children what careers are out there, what is possible, and how far an art education can reach.
The judges of the Global Teacher Award understood the work of a dedicated art and design teacher, and I hope that this recognition will change the state of the arts in our country. The benefits of a creative education are far-reaching and inclusive. In my role, I continue to help set up our children creatively and culturally for the future. I think my proudest moments in teaching are yet to come – I can’t wait to see what our children grow up to be.
*All names have been changed.
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