Written by:
Shabna Begum

Crisis point: Race and inclusion in art education

Read time:
7 minutes

Crisis point: Race and inclusion in art education

A major new report by the Runnymede Trust and the Freelands Foundation shows that secondary school teachers and students in England are rooted in a system that cannot support their efforts to improve experiences of art education. Our interim CEO, Shabna Begum, outlines the key findings. 

Last month, the Runnymede Trust and our partners at Freelands Foundation launched Visualise, the first major piece of research into race and ethnicity in GCSE art education. Our findings confirm what art educators have been saying for years: we’re at crisis point.

Students are selecting arts subjects at declining rates and there are well-known difficulties in teacher recruitment, retention and the allocation of resources. This cannot be detached from what many in the education space note as the devaluing of the arts through policies that have increased the status and value of other subjects. While the contours of these broader issues are widely known, what has received less attention is the issue of representation.

‘Only 8.4 per cent of artists referenced in GCSE art exam papers are artists of colour’

Our research found that the GCSE art curriculum remains overwhelmingly narrow. Only 8.4 per cent of artists referenced in GCSE art exam papers are artists of colour. Among these, just 2.3 per cent are from Black (1.54 per cent) or South Asian (0.74 per cent) backgrounds.

This is in stark contrast to what students and teachers alike are asking for. Two-thirds of secondary school students want to study artists from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds, and 90 per cent of the teachers we surveyed said that supplementary resources dedicated to the work of minority ethnic artists would aid their teaching.

Students from all backgrounds, but especially those from communities of colour, told us how detached their art lessons feel from their own personal experiences. As a person of working-class, Bangladeshi heritage, the experiences they shared resonated with my own experiences of school from over 30 years ago.

I studied art like someone with the ‘access’ seats at the back of an auditorium with restricted view: there, but not quite included like others with whom I shared that space. Neither did I feel comfortable or represented in arts spaces such as galleries, and I carried a similar sense of intruding into a world that was not mine on school visits. It feels extraordinary to me that decades later, despite some progressive work at developing an inclusive curriculum and gallery outreach programmes, students still feel out of place in these spaces.

‘Art education in school offers a representation of the world’

Improving the art education journey and experience is important not just for students of colour or those interested in studying art, it matters for all students more generally. Art education in school offers a representation of the world and its artistic heritage. It teaches students broad transferable skills they will carry through life. In the best art lessons, students are taught to think creatively and innovatively and to explore their emotional selves in ways that are not nourished in other parts of their education.

What is clear from our research is that, even where there is clear and good intention from teachers to provide broad and diverse art lessons, teachers lack the confidence and tools to engage with issues around race and identity in their classrooms in a sensitive and meaningful way.

I was a teacher for over 20 years in East London. I fully understand the pressures that teachers are under. They are overworked, under-resourced and enormously devalued. Despite clearly doing the best they can to support diverse art practices within their classrooms, their efforts are rooted in a system that is not designed to support attempts to improve experiences of art education.

'Powerful stories about who ‘we’ are and what we value’

At a time of political and economic crisis, it may appear frivolous to focus on art education. But in many ways it is precisely the time we should. Not only are the arts a vibrant part of the economy but, in terms of cultural identity and belonging, they are also the space that tells powerful stories about who ‘we’ are and what we value.

When so much of our identity and values are articulated through artistic representation, we need to ensure that there is a healthy diversity of artists that are entering that space and that young people are energised and encouraged to pursue arts careers and contribute to that artistic imaginary.

This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Schools Week. Find out more about Visualise at runnymedetrust.org/visualise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: Haverstock School Year 9 Workshop with artist Sam Ayre, 2022. Photo: Eric Adyin-Barberini. Courtesy: Freelands Foundation. 

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