Visualise: race and inclusion in secondary school art education

Written by:
Dr Shabna Begum, Marlene Wylie, Hassaan Anwari, and Simon Hood
Read time:
45 minutes

Art is one of the only subjects that explicitly offers a space for personal exploration, where students are encouraged to respond to the world and their place within it. Art lessons are therefore a unique opportunity for students to explore their own identities, heritage and experiences, and those of others. It is vital that art education is inclusive and inspiring for all students. 

“I owe everything to my experience of art class in secondary school. I found it a safe place where I (for the first time) felt I was worth something. Through art I learnt how to read and enjoy being still. I became more interested in English and science because I began to understand their intersections with creativity. I owe art class and my art teacher everything. It saved my life.”
Rene Matić, artist 

That’s why the Runnymede Trust and Freelands Foundation partnered to deliver Visualise, the first major research into race and ethnicity in art education. We want to ensure art education is accessible and fulfilling for all students, and that teachers are supported to deliver a broad and engaging curriculum.

Our research confirms what art educators have been saying for years: that art education in the UK is at crisis point. Although teachers are doing the best they can to nurture diverse art practices within their classrooms, their best efforts are rooted in an education system that cannot support either students’ or teachers’ efforts to improve their experiences of art education.  

Our findings

Despite the creative potential of art and design education, the classroom experience has become limited by an educational system that encourages well-worn routes to ‘grade-success’ that favour a narrow art canon. Young people are losing so much of the richness and innovation that learning and making art should offer. 

GCSE exam papers remain incredibly limiting - just 2.3% of named stand alone artists referenced in GCSE Art exam papers are from Black (1.54%) or South Asian (0.74%)  backgrounds. 

This is at stark odds with what both students and teachers are asking for. Nearly two thirds (66%) of secondary school students want to study artists from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds, rising to 80% among Black students.

We also recorded a strong desire amongst teachers to diversify their teaching content for the benefit of their students. But teachers are under pressure, overworked and under-resourced. A third of teachers had not encountered the work of any minority ethnic artists in their own education, with 90% of teachers surveyed saying that supplementary teaching resources dedicated to the work of minority ethnic artists would aid their teaching.

“First, we must ask where are art educators taking their lead from? If it is a historical notion of ‘canon’, as is often the case, then students will learn – as I did in my ’80s and ’90s state education in inner London – that art is made by dead European men.”
Artist and educator, Visualise focus group 

Echoing a broader theme emerging from educators across subjects and key stages, teachers also feel unsupported in how to discuss race in their classrooms. Fewer than 4 in 10 teachers surveyed felt sure of the correct language to use when teaching the work of minority ethnic artists, with 82% asking for additional standardised content on race and diversity. Teachers need support and confidence in teaching about these issues. Without standardised guidance, they are being forced to navigate these complex discussions on their own; in a subject which demands students explore identity and experiences. When teachers are equipped to nurture reflection and discovery with the students they know best, they can transform the way young people think and engage with the world around them. 

“Looking back, what my art teacher, Carla Mindel, facilitated was curiosity. She created an environment where I could identify questions and cultural interests and pursue them through art and culture. At school, art and culture never felt superfluous or secondary, it was relevant and vital, equipping me with the tools to reflect on my place in the world, communicate and contribute to the world. I was empowered to make, think, play and do.”
Harold Offeh, artist

Our recommendations

We’re calling for diversity and representation standards to be established in GCSE assessment materials, alongside better resources for teachers that support a broad and diverse curriculum. This must be accompanied with improved racial literacy training and support for teachers in all subject areas. Finally, we want to see closer partnerships between teachers and galleries, so that students can enjoy the breadth of contemporary practice in real life. 

For exam boards:

  • Establish standards for inclusion and diversity in GCSE assessment materials.
  • Improve access to teacher and curriculum resources that support a broad and diverse curriculum.
  • Improve racial literacy and curriculum development skills for teachers.

For policy-makers:

  • Investigate low levels of engagement in art lessons and extracurricular enrichment activities offered by schools.
  • Improve understanding and promotion of the skills gained in art and creative subjects.
  • Improve the data landscape around art education across all levels of education.

For the visual arts sector:

  • Improve partnerships between galleries and schools, with specific attention to diversity and representation.

It’s time to imagine an art education that meets its creative and innovative potential, one which is broad, inclusive and will equip students with the tools they need to navigate and thrive, whether or not they decide to pursue further education, or a career, in the visual arts. Art is powerful; it helps us to visualise ourselves in the present, and to project into the future; we need to imagine that future in a way that is truly inclusive, and those efforts need to start in our art classrooms, now.

“Today, we live in a world drenched in cultural products. Through our waking moments, we are surrounded by the designed, fabricated, structured, scribed, and edited results of human creative endeavour. Artists and designers should bring with them influences, approaches, ideas, and solutions drawn from the spectacular array of possibilities afforded by the social and cultural diversity of our contemporary societies. This process must start in the classroom.”
Keith Piper, artist, Foreword

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