All students are artists


‘At the age of 14, all students are still artists, but then the system kicks in to dissuade a significant number from following a creative route in life’ argues design teacher and Deputy Head of Coombe Wood School, Duncan Holding

Where and what do you currently teach/work and in what capacity?

I’m Deputy Headteacher, Coombe Wood School. In my role as an art and design technology teacher, I have spent the last 18 years trying to harness the creative and technical abilities of our children in the face of competing pressures and priorities.

Duncan Holding teaching while at Greenshaw High School in south London.

How did you get into teaching design?

In 2003, following a career working as an assistant art director in film and television, I trained as a teacher. [why?] That experience of the industry in the private sector prior to teaching gave me an insight into the wider creative industries. I’m also often reminded by a quote from Pablo Picasso: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up’.

How important was this period of practice before entering the world of teaching?

I believe that, albeit a while ago, this grounding informed my ability to advise on progression into further education in creative endeavours. [Can you elaborate how this is/was the case

What did you initially aim to achieve when you started out teaching?

My first impression of the design and technology curriculum in my teacher training year was that a significant amount of time and energy were spent promoting knowledge and skills that may very well have no bearing on the real world of design. Why should students at the age of 14 need to be able to write a manufacturing specification or understand the molecular structure of a polymer, rather than spending time refining their drawing, problem solving, technical or practical skills?

This frustration came from a personal understanding of the tools and skills that children would need as stepping stones into the creative industries. Essential technical knowledge can be embedded in a later stage of students’ education. Subsequently, we must start by harnessing those artists, inspiring creative freedom. This approach began to manifest in my second teaching job where I managed the art and design technology faculty at a big mixed comprehensive school in south London. With hard work and careful internal marketing, we improved the perception and reputation of creative subjects within the school and these became burgeoning and popular subjects at both GCSE and A-Level. Over the course of half a dozen years we, as a school, consistently gained some of the best A-Level results in creative arts and design technology subjects nationally. More significantly, we had proudly supported the progression of more than one hundred and fifty students opting to follow a creative pathway into further education, the Assistant Editor of Citizen magazine being one of these alumni.

What have you done since then?

In the subsequent years I have worked in four schools, my current role is as Deputy Headteacher at Coombe Wood School, a new school in south Croydon. I have been employed there for the past four years and have been lucky enough to be involved in the planning and design of both the curriculum and the buildings. We currently have 540 Year 7, 8 and 9 students and will have more than 1,300 when we are at full capacity in a few years’ time. In December last year, following inevitable delays caused by Covid, we moved into our new campus, designed by Sheppard Robson and built by Wates. Despite my whole-school responsibility, I continue to champion creative subjects and will always encourage children who show a particular interest or aptitude in our subjects. Obviously creative subjects have a prominent place in our new school, and the facilities include workshops, fashion design studios, dark rooms, ceramics facilities, art studios and IT rooms. As a team we have carefully planned a creative curriculum that will provide a really broad spectrum of experience for the students in a range of media and specialist spaces. [EXPAND ON THIS, what is the curriculum? What’s good about it?]

What challenges do you face in this new role?

Over the past decade, the two biggest challenges teachers of creative subjects have been confronted with are the continual squeeze on school budgets (we are expensive), and the government’s insistence on STEM subjects and on following something of an outdated academic curriculum model – cue Michael Gove. [what is this outdated model? Our audience won’t know] Both factors have been a major obstacle and have compromised our subjects, leading them to be perceived as either superfluous or too expensive to deliver. Teachers of creative subjects (including the performing arts) face continued pressure, with schools judged according to progress measures that often place our subjects at the bottom of the priority list. Students are often misdirected towards EBacc subjects with the proviso that universities and employers will require a traditional suite of GCSE subjects. I’m not convinced this is true. At the age of 14, all students are still artists, but then the system kicks in to dissuade a significant number from following a creative route in life.

Our reputation for arts education in the UK is second to none and we must continue to encourage and play to these strengths. As the government champions the likes of Dyson — a product designer (and one of many world leaders produced by the UK) and as Boris implores us to ‘Build, build, build!’ — it’s perplexing that the required innovative skills induced by design teaching are being eschewed. Nonetheless, it’s up to teachers and educators across the country to resist this, and continue to inspire and nurture these students, providing them with the building blocks needed to support our strong, dynamic and exciting creative industries.

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