Tag Archives: school

What History of Art A-level meant to me

I have got used to shaking my head in disbelief when the government’s latest education initiatives are announced, but when I read this week that A-level History of Art had been removed from the options lists forever it hit me harder than I was expecting.

This is not the only subject to have been made a relic by the Tories after all – the full list of opportunities that are no longer available to our young people filled me with fury. But twenty-two years ago History of Art succeeded in saving the dying dregs of interest in academia from the apathy of my sixteen year old self – and it is no exaggeration to say that without it my life could have turned out very differently.

I moved from Birmingham to London for my sixth form studies. I didn’t want to at the time – nothing against London per se, but my mental health was fragile and I couldn’t see a way forwards without my small but trusted circle of friends by my side.

My academic record was strong, but the ‘A’ grades hid a complete lack of interest in my studies – and a complete lack of confidence in my self. I selected my next raft of subjects pretty randomly – A-levels in History, English and Biology, and AS level in French. I wasn’t much more inspired by these than any of the other, mainly traditional, offers on the table, but I figured I’d be able to see them through.

Then in my first week at my new school, and my very first lesson with my new French class, I mustered up the confidence to speak and was laughed at by the stranger who was my teacher because of my (admittedly pretty dodgy) French accent. I walked out of the lesson through a blur of tears, and after a brief conversation with the administrators switched to an A-level in History of Art – one of the few subjects still with space, and something that piqued my interest with its novelty.

It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.


Our class was small – there were six of us I think, meaning that in today’s cash-strapped educational climate the course probably wouldn’t have run at all. I couldn’t be invisible in that room though – not like my other classes where I often slept behind a carefully placed hand propped on the desk.

I learnt so much more than was contained within the confines of the subject. I learnt how to plan an essay – techniques which I applied to great success in all of my A-level subjects and have used endlessly since as a student and as a teacher. I learnt how to revise, and how to organise my time. I learnt that it was ok to be interested in something that not many people saw the value of – and that in fact sometimes the most obtuse pursuits can bring the most personal reward.

The subject itself, it turned out, was so much more than I could have ever hoped for.

There was an interplay between art and science, which appealed to the way my brain works: I never have been very good at putting things in boxes. This was particularly true with our study of the history of architecture, with the exploration of classical forms bringing mathematical certainty into the sometimes nebulous analysis of artistic endeavours, and the ways generations of architects riffed around them giving me concrete examples of how creativity evolves.

Understanding how buildings and towns were designed made me think, too, about the way our society is structured – something which we also discussed animatedly when we looked at the work of artists who protested explicitly against the societies they worked within, comparing that in turn with those who played by the rules to fit into the canon. Generally I learnt loads about our culture, and that of other countries. We went on a group trip to Paris (where finally I got to work on that French accent) and wherever else I travelled then and since I found myself looking at the world through a new pair of eyes.

Beyond the studies, my personal self was developing too. I had found my first intellectual tribe – a very necessary counterpoint to my emerging new social group who whilst they would go on to include lifelong friends did not encourage the healthiest of pursuits.

Weekends of clubbing, house parties and festivals meant that (at least) the start of each week often passed in a blur – but I could not let myself let things slip entirely because I didn’t want to sacrifice the learning and the community that my History of Art lessons gave.

This motivation, and the skills I learnt as a result of it, carried me through to another surprisingly good set of grades, and from there on to university – to study History of Art, along with Philosophy.

My History of Art A-level taught me that I am on a fundamental level an intellectual, but that the intellectual study I enjoy is one firmly rooted in society. It taught me that I respect those who know when to play by the rules, and when to break them. It gave me the confidence to express my opinions about the world around me and the people who inhabit it: that even if my opinions are not the same as those shared by others my ability to explain them is more important than just fitting in.

I’m not saying that every teenager would respond the way I did to this particular subject, but I honestly think that the fact that it was not as ‘pure’ as the other subjects I was studying, not quite so epic in its scope, made it easier to delve deeper into it, to create links for myself rather than having to regurgitate the views which were expected of me. It gave me an outlet for my stifled creativity, and the confidence to think.

Studying History of Art gave me the skills to collaborate with a friend to put on art exhibitions, to develop my photography, to teach Media and Film. It enriched my analysis of literature, and ultimately gave me the confidence to put pen to paper myself and give voice to the stories in my head.

It makes me so sad that because besuited politicians in Westminster cannot see the value in this subject future generations of teenagers might not have the opportunity to ignite the spark that might propel them along an unexpected path.

Like so many of the educational reforms that make me angry, this reduction in options seems to be driven by a misplaced certainty in what our society needs. What we really want is the space to make that decision for ourselves.


Writing Bubble

Today is the day

Today is the day: the day that thousands of parents up and down the country refuse to accept for a moment longer that what the government is doing to our education system is ok.

I am so impressed and inspired by how the Let Our Kids Be Kids campaign has grown, in little over a month, from five parents concerned about the impact the SATs are having on their own children to a national movement. It has been covered by all major news outlets in the UK, with public debates raging about the damaging nature of the SATs and the extent to which taking kids out on strike will have an impact.

To that I would say: it has already had an impact. Teachers and school leaders across the country have come out and expressed their thanks and support for the campaign, the NAHT has passed a motion calling for a complete review of primary assessment, and the DfE has shown its disquiet in public statements from Nicky Morgan and the release of pro-SATs propaganda which, as all of us would expect, shows a complete misunderstanding of what constitutes meaningful learning for our children.

If you are taking part in the strikes, awesome. If you can’t – whether because it’s not right for you and your kids, or you don’t have kids of the relevant age, or you don’t have kids – then that does not mean you do not have a part to play.

If you are keeping your kids off school today, then please include the hashtag ‪#‎THISislearning‬ in your social media posts about whatever wonderful activities you get up to.

If you will not be taking part in the strike for whatever reason, then please use the hashtag to add your voice to the debate – share with us images, experiences, quotes, links, or anything else that will help this government understand what learning really looks like.

So many people I know are despairing about the state of our education system at the moment, but too many of them believe that there is nothing they as individuals can do to make a difference.

But we are not just individuals any more, and now is the time for our voices to be heard.

Together we are stronger.


Holiday time

Last week, driven by the bleakness of January weather and the fog of sleep deprivation brought on by an attack of croup, we booked a week in Cyprus over Easter. We had to suck it up and book during the school holidays in order to fit in with Leigh’s term times. Not ideal, but I’m used to it.

You may have noticed that the issue of school holidays has been in the news a lot recently. More specifically, the issue of whether or not it’s reasonable for parents to take their children out of school for holidays in term time. The Sutherlands would argue that it absolutely is, and they have growing support from another one of those petitions that seem to be dominating popular involvement in politics nowadays.

There’s a part of me (the future parent of a school age child part of me) that has a lot of sympathy with them. Why shouldn’t I be able to take my son out of school for a couple of weeks if I so choose? He’s my son after all. And as a parent I know I’m going to provide all sorts of exciting learning experiences beyond the confines of the classroom – family holidays being a perfect springboard for these either by design or by happy accident. Holidays outside of term time are expensive (believe me, after ten years of teaching, I know), and who knows whether my future doctor husband will be able to take his leave when it suits the school anyway? Having had those ten years of being constrained by the school timetable – and particularly with Gove’s plans to cut holiday time for teachers and young people – I’m really not looking forward to the inflexibility of my son’s schooling dictating the experiences we can have as a family.

But then the pondering begins. Ignoring uncharitable thoughts about other parents not necessarily prioritising educational experiences when planning a holiday, I simply cannot let go of how important it is for schools and young people that we don’t sanction a free for all in families taking a holiday whenever it suits.

Thinking that two weeks out of the classroom won’t really have an impact on a child’s education essentially shows a total lack of understanding of what goes on in schools these days. Project work, inquiry based learning, development of thinking skills – hardly the sort of stuff that can be covered by a few hastily photocopied worksheets even if they ever were to make their way out of the bottom of the suitcase. Teachers spend hours planning schemes of work that will take their charges on a learning journey. Ten days of holiday is fifty hours of that journey spread across many different subjects – an awful lot to catch up on, and I’d argue pretty much impossible for even the most diligent of learners.

I’m not saying that fifty hours of learning in school is worth more than the two weeks of family time. In fact I’d agree that two weeks spent in Rome, say, with the right experiences offered and the right questions asked, could be infinitely more valuable in isolation. But the thing is that’s not really the point. Once you’ve decided to buy into the state education system, to take what a school has to offer and to trust them to educate your child, you kinda have to follow their rules.

Attendance is a key factor by which schools are judged – and rightly so when you consider the impact attendance has on young people’s achievement. I won’t go into the figures here, but they’re pretty stark. Schools and teachers are held to account for how well young people do in schools on a whole variety of measures, but they simply cannot do their job if pupils aren’t there.

And pupils do miss out too – whether it’s not being there to help their group complete a project, not getting to give a presentation they’ve been working towards for weeks, or just having less time to spend on a topic they’ve developed an interest in. I find it bizarre that parents can believe that nothing of value is missed in two whole weeks of lesson time. Doesn’t say much about their faith in the school – why bother to send their kids there at all?

Rather than expecting young people to cope with the disruption to their school experience, and teachers to juggle the knock on effects of pupils randomly missing a week or two here and there, I think we, as a society, have to look at the reasons why parents are looking beyond the thirteen weeks of school holiday time already provided. It’s pretty outrageous that those involved in the holiday industry think it’s ok to hike their prices up at the only time when families are able to travel. And it’s pretty unreasonable for employers not to demonstrate flexibility to enable their workers to spend time with their children. After all, it’s those children who are going to grow up to be the work force of the future, so they need their education!

Back to where I stand on this personally, as a parent, and one who loves travelling at that. To be honest, for a multitude of reasons I’m starting to think I might home school Arthur, for the first few years at least. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores right now – that’s the subject for another post. But if or when he joins a local school I hope it will be with my full support for the teachers and what they are striving to achieve. To expect a flexible two week window of your choice where you can remove your child from the school community – not just once, but every year of their education – is I think to miss the point of choosing to be part of that community in the first place. It’s just a shame that the wider society can’t put its money where its mouth is and demonstrate its support for education by removing the barriers that are driving parents to take such drastic measures in pursuit of a holiday they can enjoy with their family.