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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Arts education and creativity promote peace

by Sharon Richards

At the 30th session of the UNESCO General Conference in 1999, the Director-General urged the international community to promote arts education and creativity at school and in other settings as a means of promoting peace. He called upon the UNESCO’s member states "to take appropriate administrative, financial, and legal measures to ensure that the teaching of the arts... is compulsory throughout the school cycle, from nursery school up until the last year of secondary school." In response to that appeal, UNESCO declared that the following decade would focus on promoting the arts in education, and it implemented a program to place arts education at the heart of all educational programs and activities.

The decade is now half over. What is the status of art education in B.C., and what has the province been doing to promote the arts in education? One source of encouragement for the B.C. Art Teachers’ Association (BCATA) is its Art in Public Places program. Both the BCTF and the Ministry of Education, as partners with BCATA in this program, profile the talents of students and raise the profile of the visual arts in education by providing gallery space in their respective offices. The work is rotated to highlight the work of schools around the province, and students are given Robert Bateman sketchbooks as a token of appreciation and an encouragement of their artistic endeavours. Our current minister of education was so pleased with the program that he requested an additional display of student artwork for his own office. Furthermore, teachers committed to arts education, while leery of pre-election promises, welcomed the recent news from the ministry that the fine arts will receive additional funding.

The concerns, however, are numerous. In a decade when our nation has made a commitment to focus on the arts at all grade levels, the ministry has changed its graduation requirements so that students can choose either a Fine Arts 11 or an Applied Skills 11 course, and no longer have to complete both; it is now possible for a student to have no fine arts instruction after Grade 9. There is also widespread concern that Planning 10 and the graduation portfolio requirements, by taking up space in the timetable, are displacing fine arts electives and reducing options. Arts educators are also worried that the upcoming Planning 8/9 requirements will further erode fine arts offerings. Students need to experience a broad range of electives in order to make planning and career choices prior to post-secondary education. It is imperative that they not miss exposure to the richness of what the arts can offer on a personal, experiential level, and that they be exposed to the myriad career possibilities involving the arts.

Not only are we facing a reduction in fine arts requirements and elective choices, but in this decade of the arts, we’re facing the loss of art specialists. For example, while most elementary and middle school teachers teach art, no teacher-training programs in this province have mandatory art courses. Furthermore, with the current trend toward the middle-school configuration, more generalist teachers are moving from the elementary system to the middle school, which means that Art 8 (and sometimes Art 9), which has traditionally been taught by an art specialist, is often being taught by a generalist, who may or may not have had an art methodology course. Additional strain on art education in this province is created by the trend toward multigrade classes that don’t allow for the sequential IRPs to function as they were intended. With a 9–12 split, for example, it is extremely difficult to cover all the learning outcomes of a very sophisticated curriculum, and it is hard to build on foundational skills from one year to the next.

What about the financial measures UNESCO urged us to take to ensure quality education in the arts? Budgets have been cut around the province, and the burden to pay additional course fees has been downloaded to the students, which raises all kinds of social-justice issues. Teachers are attempting to deal with the problem by purchasing fewer and cheaper supplies, but it’s difficult to convince one’s students that their work is valued when the quality of materials is substandard. Elementary teachers have commented that their schools run out of basic supplies like construction paper by March, and that parent advisory committees are trying to raise money to purchase materials so that the teachers in their schools can achieve the learning outcomes required in the IRPs. In a society with have and have-not communities, school budgets should stretch to include all supplies necessary to achieve the learning outcomes of the provincial curriculum.

Thus far, our track record with UNESCO is not strong. One can only hope that the remaining five years of this decade see a turn-around, and that arts education is reinforced, rather than eroded.

Sharon Richards teaches at Westsyde Secondary School, Kamloops and is president of the B.C. Art Teachers’ Association.

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