Case Study 1: Spencer Comprehensive

Spencer Comprehensive

Spencer is a mixed 11-18 comprehensive school. The school, rated outstanding by Ofsted, has been a specialist Visual Arts College since 2002. The Head of Art & Design has been at the school for three decades, and has been a leading member of the National Society for Education in Art and Design.  There is a purpose-built art gallery, open to the public. The departmental team has 6 members, as well as an Artist in Residence, who works in the school and with feeder primaries. The space available to the Department is extensive:  5 interlinked studios, a darkroom, a kiln, a computer suite.

The department describes its working principles in these terms:

At Spencer School we believe that the visual arts offer the opportunity for students to complete a synthesis of experience through the elements of perception, thought and feeling. This illumination of experience is basic to the education process enriching both other areas of the curriculum and students’ social skills. We feel that through understanding, creating, making and evaluation, the student acquires more highly-developed discrimination and judgement. We seek to broaden the students’ background knowledge and appreciation of art in a variety of genres and styles from different cultures and times, believing that this broadens their appreciation and understanding of other cultures, artistically, socially and historically. This informs and enables the development of their own creative practice. These opportunities do not just apply to students at school, but to the whole realm of life-long learning and to the broad spectrum of groups within Spencer’s community, that is, our partner schools, parents, staff, community groups, local artists, local business and industry. We are keen to ensure that these opportunities are available to all and can become reality. (School website).

Our observations tended to confirm this self-description. The Department was organised as a working environment, with an explicit orientation towards initiating students into a community of practice, with clear values, purposes and norms of behaviour. Traditions of artistic practice, as the above statement suggests, provided central reference points for this practice, whose pedagogic features we will now go on to analyse.
The organisation of space and resources provided the clearest indication that learning and teaching were informed by disciplinary fine art and design traditions. The department’s inter-connected studios were at once spaces of work, spaces of curation, and spaces of learning. The workspace of the artist in residence, whose focus was ceramics, was at the centre of the studio ‘complex’, which accommodated work in several different media, conducted at the same time.  Space was given to exhibits – a wall of sculpted heads; a cabinet of curiosities. This visual density, and the proliferation of objects and artefacts that comprised it, was in striking contrast, in terms of semiotic resource, to the rooms of other subject departments, adjacent to the studio, whose bareness was evident. The overall effect of ‘studio-ness’ was mitigated, however, by other artefacts – posters and information sheets setting out curricular and assessment requirements. The organisation of time likewise emulated that of studio practice: tasks, particularly those of older students, did not seem time-limited, though obviously the timeframe of coursework and final examinations was a prominent point of reference – an instrumental rationality that the disciplinary world could not exclude.
In this context, particular teaching methods had become embedded. There was little front-of-class teaching. Teachers worked alongside students, seeking to help them resolve technical or aesthetic problems: teacher comments tended to be appreciative – ‘that looks interesting’ rather than didactic; evaluative language of a stronger type tended not to be used. Teachers made reference to the work of artists working in the same medium or with similar ideas to the students, thus positioning students as artists working in an established domain. It seemed plain that the artist in residence was not an exceptional presence in the Department, but rather someone who brought specialist skills than could complement those already in the possession of teachers. During the period in which we observed classes, we saw students working individually, rather than in groups. Older students worked independently, on what were clearly long-term projects (textiles, sculpture) without a high level of teacher intervention. Students were encouraged to explain, and to reflect on, their work. ‘Off-task’ talk was tolerated, though not, so far as we could see, participated in by teachers, who needed to tread a line between insisting on application, and closing down discussions that might have had productive outcomes. Overall, this kind of organisation of learning was something consciously worked for by the Department, especially in the lower years of the school.
The language of the Spencer website echoes the terms of the Delors definition of ‘learning to know’, with its emphasis on breadth of knowledge and understanding, and the development of discrimination and appreciation as a basis for lifelong learning. The (re)creation of school workspace as studio was accompanied by a disciplinary discourse that encouraged students to locate themselves in terms of artistic traditions. These were understood, to an extent, in global terms, though the dominant emphasis, certainly as far as fine art was concerned, was Western. Visits to Paris, Venice and Barcelona worked to reinforce this emphasis.  Teachers sought ‘real world’ settings for the students’ art practice: textile work, arising from a visit to a local gallery, formed the basis of an exhibition of Year 10 students’ own artefacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. 

Spencer therefore provided an unusually clear example of a long-term project of art education, very strongly rooted in the school’s identity, in the disciplinary resources of a well-defined artistic tradition, and possessing high status. It could be said to make an ontological offer to students: art not only as a subject, but artistic practice as a habitus that students might want to adopt, in toto. In terms of creative practice, this is both wider and more circumscribed than models of creativity that are made available in other school contexts: wider, because it opens the possibility of creative practice as the basis of a career, narrower because creativity has necessarily become specialised.