Like institutions and organisations across society, universities have had to adapt quickly this year to the restrictions enacted in response to Covid-19. Campuses were shutdown, teaching moved online and, in the case of arts courses, degree shows were reinterpreted as virtual showcases. 

While almost all students have shared in the experience of upheaval and disruption, the overarching national picture has played out in a myriad of different ways on the ground. One specific example is Must Should Could, an exhibition resulting from the collaboration between Freelands Foundation and the Art & Design PGCE course at the Institute of Education(IOE), University College London (UCL). Now in its fifth year, the collaboration would have resulted, as normal, this year in a physical exhibition of work by artist teachers enrolled on the course. The implications of lockdown mean that the physical show has instead become an innovative virtual exhibition, presented via the Freelands Foundation website.

With education a key area of interest at The Net Gallery, we’ve taken the opportunity to explore the collaboration between Freelands Foundation and the IOE in detail. Spread over three articles, we explore the perspective from three sides of the partnership – those of the Foundation; the University; and the students – starting here by talking to Freelands Foundation’s Creative Director, Henry Ward:     

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The Net Gallery: How did the partnership between Freelands Foundation and the Art & Design PGCE course at the IOE come about, and why did the Foundation want to work with this course in particular?

Henry Ward: Prior to me joining the Foundation, I had been doing some work with the IOE, visiting lecturing and so on. One of the first areas that we (at Freelands) were interested in exploring was how we could support the training of art teachers and help to develop progressing approaches to art education in schools. I feel passionately that it is by empowering teachers that you can make real change and so it made sense to build on this relationship with the IOE. Of course, it is also the largest university trainer of teachers in the UK, and an institution with an international reputation for education, so it made a lot of sense to work together.

TNG: How does the series of events and activities that the Foundation organises (culminating in the group exhibition) sit alongside the course’s curriculum?

HW: Each year the project has followed a similar pattern, but it’s developed and shifted too, responding to current concerns, interests and contexts. The project starts with me visiting the university and delivering a lecture about my interest in “Teaching as a form of Artistic Practice”. The talk builds on my own direct experience and career – I taught for fourteen years in London schools, eventually becoming a deputy head teacher, and developed radical approaches to teaching art including founding the alTURNERtive Prize, teaching science in art classrooms (called SciArt) and producing and distributing an art and education publication, “AE”, before moving on to be Head of Education at Southbank Centre and then Freelands – and draws on progressive approaches to art education in other contexts. 

The lecture is followed by a practical workshop. This has varied quite a bit over the different iterations of the project but this year it took the form of a game with the cohort divided into different teams with different roles. Each team then created installations in one media attempting to explain how to use another media. It opened up lots of interesting questions about the role of instructions and that was then the direction that the project ended up taking, resulting, eventually, in the exhibition and publication. Once the students are in their placement school they begin working on their own ideas and projects with a view to both the publication and exhibition, and in the spring term a small sub-group meet regularly with me, some of the tutors, and a designer from Studio Hato, to develop the publication and put together ideas for the exhibition. 

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A workshop with IOE artist teachers.

TNG: How challenging was it to adapt to lockdown? What effect did switching from a physical to virtual exhibition have in terms of the time and work involved, both for you and the students? 

HW: The publication side of the project concluded a short while before lockdown started so, aside from logistical issues with getting it delivered (now going to be next week…so rather delayed) it wasn’t really affected. Of course, the exhibition was! It was a challenge, but I would say that having to adapt to new circumstances and think about a different way of working, producing the virtual version, had merits. Being adaptable is an important part of being a successful art teacher. I think that, on balance, the workload was probably similar for me, but we certainly missed the excitement of being in the space and bringing the exhibition together. Relying on a design team (at Studio Hato) to realise the exhibition in its virtual form removed the interesting critical and curatorial discussions.

TNG: Compared to some of their colleagues, arts teachers can have a different relationship with their subject, and its vocational aspect, in that they often continue with their own practice, as well as teaching. In contrast, biology teachers, as an example, might be less likely to carry on with independent research or laboratory work. What’s your personal take on the dichotomy (or synergy) involved for someone who takes on the role of practicing and teaching art? 

HW: This absolutely goes to the heart of my interests. I think that the expectation that art teachers maintain some sort of independent practice is such a vital part of what makes art education different to other subjects. My personal belief is that it ideally isn’t about a dichotomy but is instead about creating a synergy, where the teaching role is part of an extended artistic practice, not separate to it. It is interesting that you mention the idea of a biology teacher no longer undertaking independent scientific research. I think this is a major problem for these subjects. At university level, the expectation is that lecturers continue independent research and engage in their subject, I think it should be the same at school level.

TNG: Given that arts education has seen its funding reduce in recent years, with the government often giving greater priority to other subjects, do you see a pathway to elevating arts education within schools, and how optimistic are you for the future? 

HW: It’s problematic. Art has felt under attack in schools for a decade now and I’m not optimistic about  a significant change from a political perspective. In spite of the apparent increased awareness of its importance since lockdown, I think that the default setting appears to prioritise the, so-called, core subjects. Only today, I have read rumours of a plan to cancel non-core lessons to allow more teaching of English and maths next year. But I am optimistic about the resilience of those involved in art education and our ability to continually innovate and mobilise. Fundamentally, we need a complete overhaul of how art is taught in schools and a change of direction in terms of recognising its importance, but until then we will keep developing new ideas and finding ways of supporting.

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Henry Ward

Interview by Richard Unwin.

You can view the Must Should Could virtual exhibition on the Freelands Foundation website, here.

To learn more about the Art & Design PGCE course at IOE/UCL, visit the UCL website. here.

The Net Gallery scanned Freelands Foundation’s pre-lockdown exhibition, There, where we promenade, you can view the virtual walkthrough on their profile page, here.

Hero image, showing a screenshot from Must Should Could, used courtesy of Hato Designs.