As part our in-depth look at the collaboration between Freelands Foundation and the Art & Design PGCE course at the Institute of Education(IOE), University College London (UCL), we were excited to be able to speak to the course leader, Lesley Burgess, as well as tutor and artist Andrew Ash.
Intended to prepare students to teach art and design at secondary school level, the IOE course is widely recognised for its innovative and progressive approach. Working with external cultural organisations, such as Freelands Foundation, is a long established feature of the course, with the partnership with Freelands itself now in its fifth year. As Andrew Ash explains, “We see it as crucial to the students’ understanding of contemporary culture to engage with what is happening now.”
Lockdown has meant changes this year to the way the partnership operates, with final workshops and discussions moving online, and the concluding exhibition – which normally takes place in the spring, midway through the year-long course – switching to a virtual format. As Lesley Burgess – who herself completed a PGCE course at Middlesex University and has many years experience working within art and design education – says, reacting to lockdown has meant finding, “creative, online alternatives – to which the Must Should Could exhibition pays testament – but while it is clear that in future PGCE Art & Design students will increasingly make use of online technology, we can see the weaknesses as well as the strengths: some will relish working in this way, while for others this disembodied approach will be a complete anathema.”
The Net Gallery: Lesley, how similar is the PGCE course you lead at UCL/IOE to the one you took at Middlesex University?
Lesley Burgess: I followed the course at Middlesex decades ago – it was before the Competencies and then Teaching Standards imposed frameworks on initial teacher education (ITE). That course was, at least in part, responsible for the attitudes and values I have today. The tutors welcomed innovation and encouraged a questioning, issue- based approach to learning and teaching. The course challenged postgraduate student teachers to reflect on contemporary visual and material culture and act on issues of inclusion: at that time racism, feminism and social class.
We organised after school clubs with the young people from Broad Water Farm Estate and made board games and playground games to meet the needs of young people with SEND (Special educational needs and disability). Problem-solving through discussion and collaboration informed all aspects of the course. I undertook my teaching practice at Fortismere School in Muswell Hill with seven other student teachers, all on placement together, we were allowed to develop innovative schemes of work for year groups of 120 pupils and were expected to put on displays of process as well as outcomes. We took risks, which sometimes failed, but we left the course believing we could make a difference.
As a result of my experience, I strongly believe a PGCE year is highly significant. It affords the time and space for postgraduate art and design students to reflect on what type of teacher they want to be and, importantly, why? It encourages students to see their art and design specialism as the foundation on which to develop their practice in secondary schools and sixth-form colleges. Rather than concentrating on what they don’t know, at the IOE we focus on what they do know: this way they have the confidence to take risks and develop their (pedagogical and artistic) practice in response to different school/educational contexts.
TNG: How much alignment is there between art-focused PGCE courses across the UK today – in terms of the curriculum or subject matter covered – and what would you say is distinctive about the course at the IOE?
Andrew Ash: This is an interesting question! I have worked for three Russel Group Universities and have been the external examiner or consultant for over a dozen more other universities in the UK, and they are all slightly different for all sorts of reasons. Whilst they all work to the government QTS Teacher Standards (which are generic and not subject specific), they will choose to interpret and develop their own understandings of the curriculum. They may base this on their philosophy of art education, the communities and region they work with, the histories of the institution, and the relationships with their partnership schools. Within this, some may not critically engage or question the orthodoxy of school art, others may.
We see our role as being to develop a range of best practices, to challenge the orthodoxy of ‘school art’, and prepare the students to be the kind of art teacher they want to be. We underpin the course with the notion of them being artist teachers, a reflexive and critical pedagogue, someone who builds upon their specialist knowledge and who continues to make and teach. We engage them throughout the course with recent and relevant research, help them vocalise and defend their position so they can translate their practice and make the transition to a new profession.
I think there are several distinct aspects to the IOE course. Firstly, being based in the centre of London means we are fortunate to be able to access with ease the rich and diverse resources that the many internationally renowned museums and galleries afford. As a team we are particularly interested in contemporary art practice – work that deals with pertinent and relevant issues of the day (social justice, inclusion, race, disability etc.). Secondly, we have been able to challenge the logo-centric nature of academia and been able to argue for the important role of the visual and practical in the course – we are one of only a few courses who actually submit art and visual outcomes for assessment – thus trying to privilege art practice-based research. Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge, no other PGCE A&D course in the country will provide an opportunity for students teachers to make and exhibit their own work as a part of the course and as an optional extra be offered the chance to show in a London gallery. The opportunity to reconnect with your own practice while reflecting on your introduction to teaching, and then look to respond to this in making is pretty unique to the IOE course. The Freelands collaboration is one of the practical ways the students are given an opportunity to explore their developing artist teacher identity.
TNG: How does the perspective provided by Freelands Foundation compliment what you’re already doing inside the course?
LB: The relationship with Freelands has developed over the last six years. Henry Ward (Freelands Foundation’s Creative Director) worked on the PGCE course as a visiting tutor in 2015 and was aware of our strong focus on subject specific knowledge and practice-based research, when courses elsewhere were being channelled into more generic provision. We both believed very strongly in the importance of subject knowledge or subject specificity. We both promoted the artist/teacher while agreeing that the notion of the artist/teacher is a contested term, one that is too often used to suggest that in order to be a successful art teacher you need to continue your own ‘studio’ practice. I have argued before that it is the gap between the artist and the teacher that is important, this is where the most interesting things happen, where teaching becomes an artistic practice. It’s a space that needs to remain in a state of constant flux, where speculative pedagogies are allowed to exist: what others have described as pedagogies of ambiguity and disobedience. This notion of teaching as an artistic practice is maintained as a strong thread throughout the course and is further amplified by our liaisons with Freelands. We are particularly concerned that our PGCE students explore the way contemporary artists and gallery educators develop distinctive pedagogies as away to conceive themselves as ‘agents of change’, with the power to shape rather than respond to future educational agendas.
TNG: Andrew, you’re a practicing artist yourself. How difficult is to find time and inspiration to continue your own practice, whilst also teaching, and do you find that the two roles complement each other?
AA: Yes, I am a practising artist and I regularly exhibit my work. I’m a member of the Red Herring artist co-operative based in Portslade. My introduction to teaching was via an artist-in-residency programme. I then went on to be an artist in industry before completing a PGCE. It was obvious to me from the beginning that my art making involved dialogue. I enjoyed the conversations about what I was doing and thinking, and, importantly, the reactions and responses generated helped informed my understanding. This co-construction of understanding and knowledge, this ongoing dialogue seems to me to be as important now as it was then. Good teachers need to be good learners, and making art means you are constantly inquiring, reflecting, responding and learning. The similarities are self-evident.
The issue, I suppose, is managing the relationship so that they cross-fertilise: so that they can feed into each role and – as you say – they complement each other. I think this takes practise. I am reasonably strict about time, I work hard to maintain and manage studio time as well as classroom time. To an extent, they are symbiotic for me, they are co-dependent and the lines can often be blurred. I frequently use and talk about my work to the students, sharing and developing insights, exposing myself to their critiques and questions. It’s challenging, but always rewarding and inspiring.
TNG: Arts education in schools is often presented as being under threat. How positive do you feel about the current environment for secondary school-level arts education, particularly in regard to visual or fine art?
LB: The arts have always been under threat and undervalued in mainstream education, despite numerous reports attesting to their importance. It could be argued that with the Coronavirus that the value of art and design has been recognised – but I worry that it is only for its therapeutic value, which is not enough: art and design education has so much more to offer. I am also concerned that the return to school in September (with the need for restricted contact) will privilege Ebacc subjects at the expense of art and design. However, this is a creative challenge and with the help of the 50 A&D PGCE students already enrolled on next year’s course, along with support of Freelands Foundation, we will find innovative solutions.