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Art is essential for children

Boitumelo Leping and Adam Kgang, creativer arts students at Sibikwa Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied.

Creative Arts should be part of the curriculum:  Part One

‘We disregard art in our schools at our peril’ say teachers, Derek Davey spoke to some of them.

Last year, a friend asked me to help her edit a short video on a creative arts teacher training intervention by Sibikwa Arts Centre in Tholimfundo Primary School in Soweto — and the results were astounding.

“I think learning creative arts has instilled in the learners a better understanding of why they are here at school,” says Ithumeleng Tsolo, the teacher who was trained in the video.  The children also loved the art lessons. “Each and every time you get into that class the children go crazy, they are waiting, they can’t wait for you to teach them,” says Tebogo Matsheni, the artist who did the training.

This art in the school, it should not be something that we do for a few months and then it disappears.  I would like to see it being part of our curriculum from the beginning of the year, right up to the end,” says school principal Thumelo Mangakane. “Where have you guys been?”

Unfortunately creative arts (visual art, dance, drama and music) is “relegated to the back seat in favour of subjects like maths” says Cecilia Ferreira, who teaches visual arts at Victoria Park Grey Primary School in Walmer, Port Elizabeth. “Take the time allocation for example, in the Intermediate Phase (grades four to six), for maths; the curriculum allocates six hours a week, and for creative arts, one-and-a-half hours.”

Asked about this time allocation, department of basic education (DBE) spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga says: “A maximum of two hours a week is allocated to the arts; more time is allocated to mathematics and languages, as these are foundational subjects through which learners access other subjects.”

But even these two hours are often interrupted, says African indigenous music teacher Thokozane Nsibande, who has been at Sibikwa for a decade. “The art period is seen as a ‘free’ period, so, for instance, the maths teacher will come in and interrupt me, because she wants to do a test with the kids right now, or another teacher wants to catch up on their own subject.”

He says he constantly encounters problems such as being unable to access music instruments that are locked away, interruptions of his classes, and having to teach in a hall or classroom that is being shared by another class.

“Policy is put in place to regulate the curriculum, so if anomalies like these are happening it is definitely not sanctioned by policy, but may be isolated examples due to bad management in a particular school,” says Mhlanga. “Arts subject advisors and provincial arts subject heads frequently monitor schools in an effort to ensure that the various arts policies are adhered to.”

Poorly trained ‘art’ teachers

Ferreira says that in the Senior Phase learners are able to choose art as a “real subject” but the problem here is that non-specialist teachers “some of whom have never picked up a paintbrush in their lives” are slotted into the position of art teachers.

This is disastrous, because “this is the phase where learners need to be inspired and challenged so that when they reach grade 10, they will choose art as one of their main school leaving subjects.” This is important because as both she and Nsibande point out, many learners do not excel in maths and science, but blossom in other fields.

Mhlanga says schools are not allowed to introduce the arts subjects without a properly qualified teacher. “In the event there is a teacher who is not properly qualified or who struggles with certain content knowledge or content gaps, provinces usually organise capacity-building workshops and in addition, subject advisors and provincial subject heads often visit schools to monitor and support where necessary.”

But is this actually the case on the ground? “The DBE sees no value in art,” states Sibikwa director Phyllis Klotze bluntly. “They are perpetuating apartheid education by permitting teachers with no training in the creative arts to teach in this learning area. Why should township kids be subjected to this?”

South Africa is not alone undervaluing the arts. UK art teaching assistant Anna-W Endean writes: “At the moment the government is promoting literacy and numeracy, so there is very little time in the curriculum for art. So it gets bumped to the end of term, and it’s normally very rushed. Some primary schools do have art teachers, but it is very rare.”

Similar problems are experienced in Australia and the US, writes Georina Westraadt in the South African Journal of Childhood Education, warning that art is an “endangered” subject, and that the learning area of arts and culture may soon cease to exist altogether. These days, education is all about maths and science.

In Part Two, we will learn why art is so important for children


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