Visualise: Race and Inclusion in Secondary School Art Education

25 March 2024

Dr Henry Ward, Freelands Foundation Director, tells us about Visualise, the important new Freelands/Runnymede report addressing race and inclusion in secondary school art education.

At the start of March, Shabna Begum (CEO, Runnymede Trust) and I joined MPs Dawn
Butler and Sharon Hodgson in the Houses of Parliament to launch our three-year research
partnership looking at race and inclusion in secondary school art education. As former
teachers ourselves, both Shabna and I were keenly aware of the pressures and challenges
impacting on those working in our schools today, and especially those teaching art and the
other creative subjects so eroded over the last decade by government policy. Nonetheless,
what Visualise uncovered about the extent of this crisis, and its exponential impact on
minority ethnic students, was deeply sobering; and it has inspired us to call out for urgent

Despite the rich diversity of artists and practices shaping the contemporary art landscape,
only 2.3% of artists named in GCSE Art papers over the last five years were Black or South
Asian. When I double checked this staggering statistic, I found papers that had hardly
evolved since my own teaching career 25 years ago, including some that did not reference
any minority ethnic artists at all. Through focus groups and surveys, we learnt that the
teachers preparing students for these exams desperately lack confidence and support, with
fewer than four out of ten feeling sure of the correct language to use when discussing
minority ethnic artists and their work. Most starkly of all, students themselves saw their art
education as outdated and irrelevant: just 6% of students felt they could relate to artists
introduced in the classroom, and fewer than 10% felt that art helped them understand their
own lives. Students and their families felt unable to see the value of studying Art & Design,
with Black and Asian students in particular facing parental pressure to ‘focus on other
subjects’ at almost four times the rate of their white peers.

When presented with this bleak picture of such profound lack of diversity, inclusion and
representation, in the context of an art education sector that is facing enormous challenges
after 14 years of chronic mismanagement and neglect, it would be easy to feel despondent
and demoralised. However, I believe that Visualise also uncovered signs for optimism and
for hope. The voices of students sing out throughout this report, consistently asking for more
diversity – 66% of students across all ethnicities (and 80% of Black students) asked for a
wider range of artists in their lessons. Far from being resistant to change, teachers are also
keen to address the challenges that they can clearly see in their classrooms, with 90%
welcoming additional support to teach minority ethnic artists and their work. But it was clear
too that, in the current climate of under-funding and the downgrading of their subject, they
feel inadequately supported to do so. We as a sector need to respond to these students’ and
teachers’ calls for change, and we need to do so now.

This report makes clear recommendations: they are all urgent and, I believe, achievable,
and we must act collectively to instigate them. Most shifts in education are slow to manifest,
and structural reform will indeed take time; but there are actions we can and must take
immediately. The absence of diversity in artists cited in exam papers is inexcusable. The
National Curriculum for Art & Design is completely open to interpretation – there are no
stipulated artists or movements that teachers have to teach – which is one of its strengths
but also a potential weakness when teachers are stretched and their subject is so under
resourced. Whilst it is not their responsibility to diversify the curriculum, the exam boards
hold a unique position of influence and we believe it is in their gift to help transform the
taught curriculum by celebrating the full range of practices within their papers. We are
absolutely thrilled that two of the four UK exam boards, Pearson and Eduqas, have already
committed to meeting our recommendation of at least 25% minority ethnic artists named in
all papers from 2025, and urge the other two boards to follow their commendable lead.

More broadly, we recognise the need for review of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) and
continued professional development for those already in the field. All teachers should be
equipped to speak with confidence and sensitivity about race and diversity, and art teachers
in particular must feel able to host inclusive, critical conversations about cultural identity and
representation with their students, as well as introducing them to the full richness of artistic
practice throughout history and being produced today.

Across students from all backgrounds, the shockingly low level of engagement with, and
perceived value of, art education highlights a deep-seated crisis that threatens the future of
our creative sector. We need an urgent shift in the narrative to emphasise the skills and
opportunities art education furnishes, and a concerted campaign of promotion similar to
recent initiatives around STEM subjects. Museums and galleries also have a role to play
here, working in partnership with teachers and schools to build meaningful, relevant, local
opportunities to see exhibitions and collaborate with practitioners for all young people,
regardless of background and location.

We need to continue to measure our progress and to hold ourselves accountable. The thin
data landscape around art education, across the school, further and higher education
systems, obscures problems that we need to face head on. This would include greater
understanding of teacher recruitment pipelines and retention, as well as student participation
and attainment rates, with disaggregated demographic data to reveal where and how we are
losing people from our sector.

There are clear actions we can and must now take to repair the fundamental inadequacies it
highlights in art education, and it is our hope that partners from across the art education field
will join us in making these changes a reality. Contemporary artists come from, and
represent, an increasingly diverse society and we must all play our part to ensure that art
education reflects this, in both the resources we share and the people that participate.

Visualise: Race and Inclusion in Secondary School Art Education