Updated: Jun 27, 2022
One of my recent jobs was to work with a primary school on the development of their art curriculum. Having previously developed (and redeveloped) an art curriculum, and been art subject leader, I thought I'd share 8 key considerations for anyone else who is developing an art curriculum in a primary school.
As with many curriculum areas, it really helps to have someone on board who has a good amount of subject knowledge - if those developing the curriculum aren't sure of the content then the risk is that the curriculum isn't going to be fit for purpose.
If you are developing an art curriculum, and feel you don't have the expertise in-house, please get in touch - my life-long love of art, art degree and experience of planning and teaching art curricula means that I am the perfect partner for you and your school in your curriculum development journey.
If you think you're ready to have a go on your own, here are 8 things to consider when designing and developing an art curriculum:
1. Purpose and Aims
The national curriculum has statements under these headings but it's really worth closing that document and thinking through what experience you'd like the children in your school to have. It's an opportunity to blue sky think - to be aspirational.
Think about what you want them to learn in terms of the substantive knowledge, disciplinary knowledge and procedural knowledge.
Once you've done your thinking, it's worth cross-referencing the national curriculum as there may be reminders in there of things you've forgotten to consider.
This part of your curriculum planning should be the touchstone for the rest of your curriculum design work - you should constantly come back to your aims and purpose, testing your decisions against them, ensuring that you aren't making decisions for decisions' sake and that everything you put in your curriculum contributes to achieving your aims.
2. Artists, Artworks and Artistic Movements
Part of your art curriculum will focus on learning about artists, artworks and artistic movements. You will need to think about exposing children to a range of artists, artworks and artistic movements from the past and the present, local and national, as well as from a range of cultures, ethnicities and countries. The art curriculum provides a great opportunity to diversify the wider curriculum.
Selecting and mapping out where children will 'meet' particular artists, artworks and artistic movements at the point at which you design the curriculum ensures that there is a breadth of coverage, and that children don't just get exposed to the same few artists repeatedly.
The selection process is made harder by the fact that each artist, artwork and artistic movement potentially represents the use of different materials, tools, techniques, concepts, ideas, themes, messages and so on. Again, it is necessary to plan for children to experience a range of these, and so artists, artworks and artistic movements must be chosen carefully so as to provide a range of examples.
I'm terms of learning about these artists, artworks and artistic movements, you may want to determine the substantive knowledge for each, or at least consider some key points that will be taught regardless of the artist, artwork or artistic movement. See the resource below for some guidance with this:
3. Artistic Disciplines
To ensure that children are experiencing a broad art curriculum it will be necessary to think about which artistic disciplines you want them to work within.
Drawing, painting and some forms of 3D work (or sculpture) are a good starting point at primary, although you may want to cover other disciplines such as printing and textiles. Within each discipline there are also sub-disciplines for you to consider, for example, what kinds of 3D work will the children experience? You will need to decide how much coverage each will get.
As mentioned already, you will also want to ensure that you have a good range of exemplar artists, artworks and artistic movements to support your work across the disciplines.
4. Materials, Tools and Techniques
In order to support children working across a range of artistic disciplines, inspired by a range of artists, artworks and artistic movements, you will want to think about the materials, tools and techniques that you want children to experience working with.
There are many choices to be made here, but it is probably best to think about which materials, tools and techniques require the least specialist approaches in their use - teachers need to be able to teach the procedural knowledge related to the materials, tools and techniques, and children need a good chance of success when using them. The most foundational techniques are the most important to select.
Materials, tools and techniques should be linked to, and in many ways inspired by, the artists, artworks and artistic movements that have been chosen. For example, if children are learning about Monet and Impressionism, they should be working with the same materials, tools and techniques that Monet and the Impressionists employed.
5. Elements and principles of art
A really good art curriculum will take into consideration where and when the elements and principles of art are taught, organising these so that an understanding of all elements and principles is developed over time.
Elements: colour, form, line, shape, space, texture, and value (light and dark)
Principles (of organisation): balance, emphasis, rhythm/movement, proportion, unity, variety, contrast, pattern
There are several models of the elements and principles of art - the above lists are just an example of some of the elements and principles that might be covered.
Of course, these elements and principles will be linked to the artists, artworks, artistic movements, artistic disciplines, materials, tools and techniques that you plan to teach. The more you consider in terms of the content of your art curriculum, the more you have to make the right links. For example, when learning about Monet and the Impressionists, it would be very important to look at colour, texture, value and unity.
6. Progression of skills (or procedural knowledge)
A significant part of the process of designing an art curriculum is deciding which particular skills you would like children to learn, and in what order. There is interplay between these decisions and those already mentioned - for example, choices about artists and materials can influence the skills you choose to teach, and vice versa. In fact, it is very difficult to decide on any one of the considerations I've listed as a starting point - as you develop your curriculum you will most likely go back and forth between them, making tweaks and additions to ensure you have a curriculum which is inspired by all the aspects I've outlined here.
When deciding upon the art skills you want to teach children, you will want to pay heed to the sequencing. Many skills, for example those related to drawing, will require the foundation of more basic drawing skills, and so some things need to be taught before others. Age- or developmentally-appropriate considerations are a must here and there is information available about what can be expected as a guide, for example The Stages of Artistic Development.
Some skills won't depend on other skills having been learned previously: there are painting skills that don't rely on any drawing skills, for example. Because of this, your progression of skills may be organised into different streams based on the different disciplines you intend to cover.
Just because you don't intend to teach particular skills to children until a certain point during their schooling does not mean that children can only have certain materials and tools before they are taught how to use them to create particular effects. Art is a creative and experimental subject and there is nothing wrong with allowing children to explore with materials and techniques prior to be being taught specific skills - in fact, it surely is to be encouraged.
7. Audience and purpose
Art is a form of self-expression, often designed to communicate something about the artist to others. Whilst children often have few inhibitions about creating art (although this seems to change as they get older), it is worth thinking about the intended audience and purpose of artworks that you intend children to create.
In fact, it is this part that will allow you to move beyond the cookie-cutter approach to art where a class of children create 30 versions of a famous piece of art or the teacher's model example. Encouraging children to think about what they want to communicate - what the purpose of their piece will be - and who they want to communicate with - their audience - should be a huge part of the art curriculum. Without doing this, we aren't really teaching art.
One of the skills you will plan to teach with regards to art appreciation (see the Artists, Artworks and Artistic Movements section above) is the ability to enquire about the motivation behind a piece of artwork. Once children have learned to question and find out why artists created their works the way they did, the natural next step is to guide children towards doing this for themselves. Children have a voice, and art can allow it to be heard, as long as this is explicitly encouraged. Without being taught about this aspect of art, children might think that art is solely about its aesthetics.
Thinking about this at the curriculum-planning stage can also allow staff to plan ahead for events that allow children to showcase their artwork, perhaps to parents, to the local community or online.
8. Creative process
As well as teaching skills relating to the use of different media, there are procedures that are relevant to all forms of artistic endeavour that can be mapped out in the curriculum, too. Skills such as drafting and redrafting, evaluating, developing multiple test pieces to inform the creation of a final piece are all examples of such skills relating to the creative process.
Without thinking about these kinds of skills an art curriculum is in danger of promoting the idea that art is created in a linear sequence, often dicatated by the adult in charge. Children can be given the tools to work more freely within a more iterative process (for more of that go here and here) and these tools can be given to them progressively over time if mapped out carefully in the curriculum.
Whilst the above 8 considerations are super-important, there are other aspects to take into consideration whilst planning an art curriculum. Having said that, if the above arr covered in your curriculum intent, then you are very much on your way to teaching a brilliant art curriculum!