We’re not doing enough to give our children the visual literacy skills they need in order to explore the modern world with confidence, says Katie Leonard.

This new golden digital age has prompted governments to deprioritise creative subjects. As a result, the arts might find itself quite low on some lists of education priorities. Cultural education can therefore, often seem like a ‘nice to have’ rather than an essential element of the curriculum. But in an increasingly visual world, dominated by images and videos, that assumption is one that hinders more than it helps our pupils, regardless of their background or abilities.

Never have we lived in a more image saturated world. Every day we are bombarded with hundreds upon thousands of sensory stimuli. To equip our children and young people, including those with SEND, to navigate this new landscape, we need to give them the tools to engage, understand and interpret images, as well as develop the confidence to share an opinion or preference. There is arguably no better training ground to achieve this than through arts education. But how accessible can arts education be in practice?

When we talk about access to the arts, conversations often focus on restricted physical accessibility. And it’s true—our galleries, museums and cultural centres are disproportionately centralised in major cities. In turn, just getting into ‘the room’ can be difficult—particularly for those whose postcodes fall beyond the remit of the UK’s major cities. Even in these areas, the enduring injustice that is the inaccessible transport infrastructure can even exclude the most local of residents living with mobility restrictions or sensory conditions. This bleak outlook only serves to reinforce perceptions of art as a luxury reserved for those with the resources and privilege to access it.

■ Resources for flexible teaching.

I view art in a different way. It is not a treasure to be kept behind barriers, but a tool in which we can break barriers down. Arts education is a lens to reframe perspectives, a forum to spark interpersonal connection and a platform for expression. Art UK has launched The Superpower of Looking, which is a free programme created to give every primary pupil in the UK access to arts education and strengthen visual literacy skills.

Inclusion and equity of participation are active and ongoing processes; advanced through consultation, development and then redevelopment and always being led by experts by experience. I know this because that’s exactly what The Superpower of Looking Programme has done as part of our commitment to truly get everyone learning. We developed our learning resources with all learners in mind, and through genuine collaboration with experts in inclusive practice, including SEND/ASD/ALN practitioners. I’m proud to say these collaborations will also continue as existing resources evolve and as we create new additions for the programme—we are committed to continually improving accessibility and inclusivity.

■ Learning isn’t linear.

Implementing this feedback, we have included a list of inclusive, sensory activities in every learning resource to ensure engagement from all pupils, regardless of aptitude or ability. We have also designed the resources to provide teachers with flexibility and choice of lesson delivery. This enables the lesson plans and resources to be adapted to students’ needs so that they are empowered to lead the discovery of the artwork. Additionally, at the heart of the programme is a discussion-based Q&A pedagogy, which invites and provides space for students to input and share their understanding throughout each lesson from their own unique perspective.

Accessibility through flexibility
Whether in a mainstream, specialist or a home setting, it’s crucial that curricula are flexible in accommodating the requirements of learners. For most pupils, learning isn’t as linear as consecutively turning page after page. Whereas, embracing a non-linear approach to curriculum development empowers pupils and practitioners to take charge of their organic and individual learning journeys and facilitates capacity for questions, reflections, explanations and, crucially, breaks.

■ Multisensory activities.

Learning should feel exploratory and exciting—but so too should teaching. Restoring choice to an increasing tick-box curriculum through the inclusion of optional activities can also return a greater sense of autonomy and creative licence to educators. Teachers can select from sensory-based engagement activities and decide which multisensory activities are the best fit for their classroom—be that making, listening, touching, moving, and communicating about art.

For example, Jill Rawlinson, a humanities teacher at Blackfriars Special School in Staffordshire, has spoken of how flexibility in teaching plans has enabled her to unlock the power of arts for her pupils with SEND. Reflecting on her experience, Jill explains how to engage her class she planned her lessons using The Superpower of Looking resources and scaffolded the lessons in a way that would guide them step-by-step to look closely and talk about the various artworks. She also included sensory resources, such as music and sounds, touch and movement, as well as emphasising key art words. Another hit with the pupils was dressing the classroom with props and materials to create a jungle theme which really helped provide a full sensory experience for her class.

Few media are as universal as art. It transcends language, gender, age, class and unites us in a common experience. Equally, a concurring truth exists: we all have a view that is unique to us. That is our own individual superpower and cannot be confined to the remits of a marking scheme. We deserve to experience this full diversity of perspectives, to learn from others and ourselves, and that starts by including everyone, at every opportunity.

Katie Leonard
Author: Katie Leonard

Katie Leonard
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Katie Leonard is Head of Learning at Art UK.

Website: artuk.org/learn/the-superpower-of-looking


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