It is just not that Important
Learning Photography in Schools
by Linda McClelland
Traditional photography is not alive or well in Northern Ireland secondary schools. This is due to lack of facilities, funds, teacher training, technical support and teacher confidence. When these problems are tackled some excellent work has been produced, from 1st Year right through to 'A' Level but this is very sporadic. Many teachers feel that now the digital camera has arrived they will put the past behind them and embrace the new technology. If the government says photography must be taught then they must put their money where their mouth is. They have not done so - it is rarely taught.
This article looks at the state of education in schools. It is based on my own experience of teaching in Northern Ireland in three different schools and as an examiner at different levels as well as for an English examination board. I have also enquired into the provision in the South of Ireland as a point of comparison. In the South photography can only be studied as part of an Art / Craft / Design course. The study of basic photography is included with painting, printmaking, and graphic design. The requirements are that:
"The student should learn how the pinhole camera works, how the sensitised film reacts to light and is processed to create an image, about lenses, focussing, aperture, speed, and how to use a simple camera... Support Studies will involve some basic scientific principles, and appraising images from the history of photography, e.g. Fox Talbot, Daguerre, war photography and the use of photographic images in general advertising and in the mass media."
More advanced photography can be studied as an additional option for the Ordinary or Higher Level. Despite the fact that the syllabus clearly states basic photography is to be studied through the core syllabus, this is not happening. Lack of facilities and the difficulties of managing large numbers of pupils preclude it. In the Leaving Certificate photography is not mentioned at all. In the North, as part of the U.K., schools have the option of using different examination boards but this is a rarity in the South.
When the Department of Education published the Northern Ireland Curriculum Programmes of Study in 1992 they required that at Key Stage 2 (8-11 years of age):
"Pupils should have opportunities to use lens-based media including operating a compact camera, selecting subject and viewpoint and focusing accurately (if appropriate)."
After a process of consultation with a wide range of educational bodies it was found that:
"Some activities, such as photography were thought to be unmanageable because of class sizes."
By the time the Proposals for Revised Subject requirements were published in June of 1995 the original stipulation had been removed. At Key Stage 3 (12-14 years of age) it was required that:
"Pupils should have the opportunity to use lens-based media including a single reflex camera, darkroom equipment to enable monochrome film to be developed and printed, and a camcorder."
However in the Art and Design Consultation Report 1992 under the heading of Professional Needs comment was made that respondants:
"highlighted the significant resource implications of the proposals. It was pointed out that provision of materials and equipment... would be substantial."
Despite these anxieties the requirements have remained largely unchanged.
"Pupils should have opportunities to use photographic techniques for recording and creating work for example, a single lens reflex camera and darkroom equipment to develop and print monochrome film."
So this is what teachers are presently working with - or are they? The simple facts are that very few teachers and schools are able to deliver this statutory requirement. Why? Of 16 schools surveyed at random, this summer 12 state they are unable to implement these requirements. Comments include:
- "Even if staff received training the delegated budget wouldn't cover cost of practice materials."
- "The darkroom is used as an audio-visual centre / recording studio."
- "Given the difficulties I don't feel the time, effort and expense involved to make photography available is justified - it is just not that important."
- "Darkroom does exist. Ceiling is crumbling, totally unsuitable for photography. Extra funding was available until room became unusable."
- "It is much easier to use a digital camera. The floppy becomes the ownership of the pupil and can be manipulated at their expense on their resources."
If you want to study Photography at GCSE Level (an exam mostly taken by 16 year olds) there are presently two ways to do so: CCEA (The Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum Examinations and Assessment) photography can be studied only through Art and Design. At present the course comprises of coursework and an externally set assignment. It is up to each individual teacher to decide whether this can be offered as an option or not. If the facilities are not there it cannot be offered. The GCSE chief examiners report in 1999 said:
"It is a pity that some areas of the question paper were much less popular than others and this year far fewer responses were directed through lens-based media-camera and video, information technology and printmaking... Very little [Course] work in the areas of lens-based media-photography, video, and Information and Communication Technology was seen."
The second method is to follow an Art course through the London based EDEXEL Foundation where all work, both coursework and final examination, can be completed photographically. The candidate then gains a GCSE in Art: Photography. This is most likely to be followed by pupils in 6th Year as a 1-year additional qualification rather than at 16 when greater breadth would be required to fit in with the Northern Ireland Programmes of Study. The same pattern follows through exactly to 'A' Level with CCEA offering the possibility of 60% photography content and the candidate achieving an 'A' Level in Art and Design and EDEXEL offering a 100% 'A' Level Photography course.
Very little reference has been made to photography by the Chief Examiner in the last 3 years which seems to reflect the fact that it is most often used as a means to an end rather than viewed as an entity in its own right. In her 1998 report the Chief Examiner commented that:
"There is not enough emphasis on observation from first hand sources and still too much diligent copying from photographs or magazine images."
CCEA hold an annual exhibition of the best work from the previous year's examination yet photography rarely features in its own right despite some very good A grade work being produced in a number of schools. It is my belief that many moderators are not comfortable judging this media, are not quite sure what might be considered good or bad and are not familiar with historical and contextual photographic practise.
At 'A' Level Art and Design, Historical and Critical Studies one of the possible options for study is European and North American Lens-based Media 1850 to the present. This examination requires the candidates to produce a 4,000-word dissertation on a topic of their choice relevant to the syllabus. In one year out of 230 entries only 3 candidates chose to study aspects of photography with the Chief Examiner commenting on the written examination papers:
"There were few responses to this section and little or no evidence that it had been formally taught. Such responses as there were, however, were of a surprisingly good overall standard, in most cases candidates seemingly drawing upon strong personal interests in particular books, films or television programmes."
The English Associated Examining Board (AEB) first offered photography as a separate subject in 1975. It has never been an examinable subject with CCEA due to potentially small numbers. In 1992 13 centres from Northern Ireland entered 155 candidates at GCSE and 44 at 'A' Level. AEB offered excellent papers in the early 1980's that included a two and a half hour written paper, half-theoretical and half historical. A list of 18 photographers was given to be studied within the genres of portraiture, documentary, naturalism, realism, reportage and experimental. Now there are no written papers at all. Pupils are expected to look at the work of others, analyse it and relate it to their own work. There is a less structured approach with the onus very much placed on the teacher to 'find' suitable historical and contextual material. This is a heavy burden unless you have a particular interest or are very knowledgeable.
In the early 90's teachers were requesting that proper darkrooms be built, well equipped and with easy access. Some of these requests are still in the process of being implemented. The then Art and Design Inspector was a keen practitioner. With a change of Inspector the emphasis is very much on going digital and accessing as many computers as possible. Many existing darkrooms are either too small or too far away from the main classroom.
Photography is an expensive subject resource wise. It is very labour intensive to set up for whole class teaching without the aid of a technician, working with chemicals adds a health and safety problem. The shelf life of both paper and chemicals is finite and there is also fear of the unknown - what camera and which enlarger will I buy? Most heads of departments have to budget carefully for all areas of the curriculum and photography is rarely at the top of the list of priorities.
Most teachers of Art and Design train through Foundation then a 3 year degree and 1 year as a postgraduate. For many Foundation is their only experience of photography. It takes a confident (some would say mad) and/or experienced teacher to handle 10-20 11-13 year old boys and girls under red safety light conditions in the darkroom, working with potentially hazardous chemicals. Yet it can be done and most children absolutely love it.
Some think the digital revolution will make things quicker and easier but it will bring its own problems, such as access to digital cameras and computer suites, cost of printing ink and programmes such as PhotoShop for network use plus the inevitable need for training. Many pupils do have access to these facilities at home but not all. There is also the danger of a slapdash approach where understanding of how the image is formed and the 'magic' of the darkroom is lost.
In the consultation report of 1992 many respondents expressed disappointment at:
"The lack of trained art and design advisors and field officers within their Education and Library Board and felt that specialist advice and training would be needed on a regular basis if teachers were to implement the new requirements for the subject."
Each area board now does have an Art and Design advisor and all but the Belfast Board have full time field officers. These are teachers seconded from schools to go out 'into the field' and give support as required. Needs are identified and courses run accordingly. The views of the Advisors were sought in respect of this article but not one replied.
Subject choices are affected by Careers guidance and the aspirations of parents. The National Curriculum has actually brought less choice. Photography is only offered through Art and Design which still suffers from prejudice, particularly in the grammar school sector. A letter recently received from a past pupil said:
"G. is having problems with her parents who refuse to accept that she wants to do anything arty and obviously would prefer a dull molecular physicist for a daughter."
It is not only parents who doubt the validity of the subject. Pupils have been known to question authenticity. In examination classes images frequently have to be captured outside school time and off school premises. How do we know who took the photographs?
The Programmes of Study are about to be adjusted again, 'A' Level has changed this year, GCSE is changing next year, Key Skills are going to be compulsory, there is talk of Citizenship. We are working in such a state of flux that for sanity's sake teachers stick mainly with what they know, enjoy and feel confident teaching.
Traditional and digital photography, when taught well, compliment each other and result in the production of very high quality work. Legally and morally children should have easy access to all facilities and be trained by knowledgeable teachers. But what hope is there of it happening now when it has not been happening for the last eight years?
The teachers are willing - given the right support. The pupils are interested - given the right encouragement. The systems can be put in place - given the resources. Yet the debate remains theoretical, beset by hurdles and riddled with inconsistencies. Whereas previously the problem was the cost of cameras, darkroom equipment, paper and film, access to darkrooms, now it is the cost of programmes, printing ink and access to computer suites. We do not seem to have moved forward at all.