New art academy gives creative children chance to shine

By Claire Dukes - 5 July 2019

EducationPrimaryArts and Culture

Creative primary school students, who may not be as academic as their classmates, are getting their chance to shine thanks to a new art academy in North Swindon.

The Art Academy founder, Dean McGhee, with students at Oakhurst Primary School

Since its inception in April, a primary school practitioner in North Swindon says his new art academy has "hit the ground running" with students and parents alike – there’s even a waiting list of students wanting to join.

Dean McGhee launched The Art Academy at Oakhurst Primary School earlier this year, - which currently has 24 children enrolled - and wants to offer creative students the opportunity to stand out from the crowd. Mr McGhee says that in an educational system where children are pressured to perform in subjects such as Math, English and Science that their creativity is being compromised.

He said: “I’ve just felt for a while that the arts are slowly being compromised because of the pressures to meet expectations in the core subjects – English, Math and Science.

"There’s a big group of children in the middle of all this that aren’t getting the opportunity to really shine.  The more academic children are getting their opportunities to shine, - such as math star of the week - and children who are also more physically gifted get the opportunity to represent the school.”

As an artist himself Mr McGhee believes that creative people play a vital role in society, and that this value should be instilled within children from a young age to help build their confidence and self-esteem. He says, "In class the children wear aprons with the academy’s insignia so instantly they’ve got this sense of pride and belonging.

“If they don’t discover their place in primary school society, - a small pond at the moment – how will that then go on to impact them as they go through secondary school? We encourage them to make mistakes, make corrections, and then learn from those mistakes, and trial things because that’s all factors of positive growth mindset.

“In primary school we’re always telling our children, ‘these are the expectations, this is where to be’ – it’s very black and white and this is right, this is wrong. But art is subjective, so for the first time they’re in this educational context and we’re saying, ‘if that’s right by your standards, then that’s right – that’s fantastic.’ It’s really quite refreshing to be told that there are no expectations, there are no expected outcomes – in terms of how they express themselves it’s subjective, it’s entirely individual.

“The fact that we put the emphasis on the child is ultimately going to make them more independent. We want them to be more autonomous, which is not what they’re getting elsewhere. But if you don’t loosen those reigns a little bit then we’re not doing the best that we can for them – in terms of giving them that independence, self-esteem and resilience."

The Art Academy – currently taking place once a week after school – wants to offer children the opportunity to get involved in everything from sculpture and painting, to pottery and street art and looking for professionals to get involved. So far local artists Rich Bindon, - a metal sculpture artist - and Sally Smith – a pencil artist – have led the lessons to share their craft. Once Mr McGhee has completed his degree in Educational Practice he wants to roll out The Art Academy across Swindon, with two other local schools – Red Oaks Primary School and Faringdon Juniors - introducing the initiative this September.

Mr McGhee adds, “I want to take it as far and wide as possible - but Oakhurst will always be the flagship school. I’m building a curriculum that’s trying to be as broad and as ranged as possible, – bearing in mind they’re primary school children – so the potential is massive.

“I want them to hold their head up high and say, ‘I’m an artist, I’m a creative – this is what I do'. And I want to put enough emphasis on The Art Academy, and the importance of art, so that the general society see the value in it and that creatives have also got a place in society."

At present The Art Academy is not funded, so parents are asked to pay a small contribution to support the initiative. But Mr McGhee says despite the fee it is proving popular and he is already seeing a positive impact. “It’s a small cost, but everyone seems happy," he adds. "A lot of that goes towards the materials because we’re very aware that school budgets are really tight and stretched. I think everyone understands the importance and value of it.

"We encourage them [students] to go home and take their projects with them, and they’re coming back in and saying, ‘look what I’ve done at home’ and that shows that it’s having an impact. They’re very pleased and proud to show off their art – and so they should be.”

In the coming weeks children at The Art Academy will be presenting their work in an exhibition, to showcase their art work to their parents and teachers. On Tuesday 6 August The Art Academy will also be hosting a day workshop at Redhouse Community Centre - all children from ages six to 11 are welcome to attend.

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