Are you doing enough to close the Art achievement gap?

When I took over an art department with a 17% gap in achievement between students receiving free school meals and those who were not, I realised I was going to have to work hard to close – or at least narrow – the gap. Whilst we were doing a good job of supporting students not in receipt of free school meals to gain A*-C grades at GCSE, the data was clear that students from lower income families were not making the same progress.

A year later, the same data analysis showed that the department had closed the gap to less than 1% – so how did we do it?

The first step was to acknowledge that the gap in achievement was a serious and real problem and to believe that it was something we could address effectively. Admittedly, I don’t think we foresaw a complete closing of the gap, but we were committed to making changes which would have some measurable results.

Next, we took time to try and work out what symptoms and causes were at the heart of the achievement gap. We came up with a couple of significant factors (and these might be different for you in a different setting with specific issues to address):

  1. Students from lower income families did not generally have a supply of art materials at home to enable them to produce high quality work independently
  2. Often, we found it difficult to persuade students who were not already achieving well to attend after school and lunchtime art clubs
  3. We did not find it easy to dedicate enough time individually to build up the confidence and motivation of struggling students from lower income families

To tackle these points we came up with a couple of strategies which we made sure were simple and easy to put in place…

Art room loyalty cards

This scheme was based on the loyalty cards you typically get at coffee shops where you receive a stamp with every purchase. The idea here was a dual attack on the issues of getting students to attend art clubs and on equipping them with materials to work independently.

It worked like this: every time a student came to art club they got a stamp on their ‘loyalty card’ and when they had collected 10 stamps they were entitled to collect a reward in the shape of a piece of art equipment (tin of pencils, watercolours, pastels… etc). We adapted the rules along the way to give stamps in addition for exceptional independent work; of course you could set the criteria in anyway you want.

The cost of the loyalty card scheme was not prohibitively expensive – we chose materials which were good value and always kept an eye out for the sales at Cass Art and other suppliers – but the impact on students motivation was tangible. Even if students didn’t even fill a card with stamps, the initial effort they put in was worth at least 3 or 4 hours of extra work on their art project.

The added benefit of having students attend art club was that we were able to spend a bit more time with the individuals who needed support or motivating, so we found this had a big impact and the students loved it!

You can download the A4 printable sheet of these loyalty cards by clicking here: Art loyalty card sheet.

Visiting artist workshops

We used data to target visiting artist workshops (one for each project) at the students from low income families who would benefit most from additional input. Importantly, we also looked for artists and workshop ideas which would enable work to be produced during the session itself so that we were guaranteed some practical work and experimentation to document in sketchbooks. Techniques that we found particularly successful were printing, collage and ceramics.

If you need a starting point for contacting artists to run workshops Engage has a search facility which you can try here, though asking art teachers locally or in social media groups is often your best bet.

The basics

And alongside these strategies, we made sure we had the basics covered:

  • we used a spreadsheet to monitor whether homework was being done and assess the quality
  • we contacted home when students were not putting in the effort
  • we kept in touch with form teachers or pastoral managers to get their support in motivating students
  • we put in place differentiated resources for students who needed a more scaffolded approach (if you want a quick read guide to strategies for differentiation, this post on Teacher Toolkit is good)

Some of the handouts I have put together to support students particularly with literacy in art can be found here and here.

None of these ideas are particularly revolutionary, I realise, but having a creative approach to the achievement gap, we found in our department that we could go a long way to eliminating it.

And who doesn’t love a loyalty card? I just checked and I have 5 in my purse including one for a charity shop and one for Waterstones bookshop where you get £10 off when you get 10 stamps!! I’m off shopping…

If you found this useful, please share!



4 Replies to “Are you doing enough to close the Art achievement gap?”

  1. What age are your students?

    1. Hi Lisa – I have used this with GCSE students who are 14-16 years old usually. Thanks, Mima

  2. I am a little confused. What is the gap that you are speaking of? A gap in what? I like this idea I’m just not sure how to use it.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Amy, the achievement gap is a term used to describe the difference in attainment of children from lower income families. Often data shows that these students do not do as well in their qualifications as students from higher income families. The aim in ‘closing the gap’ is that all students do as well as they can, and that income (usually measured in the UK by whether or not a child receives free school meals) is not a factor in determining their academic success. I hope that clarifies! Thanks, Mima

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