Loreto has brush with success as 11 students go to art college
The Leaving Cert art syllabus has stayed the same for decades. Kim Bielenberg reports
There are good reasons for celebration in the art room at Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan.
The school can proudly boast that it is one of the finest nurseries of artistic talent in the country.
Nine students at the school in North County Dublin have been admitted to National College Art and Design (NCAD)this year. That is believed to be the highest number from any one school ever to be admitted to the college in a single year.
At least two other sixth year Loreto students have been admitted to art courses at DIT and IADT in Dun Laoghaire.
So where does this love of art come from? Principal Edward Fynes puts it down to the enthusiasm and "sheer hard work" of the art teachers -- Luke Kilgarriff, Shauna Bailey, Aisling Lennon and Phil White.
An enthusiasm for the subject permeates the entire school. Part of the fast-expanding Balbriggan school is currently a building site, as new classrooms are added, but even the scaffolding is decorated by a Seamus Heaney poem.
There are paintings by students along the passageways.
Art teacher Luke Kilgarriff says: "We have two big exhibitions every year -- one is a general exhibition, where we display works from the previous year. The second is for fifth year.
"Art plays a role at other big events in the school such as the fashion show,'' said Mr Kilgarriff, himself a graduate of NCAD.
Leaving Cert students recently went on a study trip to Florence, where they saw works such as Michelangelo's statue of David. They took down notes and did their own sketches along the way.
"When you see the actual works it helps with art history," says student Gillian Foley. "You become totally immersed in it."
Getting into the National College of Art and Design is notoriously difficult. It is based on portfolio work, and students find out whether their application has been successful before they sit the Leaving Cert.
Mr Kilgarriff says: "The students who are hoping to go to art college have to plan it well in advance. You would need to be thinking about what are you going to do in Transition Year.
"I think one of the reasons why the students do well is that we are quite ambitious for them and give them a lot of feedback. We also get a lot of support from the principal."
The art work for portfolios requires dedication by pupils outside school hours. The students work on their art work in the evenings, at weekends and during school holidays.
The success of the school in the subject is self-perpetuating.
Students with an interest in the subject are now attracted to the school.
Aisling McGloughlin, one of the students who is going on to art college, says: "I don't actually come from Balbriggan, but I decided to go to the school, because of its reputation for art."
Like many other art teachers around the country, Luke Kilgarriff believes the present Leaving Cert art syllabus is ripe for change.
The same syllabus has been used for the subject for the past 40 years.
"Most teachers and students will tell you that the Junior Cert syllabus is much better, and some of the best work in schools is done at that time," says Mr Kilgarriff.
"The Leaving Cert is all about producing something on the day of the exam, such as a still life drawing. In the Junior Cert there is much more emphasis on projects and developing ideas."
An important part of the Junior Cert assessment is based on a school-based project, chosen from a list of themes.
Students research the theme, do preparatory work, and complete pieces of art work.
Eight years ago a new art syllabus for the Leaving Cert was all set for implementation, but it has been shelved. Teachers, some of whom who are nearing retirement, are following the same Leaving Cert programme that they themselves followed at school.
Jane Campbell, the ASTI's subject representative for Art, says: "There has been huge disappointment among teachers that the syllabus was never acted on. It took 10 years to produce."
The planned curriculum was supposed to offer greater continuity from the Junior Cert.
The idea, according to Jane Campbell, was that students would be given more time to work on a piece and develop their ideas. There would be less emphasis on performing in an invigilated exam.
The shelved syllabus was to include a greater emphasis on new technology and digital media.
"The syllabus would have required investment in art facilities in schools," said Jane Campbell. "Even at the height of the boom, it was decided that the Department of Education could not afford to pay for it.
"The trouble with the present Leaving Cert is that it is a lottery. It all depends on what happens on a particular day."
Jane Campbell is hopeful that plans for a revamped curriculum will be revived.
"The third level art colleges are not happy with the present exam," she says.
The art students at Loreto in Balbriggan appreciate the fact that it is taken seriously, and not just treated as a hobby.
As well as recognising its cultural importance the teachers at Loreto emphasise the range of careers that it can lead to.
Luke Kilgarriff says: "Our former students are working in a whole range of areas including fashion, museum curating, model making and animation."