In August 2018, Times Higher Education revealed a list of the best ‘small universities’ around the world, and reported on what students felt about attending a small college. According to the higher education sector paper, ‘for some, it was about smaller classes; for others, it was about closer relationships with teachers; and many said that a greater sense of community was the factor that clinched it for them.’ At the other end of the educational spectrum, Small Schools for children are frequently cited as the way forward for the very reasons stated by those students interviewed by Times Higher Education.
When it comes to small schools, colleges, and universities, in many ways I guess I have a bit of form on this. Having started teaching adults returning to education on Access to University courses run by the Workers' Educational Association in the 1980s (as well as stint teaching in one of London’s several prisons where classes were necessarily small for a number of reasons), I also taught small groups with disabilities, too. I’ve never questioned the value of ‘small education’, whether it be teaching mid-career returners to university, students with brain injuries or dementia, or repeat offenders serving long prison sentences. Whatever the context, small has always worked in ways that large simply didn’t.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I haven’t served my own time in large institutions as well, though. A somewhat accidental career trajectory eventually found me working in a series of ‘bums-on-seats’ universities that, despite their claims of ‘widening participation’ and the fight against ‘social exclusion in education’, actually did as much harms as good, often setting students up to fail for a myriad of reasons that are beyond the scope of what I’m wanting to address here. Having experienced small, I held out with the big for as long as I could, thinking that there was good work to be done, but nothing ever matched that close contact with students that is the dream job in teaching; whatever your discipline or subject area.
It’s therefore really pleasing (in that ‘warm glow’ kind of a way) whenever I hear of a small school or college doing really well, regardless of what age group might make up their diminutive cohort, or what subjects they deliver and for whom. How could I resist not wanting to write about one school that is this year celebrating its 21st anniversary running its unique flagship Portfolio Course on the West Coast of Scotland, therefore? Bridge House Art in Ullapool, Wester Ross, is the organisation that I’m referring to and, for sure, it merits a mention as it is doing precisely what has elsewhere been increasingly erased from the Access to University sector, or twisted to fit Further Education large cohort delivery.
One of the smallest and most highly respected independent art schools in Scotland, Bridge House Art is a valuable educational resource for the Western Highlands with a growing international reputation, hosting students from as far afield as Lithuania, France, Switzerland, Spain and the USA, as well as a very healthy number of students from the more immediate vicinity. At the time of writing the School is celebrating its 21st anniversary with its annual exhibition of Portfolio Course work following an intensive training in the visual arts for just twelve students. As those behind Bridge House Art state, ‘coming from a range of ages and backgrounds, all the students have one thing in common: a shared desire to develop as artists.’
The sixteen week course that Bridge House Art runs covers a range of disciplines including painting, printmaking, textiles and sculpture, and each student spends their second term developing a body of work from their chosen area leading up to an end of course exhibition – an exhibition that this year is titled ‘RESONANCE’ and will be open daily from 10am to 5pm, from today (Sunday 24 February) until Sunday 3 March 2019 at An Talla Solais Gallery, West Argyle Street, Ullapool (Entry Free).
As Eleanor White, Founder and Principal tutor of Bridge House Art states, ‘The ethos behind all of our courses is to encourage everybody to learn to communicate visually and express a genuine response to the environment around us. I have been delighted with the way this year's students have responded to the challenge, and this promises to be an excellent exhibition.’ Kittie Jones, Senior tutor, adds, ‘I am always impressed by the dedication, hard work and motivation of the students on this course. Many of them have moved up here to be part of the course and the results speak for themselves. I am sure many will go on to develop diverse creative practices and I look forward to following their progress from here’.
If that all sounds like the usual PR-speak that any institution (large or small) might issue to raise its profile, then slow down a bit and consider. It wasn’t until I looked into what Bridge House Art were about, and who some of their prior alumni were, that I realised that many of those professional artists that I frequently receive monthly newsletters or press releases from, were actually once students of Bridge House Art. True, not all their work is always to my taste, but the fact that I follow what they do indicates that that they do it to a high enough calibre for me to have not unsubscribed from their mail-shots yet, often remaining curious about how their work will progress and develop still further. Clearly, as time has go by, their confidence may grow, but from where were the early seeds of that confidence instilled in the first place? Bridge House Art, maybe? From my own experience teaching small, I know that such courses can change lives and set students on a path that has either previously eluded them or perhaps they thought was totally unavailable to them.
To widen this out further still, there is so much emphasis put upon ‘youth’, today, and I also want to mention this dimension, too. Just this week I’ve been in contact with two artists in particular who have described themselves as ‘mid-career emerging artists’. The term emerging artist has been much-overused over the past couple of decades, usually deployed to sell art via online start-ups that promise a lot to recent (young) graduates, but deliver little. Invariably there is an age limit set on what qualifies for one to be an ‘emerging artist’, and mature students are thus erased from view as the emphasis is placed upon media-savvy youth over real life experience.
This is another aspect that is of real value to students attending a small portfolio course such as that run by organisations such as Bridge House Art. While some students may want to use a portfolio course as a stepping stone to undergraduate study elsewhere, others are returning to art education at a point when they have more time to focus on what works for them, and when they maybe have more time to do that. I therefore applaud the work of Bridge House Art and those both running and attending their many courses. This is what Access to Art Education used to look like before Further Education colleges were encouraged to stack ‘em and rack ‘em, feeding ever greater numbers of students into the Higher Education sector in a never-ending numbers game that was based on how many successful applicants they could get into universities or art schools.
Not everything that is produced by students of Bridge House Art is going to be cutting edge art that will garner widespread attention, but that’s not what such courses were ever supposed to be about, anyway. What they are about is personal development, the building of confidence to put oneself out there, and the corollary to that, which is very often a much greater contribution to local and regional economies than we realise. Students attending small courses such as the one discussed here are far less likely to out-migrate to urban centres to make their mark, and far more likely to contribute to the community in which they studied in a variety of ways. That, I think, is commendable; not just in terms of the level of education they have received, but also the thinking behind it.
So often, the term Local Artist is used as a disparaging put-down, but that is not the way to go, in my view. If we want to build healthy communities and stimulate the economies of those communities (and I don’t just mean financially) we could do with a lot more small schools and colleges that invest their time in fostering a belief in oneself and one’s abilities. Aside from the fact that some who attend Bridge House Art travel great distances to benefit from the education they receive, those who are studying more closer to home should be judged on their work and their work alone, too. The exhibition that has opened today, thus offers an opportunity to do just that – to view the fruits of their labours and, whatever the outcome, for the reasons given above it is worthy of attention. Long may Bridge House Art continue providing this valuable resource, and long may students benefit from what their portfolio course offers. I wish them well.