Are we having fun, kids?
Creative learning is powering many schools’ drive to be more enjoyable and effective. Hannah Frankel speaks to the teachers trading Sats and textbooks for interaction and ‘buzz’
In the darkened drama studio, a 10-year-old boy takes to the stage and collects himself, before addressing his live audience. He is smartly dressed, with a handmade rosette on his suit and some carefully written notes on the lectern in front of him.
But the sense of occasion does not overwhelm him; if he feels nervous, he does not show it. Following a flurry of rhetorical questions, some sweeping arm movements and even a slamming of the fist, Eden Kiyani reaches his rousing conclusion: “Don’t delay, call the shots today!” he cries. “Vote So-So!”
So-So is Eden’s own “Save objective; Solve objective” party. Every Year 6 pupil in this class has created, written and drafted their own party manifesto, and today they are presenting it to their peers, who duly cross-examine each candidate.
A video camera is recording the event for future screening on the flat- screen TVs dotted around the school. At the end of the process, a new prime minister of Christchurch Primary, Ilford, will be elected.
The project is typical of the Essex school, which aims to teach through creativity wherever possible. Everything the pupils do has to be enjoyable, insists Kevin Baskill, the primary’s head. It has to enhance learning, be memorable and create a buzz, he adds.
This commitment to creativity appears to be contagious. Many of the estimated 4,000 primary schools that boycotted the key stage 2 Sats this term held an arts and creativity week instead. Leading the way, teaching union the NUT held an “anti-Sats” picnic in London, with food, storytelling and strictly “no revision”.
The implication is that Sats stifle creativity. It is possible to find a creative approach to revision, but it is not easy. The temptation is to swap creative, enjoyable approaches to teaching for past papers and drilling. “The richer the experiences we give to kids, the better their work will be,” says Jeremy Gibbard, who spends two days a week as a Year 2 teacher at Christchurch, and the rest of the week embedding the creative arts across all subjects.
“The more real we can make learning, the more they will understand. Creativity is not shoe-horned into the curriculum at this school - it is a part of daily life.”
But there is a dearth of “definitive evidence” to prove that creativity is on the increase in schools, admits Paul Collard, chief executive of Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE), an arts-in-education charity that runs Creative Partnerships, which pairs schools with local artists. He adds, however, that schools are now “much more confident” in talking about creativity and its role.
“Schools increasingly see that there isn’t a conflict between the national curriculum, national standards in core subjects and creative approaches to learning,” Mr Collard argues.
Mr Baskill seconds that. He would not agree to a creative, purposeful approach to learning if it came at the cost of academic results. But instead of compromising standards, creativity drives them, he insists. The primary school consistently achieves well above average in key stage 2 English, maths and science tests.
However, it is the enjoyment factor that the pupils notice. “When you work on textbooks for a long time in a classroom, your mind can go a bit stuffy and blank,” Eden explains. “Getting up and speaking in front of people is exciting.”
Creativity permeates every corner of Christchurch. An “extreme reading” collage sits in the hall, made up of photos of pupils and staff reading in the most unlikely destinations - from inside a dishwasher to inside the boot of a car.
Other Year 6 pupils are taking a slightly different approach, learning about numeracy and literacy through making cakes. They write out the instructions, convert the measurements, add the weights and end up with some lovely chocolate cupcakes. They later solemnly present one to Mr Baskill.
“That’s the first time pupils have given me a homemade cake, which is sad for lots of reasons,” he says. “One of my clearest memories from school was making batter. It’s those sorts of things that you remember, not the endless, dry, tedious revision papers.”
Even Ofsted, frequently lambasted for encouraging a too-rigid focus on exam results, is keen for schools to become hubs of creativity. The recent axing of the key stage 3 tests is an opportunity to extend creative learning, it pointed out in its January report, Learning: Creative Approaches that Raise Standards.
Another promising sign is last year’s changes to the national curriculum, which allow greater flexibility in Years 7 to 9. “Teachers’ lack of confidence in working creatively and an anxiety about how such an approach would help them to meet targets characterised the few instances seen of less effective teaching and learning,” the report states.
More successful models are characterised by strong leadership, challenging outcomes and good, sustained professional development. “Externally produced resources and short training courses had limited impact without local training and continuing in-school support,” it adds.
All of that is in evidence at the Wroxham School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire. When headteacher Alison Peacock joined seven years ago, the school was in special measures. Within three years, it was judged to be outstanding.
A large part of the success is down to involving as many external artists, actors, musicians and poets in the fabric of the school as possible, Ms Peacock says. They brought an enjoyment back into learning.
“Teachers were jaded and worn out from having been in special measures,” she says. “I could have invested in literary consultants, but I wanted to show the staff the art of the possible - that we could create an entirely new environment by learning from artists and from each other.”
The creative journey did not stop when Ofsted acknowledged its remarkable turnaround. Last November, the school bought a double decker bus from eBay for £2,800 to turn into a StoryBus library and reading space. With the help of parents the bus was gutted, fitted with shelves and decked out with comfortable seating, power, lighting and heat.
“The bus is symbolic of the way we work,” says Ms Peacock. “We have used it as a learning opportunity for pupils to measure its dimensions and come up with designs for the outside and ideas for the interior.”
It’s not always about having fun, Ms Peacock adds. It is about aiming for high levels of engagement, subject knowledge, rigour, differentiation and constantly keeping on top of behaviour.
Creativity can go a long way in meeting those requirements. By looking for creative options, pupils have a re-invigorated desire to learn, she says. “We won’t reach targets unless pupils want to learn,” Ms Peacock says. “Ours can’t wait to get into the classroom. Pupils used to throw chairs and run off site. Now behaviour is impeccable. Most of that is through finding enjoyable, creative approaches.”
Crucially, quality has not been sacrificed. Up to 94 per cent of Year 6 pupils met maths targets in last year’s tests, but they learnt key skills through “maths Olympics” rather than worksheets. Pupils had to measure and record long jumps, high jumps and target practice using a beanbag. They then turned their data into Venn diagrams and graphs for analysis to find their Olympic maths champion.
Creativity is not a new concept in schools. As far back as 1999, an influential report called for more innovation in schools. The difficulty has been in implementing it alongside curriculum requirements, so that even now, more than a decade on from that rallying cry, schools often feel they can pay no more than lip service to the idea. But creativity gives pupils the ability to question, make connections, innovate, problem solve, communicate, collaborate and reflect critically, according to Sir Ken Robinson, a former professor of education who chaired the committee that produced the All Our Futures report.
“The problem is that many policy-makers have an ambivalent attitude to the concept of creativity,” he said in the report. “They think it’s important, but they are worried about it because it sounds untidy; it sounds like people running around knocking down the furniture.”
Coming from the starting point that everyone is a creative being if given the opportunity, Sir Ken insists it is up to all teachers to foster and develop that latent talent. “But it is hard to have fresh ideas if you grow up in an education culture that is obsessed with standardisation,” he says.
Schools that are serious about creativity put their money where their mouth is. Christchurch’s professional drama studio, for instance, set it back £30,000. And Queensbridge School in Birmingham - a specialist school of creativity - has invested in a part-time artist in residence.
Christchurch’s Mr Baskill insists that formal work has its place in schools, but his priority is to give pupils the confidence to become successful adults. “I was quite a nervous child,” he explains. “That sort of anxiety can be enormously limiting. I want to embed pupils with an inner belief and resilience that allows them to take risks.”
It is not about creating arrogant or precocious young people, he insists. It is about giving pupils a real belief that they can aspire and achieve. “Creativity is a wonderful way to achieve that,” he says.
It is a journey well worth taking, Mr Baskill adds. Watching pupils flourish, with fresh understanding, enjoyment and a passion for learning, is within reach. Once creativity is grasped, it has the power to transform individuals and schools.
HOW ONE SCHOOL GOT CREATIVE
The Manning School for Girls in Nottingham started its “creative journey” with a whole school vision for change, explains headteacher Lesley Lyon.
Support at a senior level is key. At Manning, an assistant head has been given responsibility for driving creative learning, while the head has made it a priority.
The school took its first tentative steps with the help of Creative Partnerships. A small-scale project with its EAL (English as an additional language) pupils saw them working closely with a theatre company. Through playing music from her Congolese village, a previously mute girl found her voice.
Since then, creativity has filtered through to every subject. Having been threatened with closure in 2003, the school is now “good with outstanding features”.
“Teachers need to be offered support and encouragement to increase their confidence to take risks with their teaching, as well as to work in partnership with other teachers and creative professionals,” says Ms Lyon. “You also need time to plan, talk and reflect.”