Creativity with confidence

Gerald Haigh

Breaking out of the restrictive national curriculum bind isn't so easy if you've never done it, writes Gerald Haigh

It is all very well your head, and the Government, and the editor of The TES all weighing in and telling you to be more creative, but what if you are not sure how to do it?

Talk to experienced heads and they will tell you two things. First, they agree that there is a rising tide of enthusiasm - and many heads will acknowledge the support of The TES in this - for a return to a more liberated, cross-curricular, child-centred approach to the primary classroom.

Lucy Griffiths, head of Jessons CEprimary school in Dudley, says: "Every time heads meet, it's what we talk about."

Then, after they have said that, the same heads will talk about the challenge of convincing a generation of teachers brought up to teach national curriculum subjects in compartments that there is actually another way of doing it.

"When I suggested to the staff that we should have a more integrated and creative approach, they listened and were greatly in favour."

She soon discovered, though, that teachers brought up on a subject-based curriculum and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work - "programmes and tight definitions" as Lucy Griffiths puts it - were more willing than able.

"They said, 'What do you want us to do then?' They really hadn't had that idea of integrating work between subjects."

Teachers of an earlier generation, though, took off with the upward bounce of a Thomson holiday flight.

"They had no problem at all," says Ms Griffiths. "Saying things like, 'We can do a topic on trees, and plant acorns and visit the woods... they were just off and away."

Joanna Green, literacy co-ordinator at Jessons, was one of the teachers in danger of being left in departures.

"I qualified in 1995. My postgraduate certificate in education course was very much about pigeonholed subjects. The standard was excellent in terms of helping us to teach the subjects, but there wasn't much scope for creative buzz."

The whole issue took Ms Griffiths by surprise at first.

"It was just something that hadn't occurred to me, although of course it should have done."

How, then, does a head tackle this division of expectations? The general consensus is that there is usually a core of experienced teachers who are fired up enough by the prospect of greater curricular freedom to be able to set the tone.

"It wasn't such a problem for us," says Ms Griffiths. "We have three teachers in each year group, and in almost all the years there was someone to take the lead."

It should go without saying - but it probably does need emphasising - that none of this means a return to the anarchic project work free-for-all that supposedly reigned in the 1960s. Does anyone who was actually around at that time really recognise the caricature, by the way?

There is general acknowledgment that much has been learned in the meantime, and much gained from initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy strategies. What heads want - and increasingly are simply taking - is more freedom to organise the curriculum in a way that reflects the way that young children learn.

Jackie McDowall, at Lyndon Green infants school in Birmingham, who has taken the literacy strategy and made it part of a topic-based approach, talks of the need to "hang on to the fact that the child is at the centre, not the strategies or key stages".

In this regard, it is significant that Wales is taking a lead in its new extended foundation phase, based on a framework that says: "Learning is holistic and what children can do is the starting point."

The key quality for all these "taking off" heads isn't the ability to do it -they have that in abundance. What they need is confidence.

In some cases, this comes in the wake of consistently good league-table results. An excellent Office for Standards in Education report is also a frequently mentioned booster. Lucy Griffiths says: "We had an Ofsted two years ago that threw up no real key issues."

And at Moor Green infants, in Birmingham, which is heavily involved in Creative Partnerships initiatives, head Marian Davies talks of being able to "push the boat out" once the school had a good Ofsted to show.

Equally important is the support that heads give to each other. Ms Griffiths is one of a close and supportive community of Dudley primary heads. In Birmingham a close observer detects "a process almost of permission-giving from one head to another.

"There's a group of powerful heads, from different schools, coming up with different solutions but with a common core of commitment to creativity".

The attainment of a critical mass, it seems, is almost upon us - it is probably there already in some areas, and that is good news for our children.

And the 1990s generation of teachers do not take long to catch the tide.

Joanna Moore, at Jesson's, found inspiration in a way that of itself does much to prove the motivational power of child-centred creativity.

"I remembered my own primary school in the 70s and my inspirational teacher who turned our classroom into this amazing wonderland. It's such a shame that was lost and I'm so pleased that our head is introducing it into this school."

Creativity for Control Freaks teacher magazine 13

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Gerald Haigh

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