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Let children show you what makes a good school

As a teacher, what do you see when you visit a school? What are you looking for? Does the "good" in "good school" mean the extent to which the curriculum is delivered to the letter of the law? Is it about results, league tables and value for money?

If it is a combination of these factors, then I recently visited the perfect school. A custom-built, Swedish-designed educational palace cut into a hillside, adorned with local natural stone and bursting with every conceivable learning resource. There was even a cinema. I was shown round by one of the most charming and proud headteachers you could ever hope to meet. There wasn't just evidence of exceptionally high standards of work in all subjects on display, but at every opportunity there were signs of progression in work through the various year groups. The children held doors open and moved around the school like mice. The curved skylights shone bright light upon the massive curriculum targets, visible from every possible angle in each class.

But I had to ask myself one question. Could I see myself as the next head of this school? They were asking me what I could bring to help them continue to develop the good, very good and brilliant aspects of a process they had so successfully started - but the answer was I could bring nothing. For me, this was the wrong question.

I am the first to admit that it is no mean feat to achieve good results and value for money, but this alone may not provide children with the education they deserve. The Government is demonstrating considerable interest in exploring a more creative curriculum. So in this climate, how do we develop a curriculum that retains the key skills and progression and yet provide individual education?

I have always been excited about how we can find the child at the centre of education and I remain fascinated about what different approaches have to offer. I am also extremely fortunate to have worked with a head who was prepared to let her staff explore new initiatives in the hope that it will lead to a creative and cross-curricular programme. For me, this is the foundation of a good school.

What does a child-centred curriculum look like in 2006? It's hard to define because it's always evolving and it involves taking risks. You need to start by asking the children what they want to do - and then follow it through. Last September I told my Year 6 pupils that we would be covering one main topic for the year, the Middle Ages. I asked them what they wanted to do within this and they listed castles, legends, local myths, battles, princesses and dragons. Their attitude to medieval studies changed when they realised that we were actually going to pursue the areas they identified - they were engaged with the work, and began to work in new ways - such as researching only aspects of the dark ages that actually interested them. They made helmets, shields and swords, produced large oil paintings on canvasses and explored local ancient heroes and villains, myths and stories. The children used wireless laptops to trawl the internet or produce their work using any combination of iMoviephotoDVD, garageband or iTunes as they deemed necessary. We also invited them to assess and identify their own future developmental requirements.

A few children struggled at first with this approach, but were carried along with their friends' involvement. Then it didn't take long for them to lose themselves in the projects they had created, often wanting to "stay in" and continue their work. Quality and quantity of homework increased too. The work they produced was good. The children were learning how to learn for themselves -owning the process.

Maybe as teachers we should start with a blank piece of paper instead of a termly or weekly plan. I have met too many teachers who feel restrained by what they "ought" to be doing. We need discerning heads who know what's right for their school. And perhaps we should see what our children want to do.

I suspect that children who help to create their own curriculum can explain what the "good" in "good school" means.

Colin Doctor is head of Newnham St Peter's C of E primary school in Newnham, Gloucestershire

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