My Left-field Lesson - Welcome to Room 13

Children leave class when they feel like it - to run their own art studio

In 1994, a group of students at Caol Primary School in Fort William, Scotland, set up an art studio in Room 13 of their school. The children, all aged 11 and under, formed a management team, opened their own bank account and ran the art studio as a business. This all happened because their headteacher gave them free rein to run with their idea and believed that children can do amazing things, beyond the limited beliefs of adults, if they are given the opportunity.

The children went on to employ an artist-in-residence, bought equipment, set up exhibitions, took commissions, sold artwork and began to make a profit. Very soon, Room 13 became well known and the artwork generated achieved critical acclaim in Scotland and then in England. Thanks to a grant, the model began to be replicated in other schools and, in 2004, Channel 4 aired a documentary about the project.

When I became headteacher of West Rise Junior School in England in 2004, I decided that I wanted to start a Room 13. I converted the disused caretaker's house on the school site into a fully functioning art studio on two floors and presented the idea of Room 13 to my staff.

Room 13 is run on the principles of creative freedom, autonomy and trust. Children can come out of class whenever they like, to create films, animations, paintings, sculptures or whatever they wish. The students simply have to stay up to date with their classwork and finish off tasks in their own time.

Realising that introducing Room 13 to a new school, which has different principles and practices, would be challenging for some staff, governors and parents, we decided to travel to Scotland to see it in practice. We needed to find out how the philosophy of creative freedom and trust could work within an educational system that is broadly based on control and mistrust.

The basic message from the headteacher of Caol Primary was simply to allow the students to get on with it. The artist-in-residence said that his role was to be creative and to encourage creativity in the children without controlling or judging how they do that. The children, who by now had evolved the management team model and had a long track record of creative success, were mind-blowing in their maturity and ability to organise themselves, and were shining examples of innovation and unlimited self- belief.

If you believe in something enough, and acknowledge that anything is possible, you can achieve anything. That is what I believe, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to see where my students would take the Room 13 idea and how it would influence the school.

Several years on, West Rise Room 13 is flourishing. We have had four committees, and numerous exhibitions, publications and events. Children have created magnificent artwork, developed their creative autonomy and expanded their minds (and ours) alongside reputable artists-in-residence, who are paid for completely by income generated by Room 13.

The creative ethos and energy of Room 13 has influenced every aspect of the school. It has shown me that children can be trusted, and can do amazing things when they are shown that trust. All teachers need is courage and a belief in what they are doing.

Mike Fairclough is headteacher of West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, England.


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