A Resources special: Local and Community History Month, May - The superheroes who saved the day
The idea seemed a stroke of genius: a multi-academy trust to link five very different primary schools, strengthen community relationships and provide a boost to learning for more than 1,000 students in Northampton.
The schools were not selected on a geographical basis but because they had like-minded heads. One school, for example, has recently emerged from being in special measures, whereas another is outstanding; one is a foundation school, while another is amalgamated. There is also a church school. All, however, were seeking an answer to the academies question.
But the five heads meeting to finesse the details of the Northampton Primary Academy Trust, set up in November last year, faced a new dilemma: how to make the children in those schools feel an integral part of it.
Although they are all within five miles of each other, the schools are in very different socio-economic areas of Northampton, ranging from high to low levels of deprivation. Added to these pressures is the cultural diversity - in one school, 28 languages are spoken. Many of the children would never usually encounter one another.
The answer came through a somewhat bizarre, but highly successful project that included all the students, some superheroes, and a battle against two ghastly and megalomaniac supervillains, Dull and Boring, who had invaded their schools.
"We decided we needed a drama and role-play project that would unite the children and immerse them in the collaboration," says Leigh Wolmarans, headteacher of Lings Primary School and one of the architects of the scheme. "We wanted to create scenarios that would excite them, spark their learning, and get them to work towards a common goal.
"But we had to get everyone on board: staff, parents - in fact, the whole community."
And so the concept of Dull and Boring was born: a project that would engage all the students for a whole week. The headteachers created a storyline, secret DVDs of Dull and Boring were filmed and a collaborative blog space linking all five schools was constructed.
"Staff worked together to create a blueprint for the week, and spent spare time after school and at the weekend making every school look as if it had been taken over by Dull and Boring. It was like a military operation."
The children returned after Christmas to find that anything that offered the promise of educational fun had been rendered out of bounds by reams of red, green and yellow hazard tape. They could not access ICT suites or play equipment. Dull and Boring had even written lesson plans. Their signs were everywhere, yet there was no explanation of who they were.
One Year 5 class at Lings Primary School was instructed to "watch paint dry" and was then expected to write about it. After four hours, students and staff had had enough and emergency assemblies were held in all five schools to discuss the strange events.
Then a mystery package arrived: a five-minute DVD featuring Dull and Boring (played by two local actors), who made it clear that the staff and children were under their command. They also revealed that they had taken over five schools. After an initial panic, the students decided they needed to meet immediately and sent five representatives from each institution to rendezvous at Weston Favell Church of England Primary School.
"Within 30 minutes, through the use of all modes of transport, we all sat with bated breath in a primary hall," Wolmarans says. "It was at this point that we were introduced to a member of the 'Ministry of Education', the creator of the blog, who came dressed in a suit. He explained that only through working together could the children free themselves from tyranny. He told them about the blog site to coordinate the revolution and told them the password was 'funfunfun'.
"It was incredible to see children from very different schools discussing the possible ways of defeating a duo that threatened their ability to have fun."
The students came up with three action plans: to create a website (dullandboring.org) to start the resistance movement and to get all the schools to pool resources to find a solution; to use Skype chats to discuss the best strategy to defeat the villains; and to create superheroes in each school who could combine their powers, fight Dull and Boring, and bring fun back to education. The student representatives returned to their schools and held secret meetings in order to spread the word.
"That night the blog site went mad," Wolmarans says. "We had more than 800 comments from children across the schools discussing the way to fight back.
"The next day the excitement was palpable. Everyone was talking about it and parents were being drawn into the power of collaboration. Classes Skyped each other, headteachers spoke to assemblies (in other schools) via iPads and the children began to interact like they never had before.
"Technology was being used to collaborate, and video, voice recording and animation were the means of keeping everyone in touch with the revolution. The ceiling had truly been blown off the roof of learning and children were engaged, excited and driven like never before."
By the third day the resistance was in full flow. One group of children from Ecton Brook Primary School created a logo for the revolution and this was shared on the blog. The logo started to appear across all five schools and students began to win back the right to have fun.
Students from Reception through to Year 6 had built their superheroes - Vale, Brook, Dare, Favell and Ling - who would form the alliance to defeat the supervillains.
So began two days of chaotic but creative learning - furtively steered by the teachers - where children were allowed to design "fun" classes: dancing, singing, art and music dominated the lessons and children were encouraged to wear fancy dress.
"If it sounds bizarre, it was amazing," Wolmarans says. "In a week, five schools had been united and transformed through the power of the pupils' voices. Dull and Boring were banished and the children celebrated."
The week-long project took place in January. Two weeks later, the five headteachers met to review it. Had it united the students? And what were the implications for their shared learning in the future?
In that week, children posted more than 1,900 comments on the blog and the site was viewed more than 21,000 times. More than 1,000 children had visited it and interacted with others.
The five superheroes, created by the children, are now used as the logo for the trust. Children from disparate backgrounds and cultures had truly bonded.
"We see this as the beginning," Wolmarans says. "Staff now meet on a regular basis. Children work together on sport, art, drama and dance projects and we are continuously at each others' schools experiencing learning together.
"We have some more Dull and Boring projects up our sleeves. But we're not giving those secrets away."
Key stage 1: Postcards from the past
A cross-curricular lesson allows students to compare images of their local area, then and now.
Key stage 2: Victorian Britain
Facts on a double-sided topic mat for supporting independent learning or for group work.
Key stage 3: Teacher's pack
Explore local history and geography by investigating rivers and settlements.
Key stage 4: Bristol and slavery
A GCSE history local study unit about Bristol asks what factors made it a successful slave port.
Key stage 5: History of Britain
Get your students to perform this light-hearted assembly, suitable for all age groups.
Find these resources and more in the TES Local and Community History Month collection: bit.lyLocalHistoryMonth
Headlands Primary School
Headteacher: Andrew Lakatos
A Designated Special Provision school with 500 children, including a nursery.
Ecton Brook Primary School
Headteacher: Julia Kedwards
A combined school on two sites with 420 students.
Abington Vale Primary School
Headteacher: Mark Currell
A school of 210 children plus a satellite school to be built in an office block.
Weston Favell Church of England Primary School
Headteacher: Jill Ramshaw
A school of about 420 children.
Lings Primary School
Headteacher: Leigh Wolmarans
A school of 210 students, rising to 420.