Access across all boundaries
A MAJOR benefit in becoming a School of Ambition is the additional funding it attracts from the Scottish Executive. But the benefit is accompanied by a certain amount of risk, says Charles Rooney, the headteacher of Our Lady and St Patrick's High in West Dunbartonshire.
"We consciously did not want what we were doing to be all about spending money. If it was purely finance-driven, it would have been harder to make it sustainable. So, in our first year as a School of Ambition, we spent very little extra money."
All the approaches from educational consultants offering to help spend the new-found funding went unanswered. The focus in that first year was on staff development and raising awareness, using research skills, knowledge and experience that staff already possessed or could acquire.
At the core of the school's plan for transformation was - and is - the concept of creativity. But it's a word that can easily mislead, says Mr Rooney: "We set out to challenge the notion that some subjects are creative - and, therefore, by implication, that others are not. The genuine skills that underpin creativity - how you think, the way you approach problems, the opportunities you have to express creativity - apply across the curriculum. So in moving forward on this, we have done so in every subject.
We have involved the whole school."
With the help of professional development delivered almost entirely by staff, the departments looked at learning styles, thinking skills, expression, invention, higher-order questioning. They worked within and across subjects to define exactly what creativity meant for learning and teaching.
This was not always obvious. Physics, for instance, is a highly creative subject for its practitioners. But it is a cerebral creativity that stays out of reach for most pupils - unlike the instant appeal for self-expression offered by words, colour and song.
Ronnie Semplis, the physics teacher, remembers his first reaction when the head began talking about creativity in every subject: "I thought 'That's not us'. We're about doing things the scientific way. It's almost like we try to knock the creativity out of them by teaching them to follow scientific methodology. But then you realise, of course, scientists have to be creative. They ask questions. They wonder why. That leads automatically to creative thinking.
"We are working on that in our classes. We encourage them to think about what will happen next, to write down their ideas and see how they develop.
It has made us think about the way we teach the subject."
Biology is a science with more mass appeal than physics, but its creative side can sometimes stay hidden from staff and pupils. "Our first reaction was that we would leave it to the music and art departments," says Nicola Devoy, principal teacher of biology.
"But then you start looking at what creativity means. It's about challenging preconceptions, broadening horizons. It's about getting the kids to realise that it is OK to be wrong sometimes. We have reaped the benefits. We've had pupils who were disengaged with the subject who now think science is fantastic. We have seen an increase in uptake of biology going into third year."
In that first year of ambition, teachers' understanding of creativity broadened and deepened. Their skills for stimulating creative thinking grew. Their confidence in bringing creativity in practical ways into the classroom steadily increased. "In the beginning, when we talked about creativity, people thought immediately about the creative arts," says Jim Friel, the depute head and continuing professional development co-ordinator. "But every subject has to be creative to move forward.
"Creativity in every subject is about realising new possibilities, new ways of knowing and understanding through that subject. We worked on the notion that creativity is about how you think."
Every subject had its own perspective on creativity and how to develop it for itself. The CPD provided practitioners with the means and motivation for crossing subject divides - as A Curriculum for Excellence envisages.
"We have been working on creative projects with the art department," says Elizabeth Cullen, the principal teacher of home economics and health promotion. "The school has a big fashion show planned for the summer. So we have been teaching the kids specific skills in textile-making, while in art they've been drawing the designs. We are working with the technology department on computerised embroidery. It is permeating across the school, so that the different subjects are complementing each other."
Now entering its third year as a School of Ambition, Our Lady and St Patrick's has managed to embed the notion of creativity into learning and teaching around the school, says Jim Friel. "We are moving forward, aiming to improve, trying to do things better. I wouldn't say we are there yet. As soon as you say that, you stop being creative."