'Imagination is more important than knowledge,' said Albert Einstein. A growing number of schools are proving him right
At Maple Tree lower school creativity has reached the most unlikely places. "One of my governors said to me the other day, 'I've got to stroke that piece of slate'," recalls headteacher Anne McCormick.
The slate in question was on a table in Maple Tree's "sensory corridor", an extraordinary array of visual, aural, tactile and even olfactory experiences. A main thoroughfare for the school's 200 three to nine-year-olds, it contains wooden, metal and mother of pearl wind chimes; textured, geometrically patterned rubber and raffia doormats on the walls; bulging mirrors; and a huge heart-shaped rag rug. Heavy stones and slates sit next to pieces of brick, smooth half spheres and bowls of pot pourri.
"Children look at the shapes and say, 'Oh that's a ladybird'," says Mrs McCormick. "They don't hang around in the corridor, but they look and wonder. The heart of this building should stimulate them and make them think."
Maple Tree is not a school that overwhelms visitors with displays of pupils' artistic achievements. But it does have an atmosphere in which all children feel they have something unique to give.
So the whole school recently wrote about, drew and built chairs - stimulated by a huge oak chair from Bedfordshire's art collection.
Children choose music to play in the classroom and in assembly, where they discuss how various pieces make them feel.
In science they devise their own experiments; in maths they make up games. They can choose whether or not to go out at playtime. The school still teaches literacy and numeracy hours four days a week, but on Friday it has a writers' workshop, not only for keen writers to be creative at length, but for weaker writers to dictate stories to adults and children working as scribes.
They are encouraged to make connections between science and story-writing: the Science Museum in London is supporting the school in creating a "classroom of the future" to foster experimentation and out-of-the-box thinking.
In fact, "out of the box" has been a formal item on the agenda of every staff meeting since the school opened two years ago. So far it has resulted in the library and the staffroom changing places to make the library more central, a job-swap scheme for non-teaching staff and a bring-your-granny-to-school day. "I want people to think they can come up with wacky ideas that will be taken seriously," says Mrs McCormick.
The children, keen to show off their witty and highly individual models of playgrounds and chairs, need to get the same message, explains key stage 2 teacher Colette Wicks. "We want the children to see that we all see things differently, that when they have ideas we will take their views seriously.
"At my previous school we didn't think about creativity. You did your planning , then you did your lesson. Here we are encouraged to think; to come up with an idea that works. And if it doesn't work, no one minds."
Parents have noticed. Alison Collins's two youngest children Heather, seven, and Scott, five, have been at Maple Tree since it opened. "This school is dramatically different from the moment you walk in the door," she says. "It's different in the way teachers set out the work, the way they do the work, the way they treat the children. Pupils are not told, 'You are going to learn this, this and this'. Heather comes home and says, 'We worked this out together'. She knows the teacher is listening to her and her ideas."
Maple Tree is still moving towards what it wants to achieve, says Anne McCormick: if she can keep staff from worrying too much about key stage1 SATs (which were good last year) and Ofsted, she believes it will get there. " We are trying to give everyone the confidence to be creative. And that's not easy."
ONES TO WATCH
'All our Futures: creativity, culture and education' Landmark 1999 report from the national advisory committee on creative and cultural education
Creative Partnerships Twenty regional pilots charged with inspiring original thinking in schools
Gylemuir primary, Edinburgh Praised by the Scottish Office