What happens if every lesson is spent in role-play? One Suffolk school is getting spectacular results by redefining the curriculum. Katherine Forestier investigates
The magic begins at the school gate. When children in the Suffolk village of Bealings go to school, they enter through the wrought-iron art work into a world of make-believe. Awaiting them are not formal lessons in the conventional sense but an artistic wonderland where everywhere - even each light switch - is decorated with their creations.
Pupils spend their days in role-play. But this is not a fantasy world: it mirrors the real world as closely as is possible in a school. Last term different classes became four companies at work: the problem-solvers for the reception year, the Diamond Demolition Company, the Teabag Tales and the Anglian Arborists.
The tree surgeons had just received a commission to "go" to Mexico to move trees because an Aztec burial site had been found in their midst. They have also helped "move trees" to allow the demolition company to get on with their work in Manchester.
The Teabag Tales, a class of 10-year-olds, have been collecting stories from the fictional Fynn Valley, acting like anthropologists. The stories, collected or written by the children, were to be narrated in a cafe they were creating. Adam, eight, was making a beautiful Egyptian-style teapot for the cafe. He says of the way he was learning: "It's really cool. You can do things you wouldn't be able to do if you weren't in role-play."
This village primary school on the edge of Ipswich has around 100 pupils.
About a decade ago, it took appeals to the House of Commons to keep it open. Today, its future is very secure, hailed as a successful model by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the National College for School Leadership for the way it is managing to engage pupils so actively in a climate in which Ofsted frequently complains that learning is too passive.
Duncan Bathgate, the headteacher at Bealings, is one of 12 on a working party appointed by Mick Waters, the curriculum director at the QCA. Its task is to revitalise the national curriculum. Mr Waters says Bealings has developed the type of "deep learning" he'd like to see far more children involved in. Two months ago it was filmed by the authority as an example for others.
Mick Waters told The TES: "Bealings has grappled with and worked hard to find the best way to design a curriculum to the needs of children. It has come up with an original design that places purpose, process and audience at the heart of engaging children with their learning."
In shunning many of the traditions of schooling, Bealings appears light-years ahead of its time. Duncan Bathgate, whom Ofsted described as a visionary, professes to be doing nothing more than drawing on the best ideas from past and present - from biblical references to Shakespeare and on to the great education thinkers of the 20th century. The ones he likes to quote most have one thing in common: they affirm the innate creativity of the child, the natural drive to learn, and the need for schools to harness that. "Powerful, creative methods aren't new," he says.
For the past five years, Bealings has adopted the teaching style of Dorothy Heathcote, the drama pioneer. Her approach is called the Mantle of the Expert: children learn through role-play. Instead of having normal lessons, they run enterprises that provide the context for all the learning they need to do.
Mr Bathgate thinks it has turned teaching on its head. "Teaching normally simplifies everything to bite-sized chunks that children can swallow," he says. But that was not how they learned, as evidenced by the way they first learned to speak. Children, he says, are brilliant at making meaning of situations they find themselves in, however complex.
"They are little Leonardos. They don't see science and geography, but life."
The Heathcote approach starts from the premise that the pupils are experts in their field. Situations modelled as closely as possible on real life help them develop and use that expertise. The idea is that they should learn through complex problem-solving, within meaningful contexts.
"We are teaching life skills by replicating real-life situations," says Mr Bathgate. "We are building on what children naturally do. That is the beauty of it.
"There are no dumbed-down kiddy materials," he says, pointing to the adult atlases the arborists would use to prepare for the Mexico commission. The contexts are invented by teachers to meet curriculum needs. Teachers and others -pupils or parents - drive the learning, by giving the companies commissions and requests. But it is up to pupils how they respond.
Drama for learning is a key element. For example, pupils may participate in a "video" of their activities. "The clever bit is that they are in role; if they don't quite get it, they can, just as in a film, do the same again,"
says Mr Bathgate.
His work is attracting national attention because it serves so successfully as an alternative route to fulfilling curriculum and other requirements.
Assessment for learning, for example, happens naturally, through the reports pupils prepare on their companies' work. "We are constantly observing children," he says.
He does not see it as his task to prepare children for Sats but is happy that they excel in them anyway. Last year, all Bealings' s11-year-olds reached level 4 or above, despite 25 per cent having special educational needs.
"I prefer to judge children by how flexible they are in their thinking and attitudes, their self-esteem and willingness to have a go at things. This is a place to make mistakes and I am a leader in that!"
The approach also works well for more difficult pupils. Disruption "evaporated", he says, when they were engaged as experts. "And, by not requiring them to sit at desks, our output goes up," he says.
It also prepares them well for secondary school. "High schools report that our pupils are enthusiastic and ready to lead the way. Our children come across as confident, lucid, and with good interpersonal skills."
Even boys, the weaker sex at literacy, are more ready to read and write prolifically.
Mick Waters at the QCA believes the "mantle of the expert" approach is one way of bringing the curriculum to life. "Schools which have used it have found children receptive, excited about learning, and able to achieve high standards," he says. It is proving to be a successful way of breaking down the notion that learning has to be taught in subject tablets. He does not, however, expect all schools to see it as the holy grail.
"There are plenty of ways of designing and constructing a curriculum that offers children opportunities to be creative, thoughtful and investigative," he says. "What is going on at Bealings is extremely exciting and encouraging. Equally, there are many other schools across the country that are doing exciting and encouraging work with children."
Luke Abbott, an adviser with Essex, a neighbouring authority to Suffolk, was the man who inspired Duncan Bathgate to adopt this approach, which he had learned himself from Dorothy Heathcote. He says it works so well at Bealings because of the many other positive conditions in the school. It requires an ethos that encourages creativity and risk among both pupils and teachers. The quality of the leadership is vital too, he says. Heads must be ready to share power and support the development of their teachers.
"He (Duncan Bathgate) is not interested in keeping control," says Mr Abbott. "It's a very democratic approach."
Bealings subscribes to the democracy school movement, adopting some of the ideas of A S Neill, founder of the nearby Summerhill school. As at Summerhill, pupils express their views in weekly meetings chaired by children, who also keep the minutes. They also get to control pound;1,000 of the school's annual budget. Unlike at Summerhill, the emphasis is on a high level of achievement that tallies more closely with national objectives.
While many primary teachers complain that the demands of the national curriculum leave little time for the arts, Mr Bathgate has made drama, visual arts, music and dance core activities. He sees them as vital "because this is the way people communicate," he says. Art is evident everywhere, even in the toilets, which are decorated in the style of the German artist Hundertwasser.
Mr Bathgate hates education dogmas and could hardly contain his anger the day that Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Education, insisted all pupils be taught through synthetic phonics. His pupils have no problem gaining basic literacy skills; the demand that all must learn the same way does not sit well in the flow of the mantle process. He acknowledges that basics such as spelling are important, but insists these are best learned in context, with teachers giving extra support to meet children's individual needs.
Luke Abbott has no doubts about the significance of what is going on here.
It is the first school in the country that has gone the whole way in adopting the mantle for all its teaching. "It is a radical departure.
Duncan has gone to the extreme end. Nationally, people are interested in what the extremists are doing."
Duncan Bathgate thrives on the magic he has created in Suffolk. As a subscriber to the thinking of the Human Scale Society, he has no ambitions to take on the headship of a bigger school. And he is happy with the role that Bealings is playing, working with 10 other schools in East Anglia to help them adopt the mantle. "There is nothing bigger than this," he says.
Dorothy Heathcote, Duncan Bathgate, Mick Waters of the QCA, and Luke Abbott will be among the speakers at an international conference on The Mantle of the Expert, to be held in Stansted, Essex on July 14 and in Newcastle on September 27. For details, visit www.e-gfl.org For information about Bealings school, visit www.bealings.suffolk.sch.uk