The Conversation: Creative learning

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Priory School rewrote its curriculum and has seen its pupils flourish. Jacqueline Laver, its head, tells Fiona Leney how it was done

Six years ago you became head of what was already an outstanding school (Priory School, Slough). Why did you decide to rewrite the curriculum?

Priory School already had a national profile as one of the first Beacon schools (the programme that encouraged high-performing schools to spread good practice). Its former head was part of Tony Blair's original task force. The challenge I faced was how to improve on this. Academic achievement at the school was outstanding, but there were so many things the children were missing out on. As at most other primaries, staff and children had become bored with Sats. We had created a school of Sats robots. I believed a creative learning curriculum could maintain the rigour but rejuvenate enjoyment.

Creativity in the curriculum is the buzzword now, but you anticipated this. What did you hope to achieve and what benefits have you seen?

The new curriculum was designed to foster creativity and inspiration, and to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. I wanted to achieve a radical change in styles of learning and teaching, and combine excellence with enjoyment.

Creative education is a balance between teaching the basic knowledge and skills, encouraging innovation and taking risks. There is no doubt that the children are enjoying their time in school, but we have also seen improvements in results and in their self-esteem, behaviour, general knowledge and capacity to improve. When children find their creative strengths, it can have an enormous impact on their self-confidence and on overall achievement.

So how does the curriculum work?

The creative learning curriculum is totally cross-curricular. Children study a different work of art every half term and national curriculum objectives are embedded. For example, Year 6 studied Edvard Munch's "The Scream" in the summer term. The planning was really detailed, relating the work to the Nazis' persecution of the Jews in history classes, the issue of prejudice in citizenship studies, Judaism in RE, and so on.

Creativity has to have rigour. It's not just about having a nice time. We all remember the days of topic work, when there was no real common entitlement for children. The introduction of the national curriculum secured this. But it also forced teachers to focus on the core subjects to the detriment of everything else that is important in education.

How did staff take to the changes in what was generally acknowledged to be a very successful school? Are there any lessons you could pass on about handling change?

Change is always a challenge and often a huge risk. That is why so many heads are reluctant to take it on. When making radical changes, trust is crucial. I knew that my staff trusted me, as they believed that what we were doing was primarily for the children. I was there to inspire and motivate them. It was essential that I gave people the time and support to achieve the objectives.

But I did make one very wrong assumption: I envisaged that my more established members of staff would present problems. But it was my newly qualified teachers and younger members of staff who were daunted by the notion of cross-curricular planning and teaching. They had only experienced subject teaching, and their training had not prepared them for anything creative. They found this quite a challenge, but have not looked back.

What did Ofsted make of your work?

I had a very long wait - until January 2007 - for Ofsted to inspect the curriculum. By then, we already had a national reputation. But, rightly or wrongly, we all need that affirmation from Ofsted. The inspectors said "the curriculum is outstanding. The school has just cause to be proud of its innovative creative learning curriculum, which has a positive impact on learning and personal development throughout the school."

They went on to praise the pupils' engagement and enjoyment of lessons, and commented that this was "a very happy school". This was music to my ears. It is so important for children and staff to feel valued, and being happy in school is fundamental. It makes me very angry when I hear colleagues saying that being in school is not about being happy.

Priory has had a long involvement with Creative Partnerships, the government programme that encourages links between schools and professionals in the arts. How beneficial has this been?

The school's whole journey has been made possible by Creative Partnerships. It is undoubtedly the most exciting initiative during my teaching career. It was the catalyst for our changes. Creative partners are an integral part of learning and teaching in our school. We are delighted to be one of the first 30 involved to become a National School of Creativity.

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