Some go for murder mysteries, others UFO sightings. Whatever the theme, primary schools in Britain are growing increasingly adept at staging special surprise events to inspire their pupils to write and to think creatively. Often these projects extend over several days, breaking up the standard timetable but linking into carefully planned, cross-curricular activities.
Old Park Primary in Telford takes an even bolder approach. When its headteacher decided the school would be disrupted for a week by a mystery hole in the ground, she chose not to tell any of her fellow teachers.
On Monday morning, staff and pupils were surprised to find a mysterious mound of earth in the school grounds (pictured right), surrounded by a police investigation tent. Strange sounds could be heard, and smoke seen billowing from the hole, while a government official and seven scientists investigated.
Over the course of the week further odd events happened, as strange lights were seen and changes began occurring in the school. Was it a sign of an impending earthquake, a buried bomb, or perhaps Lucifer escaping from hell?
The curriculum was suspended as pupils led a series of creative activities investigating the problem, culminating in an exhibition of ideas.
Headteacher Mandie Haywood organised the event with the school's "creative agent" Richard Shrewsbury, who helps it with creative projects for a few days each year. He brought in artists and animators to create the illusion.
Ms Haywood's decision not to tell her fellow staff was, she says, a nerve-wracking one. "In the morning briefing I told the staff just to go with it," she says. "Two of them were horrified on the Monday - I thought they wanted to kill me. But by Wednesday they were enjoying it, too. It let them know what it's like for pupils who don't know what's happening at school."
Ms Haywood's aim was to ensure that the week was as child-led as possible. She also wanted to make the week as much of a change from the norm for teachers as for pupils. "My boredom threshold is very low," she says.
Tips from the scheme
- Don't tell your staff. It will make it more about the pupils' choices if teachers are not making plans for it themselves.
- But do put in plenty of planning yourself.
- Work with others in the creative industries, but make it clear to them that they are not there to deliver their art. The project should be about what the children want to do.
Evidence that it works?
Old Park Primary's creative approach to the curriculum has been credited with helping it transform pupils' results, which were low when the school was formed in 2007, an amalgamation following two closures. Between 2009 and 2010 the proportion of pupils gaining level 4 in English and maths rose from 42 to 63 per cent.
Reaction from parents to the school's unusual activities has also been positive, with a rise in attendance at school events. One parent said that the mystery hole led the whole family to discuss the project around the dinner table.
Accolades for the school include gaining CCE National School of Creativity status in 2009 and winning Outstanding Primary School of the Year at the 2011 TES Schools Awards.
Approach: Organising a mystery week - without telling the teachers
Leader: Headteacher Mandie Haywood
Name: Old Park Primary
Number of pupils: 466
Intake: Above average for free school meals and SEN with significantly high numbers joining and leaving outside of usual times
Ofsted overall rating: Satisfactory.