Maestro of the creative classes
Meet the senior teacher in charge of developing weird and wonderful ideas for lessons. Gerald Haigh reports
In today's schools, the word "innovation" carries serious baggage. It wouldn't normally - for the sake of argument - apply to a teaching style that involves pupils sticking cardboard boxes on their heads and reading television weather reports through a hole cut in the front.
But then there aren't too many schools that have a senior teacher who has the specific task of promulgating creative classroom ideas. Still, that's Wood Green high school, in Sandwell, for you.
Wood Green high is home to an impressive school improvement story. In an area of great deprivation, its A*-C grade GCSE pass rates have climbed from 31 to 72 per cent since 1998.
The man nurturing the creativity is Glenn Yates, assistant head and director of teaching and learning.
"His job is to find as much weird and wonderful thinking as he can and see if it can be dragooned into school practice," says head Dame Enid Bibby.
In fact, that's a shorthand description of the school's "innovations unit".
Nicola Walters, the deputy head, puts Dame Enid's breezy definition more formally: "It's a group of six teachers of various levels of experience, responsibility and specialism, who have volunteered to be part of a team developing new practices for use in the classroom," she says.
Mr Yates, who leads the unit, says: "My role is to develop pedagogy and practice. We have really excellent teachers here and we want bring the level of all our teachers up to the level of the best."
Members of the unit run individual research projects and meet regularly to share ideas. They have also volunteered to make some of their lessons available for other colleagues to observe. In return for this work, those in the unit are paid an honorarium from the school's funding as a "leading edge" school.
At least two such lessons are available each week and are publicised on the school's network. Typical titles include: "Science: translating graphs into words"; "English: inferring meaning from a text"; and "History: why is the king unpopular?" Running themes throughout all the classwork are creativity and activity.
"We do lots of little competitions in lessons, with prizes at the end,"
says Mr Glenn. "It doesn't matter what the prizes are - a pat on the head, for example. We've had children arguing about who won when the prize was a piece of string. They just like the idea of winning. Boys, particularly, are more driven by competition."
Model-making is another theme - model trenches for the First World War, eyeballs for biology, hanging mobiles to show the hierarchies of the feudal system, shanty towns for development issues.
It is clear that Mr Yates is very much a role-model for a creative and popular teaching style. He is renowned in the school - and beyond - for the invention of the cardboard TV set. "I was doing a geography lesson with Year 9 on the weather of the British isles, and the children were struggling with the weather symbols," he says.
"This big cardboard box was kicking around, so I cut the front out and got each of them in turn to sit with their heads in the box and read out the forecasts they had written."
One boy, it seems, insisted on going into other classrooms to deliver his weather forecast.
The idea subsequently developed a life of its own.
"Another teacher made a cardboard remote control for her TV," says Mr Glenn.
"She claims she can make the mute button work. Then, at a conference, I met someone who'd borrowed the idea for another school and made a big plasma-screen model with room for two children in it."
Somehow, it's not surprising to find that there has been a deliberate effort at the school to recruit some teachers from the primary sector.
"We're careful because we don't want to steal them from where they're needed, but if we can appoint some, it helps with our practice," says Dame Enid. "Children don't change between 11 and 12. It's the school that changes.
"We've always thought that the children ought to enjoy their education - and then they will enjoy themselves."
At the same time, there is serious work going on - for example, in the development of appropriate teaching styles in the sixth-form. It is a neglected area, says Mrs Walters.
"There's nothing available to help teachers," she says, "And we're looking to raise aspirations and improve A-level grades."
It's a question, says Mr Yates, of taking ideas from wherever they're offered, and being flexible enough to take them seriously and try them out.
He adds: "Just teaching children harder the way we've always been doing it is not going to get results. We have to start approaching the problem from different directions, and not being afraid to give things a go."