Richer drama out of a crisis
A few years ago, Vicky Harris was going through a crisis. Even though her own school was creative and forward-looking, she felt teachers were losing autonomy and was ready to leave the profession. But the workforce reforms came to her rescue: in the restructuring to give all teachers half a day a week for marking and preparation, she found an inspiring new role. And her school has shown how the reforms could benefit pupils as well as take the strain off teachers.
Her school, Simonswood primary, in Kirkby, Merseyside serves a deprived area: a (glowing) Office for Standards in Education report notes 65 per cent of pupils are entitled to free meals. Many also have special needs and below average attainment on entry.
Ms Harris's head, Phil Newton, believes it is essential to give these children (who are nearly all white) exciting, enriching experiences. These are children who do not go abroad; many do not even go as far as Liverpool.
But they are Scousers with spirit - happy to sing, dance and perform.
It was this Ms Harris and Mr Newton had in mind when they made her an advanced skills teacher for performing arts. She now takes each class at the 236-pupil school for half a day a week for "cultural curriculum" sessions. The focus is on performing arts, but the work also links with class work, especially literacy.
"The children are fabulous," enthuses Mr Newton. "They have lots of spirit.
They respond well to performing arts and music." Not only do the other teachers get time for marking but they also do not have to teach that feared subject, music, (unless they wish to do so).
Ms Harris tries to be topical. Last term, Year 3 did sessions on the Chinese New Year. They wrote songs in the pentatonic scale, used chime bars and a gong and invented dragon dances. Meanwhile, their class teacher, Kevin Ronan, who had been teaching myths, made sure he included Chinese tales in his lessons.
The school believes the best way to improve basic skills is with wider experiences of life. Links between drama, music, dance and literacy are carefully made. And it works. Not only do children gain in confidence, but their test results are good enough to please Ofsted. Many children arrive without good language skills, says Sarah Barton, literacy coordinator. But once they start "the progression is almost vertical".
The cultural curriculum grew out of a local authority project a few years ago, for Year 5. Simonswood decided to extend these ideas to the whole school.
It was revitalising not only for the children, but for Vicky Harris as well. "It's inspired me to go and learn as well. I enrolled in a photography course and I'm learning the drums. I can identify with the kids, because I'm learning too," she says. Among themes she has used are Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats with Year 3, which involved a workshop with cast members, performances and magnificent artwork. There were also literacy links, as children discovered TS Eliot. Year 5 children produced a play about Nelson Mandela, as part of a history theme: learning about the 20th century through a famous life.
Performing is a vital part of the curriculum: children have been involved in productions at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and other theatres, and talent-spotting assemblies are "very professionally done" says Mr Newton.
Some pupils have gone on to the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts and some have performed on children's TV.
Could other schools afford to emulate Simonswood? The primary has a full roll, and was a beacon school, which means a healthy budget. But even if it was a struggle to fund, "we would do our very best to keep it, because it's so valuable", says the head.
There are other ways to do it. A group of seven Kirkby schools has banded together to employ three teachers and a higher-level assistant to release staff for marking and preparation.
Starting in September they will specialise in PE, information and communication technology, drama, and art. Like Simonswood, the schools believe these staff will give extra value for children as well as free up time for teachers.