Suffocated by Victorian values

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
THERE are times, as in recent years, when it's been hard to find creativity in schools; at others it has been rampant.

In Victorian times creativity was systematically extinguished through a harsh system of "pay by results". According to a famous head of that period, "the common idea of education... is of a set of memory trucks all in a row with navvies pitching ballast into them against time". Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

So long-lasting was the effect of the regime that it was arguably not until after the 1944 Education Act that creativity began to surface on a broad front. Then the Ministry of Education published as its sole primary curriculum advice "Story of a school", an account of Steward Street school, led by inspirational head Peter Stone. The pamphlet was reprinted in the 1950s with a foreword encouraging other primaries to experiment and innovate as Steward Street had done.

But Peter Stone didn't throw everything overboard for the arts and creativity. He put them alongside mornings devoted to what look uncannily like literacy and numeracy hours. He knew that the basics and curriculum balance were important and by deploying an imaginative and flexible approach to the timetable he found the means of "unlocking the minds and opening the shut chambers of the hearts" of his deprived city children.

The subsequent post-war flowering of the arts and creative thinking had enormous social and economic pay-offs for our society but on its coat-tails rode some pale and inadequate imitators of Stone's approach who forgot about the basics. This led to today's prescriptive national curriculum and the dense regime of tests and inspections. Well-intentioned though literacy and numeracy hours and other curriculum guidelines are, in practice they have wrapped suffocating tendrils around the imaginations of teachers.

Then in 1999 Ken Robinson's seminal report on creativity was issued - only to gather dust on official shelves. Nevertheless it has run like a bubbling stream through the intellectual desert of the post-1988 education world. It is possible to find schools, as this campaign will show, prepared to put their heads above the parapet and declare that attending to the basics and encouraging creativity - far from being mutually exclusive - are natural bedfellows if you want all pupils to succeed.

I came across such a school in Docklands recently. At Gallions primary, headteacher Bernadette Thompson is making creativity a reality, though not without a struggle. Despite recruiting teachers committed to the arts, she found their training had almost expunged a belief that it was possible to abandon QCA schemes of work. The school had painstakingly ensured that its radical new curriculum was faithful to the principles of the national curriculum's subject-dominated approach and of course, Ofsted-proof. But, as Mrs Thompson said with a mischievous smile: "They won't be here again for another four years and a lot will have happened by then."

I then witnessed the most lively and creative Year 3 assembly I have ever seen. It encompassed science, research, citizenship, media, music and dance and was carried out by disciplined, focused and enthusiastic youngsters. It underlined the head's belief that if children unlock creative talents in the primary years they will gain enough confidence to navigate the inevitable setbacks of adolescence. The visit reminded me of Ken Robinson's definition of creativity as "imaginative activity fashioned to produce outcomes that are original and of value".

So how are we to turn the tide in favour of such creativity? Let's start with five points for action and resolution.

First, we need to define the primary curriculum at least partly in terms of "experiences". These might include taking part in a public performance and identifying what a youngster is good at in the arts and giving them the chance to develop that strength. In Years 4, 5 and 6 they might do open-ended research into an issue linked to the local environment and sustainability; they could create a book or multimedia product for another age group; they could take part in day visits and residentials increasingly organising these themselves (with expert support). In short, let's connect children not just to the culture they inherit but to the present and future in a way that engages their increasing sense of confidence.

Second, let's look at a non-metronomic timetable so that days and weeks are planned for purposeful enterprises.

Third, let's involve outside experts, such as artists-in-residence, scientists, undergraduates - whoever we can lay our hands on to help.

Fourth, let's say to the Government that, in return for scrapping tests and relying instead on teacher assessments at ages 7 and 11, we will set both modest and ambitious targets. These will not just be for science, maths and English but also for creative experiences. And we will be held to account in inspections.

Finally, and most importantly, let's unlock the latent creativity in our teachers and support staff. What is it they burn about and how is it expressing itself in school life? For when they do, as I saw in that Docklands school, they surprise and energise themselves and their pupils.

Tim Brighouse is London Schools Commissioner

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