Thinking outside the box

17th September 2004 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins talks to a headteacher who doesn't believe in tinkering round the edges

Working with artists in school has led Paget primary in outer Birmingham to rethink everything. "We were learning about how processes worked," says the head, Kevin McCabe, "and it gradually dawned on us what this meant for the school as a whole."

The staff came to see learning as a process rather than an end, and to believe that the only meaningful way to boost children's chances in life was to enable them to drive their own learning.

They examined ideas they would never have looked at before, and finally decided to aim for the International Baccalaureate's primary years programme. This is based on a pupil profile of characteristics that schools wish to develop in children. It aims to make them enquirers, thinkers, communicators, risk-takers, knowledgeable about themes of global importance, principled, caring, open-minded, well-balanced and reflective.

In other words, it strives to develop citizens fit and prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Mr McCabe began his quest for a new way forward four years ago when he arrived at Paget, which had just gone into special measures. Although he and his team succeeded in raising standards in maths and science, results in English remained stubborn. Children's experiences were narrow, and they had little to write about, he says.

Paget got together with three other local schools to compile a bid to Creative Partnerships Birmingham "that was based on getting experiences for our children who we felt were excluded on the basis of class. We are largely talking about an economically disadvantaged white community".

Creative Partnerships added a fifth school, and two organisations, Book Communications and Craft Space Touring, acted as brokers to find artists to meet the schools' needs.

The artists challenged school thinking. They demonstrated that it can be better to work with small groups on a project than to include everyone; they brought the children new experiences and involved parents. They thought big, encouraging children to make gigantic structures.

Working with artist-in-residence Mike Fletcher to create a new landscape feature for the school opened thinking further. "One of the things that sticks in my mind," says Mr McCabe, "was that he asked, 'When you play football, do you do it because it looks good or feels good? Maybe it should feel good to move through that space'."

Such experiences helped Paget in its drive to find new approaches. "No matter how we dress it up, we're still 'delivering'' the national curriculum to children. It's still a Victorian style of education. We would like to think we are forward-thinking liberal educators. But we're still forward-thinking Victorian educators," says Mr McCabe.

Teachers wanted to take enquiry-based learning to a higher level, to stretch the horizons inside children's heads by extending their thinking skills, and outside as well by developing an international dimension. The IB primary programme appeared to fit the bill, says Mr McCabe, "but when we get nearer, we might want to be somewhere else".

Paget's approach has the backing of the local education authority, Sats scores are good, and changes have been made. "We have changed the way we think as teachers. Now we have to change the way we assess and ask how the statutory assessments fit in with that," says Mr McCabe.

While every school is accountable for children's performance they don't all have to achieve their results in the same way, he points out.

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