Phil Revell reports on a school which has created its own virtual reality, complete with mayor and museum
Creativity is the current buzzword in primary teaching - but few schools are daring enough to create their own virtual town, run by pupils.
The "town" of Grangeton is quite a place. Its shop sells real food, its TV station has a real studio and broadcasts real programmes. There is a council, a mayor, a museum, a language cafe and a local paper. And it all exists in the buildings of Grange primary, in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire, staffed by its older pupils.
For headteacher Richard Gerver, who turned the Grangeton project into reality two years after taking over at the school, it fulfils his professional wish-list of creativity, real learning and professional freedom.
"Too many people have got sucked into knowledge and understanding," says Mr Gerver. "My key words are experiential and contextual - learning has to mean something for young people."
Mr Gerver's approach is to turn the curriculum around, focusing on the skills children need, then putting them into context - which is where the virtual town comes in. Grange primary is now an example of what can be done within the constraints of a national curriculum and testing.
Every project is supported by classroom work, and the entire approach is to look for opportunities for reality - real contexts, real audiences and real learning.
Mr Gerver came to teaching after an indifferent independent education and a certain amount of drifting. He discovered a talent and passion for teaching, but was determined not to waste his pupils' time as his own had been.
"All too often lessons are about theory, 'what would you do if?' Here, it is what will we do. Do we sell chocolate bars in the shop, which would up our profits, or do we stick with our principles and offer fruit and healthy alternatives?"
The school council, which oversees Grangeton, opted for the latter.
Grangeton is led by pupils in Years 5 and 6, with most of the curriculum time offered so far being focused on this group. But others are also involved. Y3 pupils help run the shop and younger pupils are members of the school council.
At playtime loudspeakers boom out the latest pop from the school's radio station, interspersed with chat and news from an experienced DJ. A glance through the window into the studio reveals the DJ and producer, both from Y5, working unsupervised.
Might a nine-year-old not be tempted to slip the occasional rude word into the broadcast?
"It has never happened," says Mr Gerver.
The children take their roles seriously because the school does too, with professional training for every activity. BBC Radio Derby guided the Grangeton pupils through the principles of community radio. The Midlands Today news team did the same for Grangeton's TV crew.
Pupils in the project had to apply for their jobs. The objective is to create a skills base within the school to make the project self-sustaining.
"We are using our own pupil experts to train the next generation," says Mr Gerver.
He believes if the youngest children have vocational experiences as part of their daily school life they will gather experience as they move through the school and be able to handle management roles in Y5 or Y6.
With that aim in mind he will be spreading the project through the whole school this term, collapsing the curriculum for half a day a week and reinforcing the skills in other classes.
"For Grangeton to have an impact it has to be embedded in the ethos of the school. We want to give children a vocational learning opportunity. The whole thing about vocational opportunities in the new 14-19 curriculum? Well it needs to happen at age three, not at 14," he says.
Three years ago Grange was in crisis, no longer the natural choice for local parents and with staff morale falling. The school was not failing, but children expected little from their lessons and achievement suffered as a result.
"The school had gone through a rough patch," says Martin Way, the chair of governors. "We were looking for a new direction and Richard was young, with drive and some exciting ideas."
Mr Gerver believed the school needed to rediscover the excitement of learning. "The teaching and learning didn't relate to the needs of the kids, who had become disaffected from the entire process. We had to make the children feel that being here was special," he says.
Teachers were also keen. "I was saying, 'You have the integrity to know your children and the freedom to tailor the material to the needs of your kids'," says Mr Gerver. "The teachers felt much more like professionals again."
The skills-based vocational approach is also the basis of the Royal Society of Arts' Opening Minds project, although Grange knew nothing about it until recently. Grangeton is now highlighted by the RSA as an example of primary practice.
Mr Gerver is well aware of the constraints that prevent many heads from freeing up the curriculum. But Sats scores have improved, the Department for Education and Skills' innovation unit has part-funded the Grangeton project, and the Office for Standards in Education, which visited in May, found Grange was an "effective and rapidly improving school". Mr Gerver was said to have brought about a sea change.
Inspectors highlighted the pupils' personal qualities. Attendance is well above average, behaviour is very good. Ofsted notes that pupils love coming to school. The report also said Grangeton was a good curriculum enrichment programme.
Name: Grange primary school, Long Eaton, Nottingham
KS2 percentage level 4 or above:
English 61 per cent
Maths 73 per cent
Science 80 per cent
KS2 percentage level 4 or above:
English 91 per cent
Maths 87 per cent
Science 100 per cent