‘The touchstone of an excellent curriculum is that it instils in children a love of learning for its own sake. This means that primary children must not only learn what to study, they must also learn how to study.’ (The Primary Curriculum Review Executive Summary, p8)

Many teachers during recent years have considered that the primary curriculum has become narrowed due to an emphasis on literacy and numeracy. As a result, some schools have found it difficult to offer a creative and innovative curriculum. However, many schools have started to review their curriculum to provide a wider, more motivating syllabus taking into account some of the recommendations of the Primary Curriculum and Cambridge Primary Reviews. There is exciting work going on in our primaries, with teachers having the confidence to innovate and use a creative approach to learning.

Creativity – a definition
Creative learning is understood to be characterised by:

  • being questioning and challenging
  • making connections and seeing relationships
  • envisaging what might be
  • exploring ideas, keeping options open
  • reflecting critically on ideas, actions and outcomes.

Successful schools develop a curriculum which enables creative learning. Ofsted have noted that schools which promote creative learning most effectively have common strengths, as well as a good comprehensive coverage of the National Curriculum (see table, below).

Creativity and improved standards can coexist, says Ofsted
Ofsted documents now acknowledge that a well-organised creative curriculum can contribute to improved standards of attainment and achievement. Independent learning and pupil confidence together with curriculum rigour and high staff expectations were identified as key factors leading to higher standards. Ofsted commented that: ‘The schools in challenging circumstances which positively promoted creative learning demonstrated particularly marked improvement in pupils’ achievement. Expectations were high and, in almost every case, pupils of all abilities were challenged successfully.’

The key factors from Ofsted’s point of view that make creative learning effective include:

  • well-organised cross-curricular links that allow scope for independent enquiry
  • inclusiveness, ensuring that learning is accessible and relevant to all pupils
  • a focus on experimental learning, with knowledge, understanding and skills developed through first-hand, practical experience and evaluation
  • well-integrated use of technology
  • effective preparation of pupils for the next stage of learning
  • clear and well-supported links with the local community and cultures, often drawing on local knowledge and experience to enhance pupils’ learning
  • a flexible approach to timetabling to accommodate extended, whole-school or whole-year activities
  • partnerships that extended opportunities for creative learning.

As a result of these approaches, successful schools have high levels of enjoyment in both staff and pupils. Ofsted inspectors look for enhanced creativity in successful schools and the factors they look for include:

  • Children working together with the knowledge and skills to acquire whatever ‘props’ they need to develop and test a hypothesis and draw conclusions.
  • Pupils working independently, having the confidence and skills to access the information/data/materials they need.
  • Leadership having a focus on creativity within the school improvement plan and in performance management activities.
  • Providing clear success criteria for creative learning, monitoring and evaluating teaching for pupils’ creativity.
  • Involving the whole school community including parents and governors in promoting creativity throughout the school.

A creative primary curriculum

While the New Primary Curriculum proposed under the last government is not statutory, the extensive work of the Primary Curriculum Review, along with the Cambridge Review, should not be ignored, as both make useful contributions towards the debate on reviewing the primary curriculum. It remains for individual schools to design their own curriculum which is appropriate and relevant to the local circumstances, and many schools have successfully taken steps to adapt the overall requirements of the existing National Curriculum to create a motivating syllabus relevant to the needs and interests of their own pupils and staff.

The New Primary Curriculum
The QCDA’s New Primary Curriculum document consists of curriculum aims, the six areas of learning and religious education. It has three identified aims: to enable all pupils to become successful and confident learners and responsible citizens. Its aims are defined in terms of skills, attitudes and dispositions rather than in specific curriculum content. The six areas of learning are focused on developing and understanding skills for everyday life as follows:

  • arts – developing creativity and imagination
  • literacy – developing communication/language skills
  • historical, geographical and social understanding
  • mathematical understanding
  • physical development, health and well-being
  • scientific and technological understanding.

The curriculum also includes RE and there is reference to the inclusion of dance, drama and citizenship as part of a whole curriculum. Before the reviews that led to the formulation of this new curriculum were complete, schools around the country were already taking action to develop creativity, as the following case studies show.

Case study: school one
This primary school is in the West Midlands and serves one of the top 10 most deprived areas in England. The school has five times the national average of children speaking English as an additional language. Despite these potential challenges, the school has embraced curriculum innovation which has brought about creativity, raised children’s (and parents) aspirations and as a result improved standards of attainment.

The school has achieved this by taking a cross-curricular approach to teaching and learning from nursery through to Y6. This includes using some of the Foundation Stage styles of teaching and learning, especially child-initiated learning. It has focused on helping children develop the lifelong learning skills of becoming independent learners, creative thinkers, team workers, self-managers and effective participators. The school used the following approaches to achieve this:

  • Developing partnerships with businesses, universities, community groups etc to bring in a variety of skills and positive role models.
  • Getting children involved in community and school projects to show pupils how they can make a difference. Examples included working with local regeneration groups and running a milkshake bar at lunchtimes.
  • Using exercise and sport to improve readiness to learn including breakdancing and Bollywood-style dancing.
    Teaching through blocked lessons and week-long projects interspersed with events and cultural celebrations sometimes initiated by the pupils.
  • Giving pupils ownership of their own learning in partnership with the teacher, who would set the framework for learning and clear evaluation criteria.

The impact of this approach has been considerable, with children, parents and teachers becoming great advocates of curriculum change and creativity. Learners have become directly involved in the design and evaluation of their curriculum and the school listens to what they say. The curriculum changes have had a significant impact on standards, and the first cohort to go all the way through the school with the creative curriculum improved on previous Y6 results by over 35% in both Key Stages. The school’s overall Contextual Value Added (CVA) was also well above the national average at 101.5. Achievement was graded as outstanding and attainment as satisfactory with an upward trend – a great success for a school with a deprivation factor double the national average.

School Two
This school is located in a rural county in a fairly affluent area and decided to review its curriculum to provide more motivation and excitement for the pupils. Staff, governors and pupils discussed a new curriculum based on creativity and learning journeys for each group. A key aspect of the revised curriculum was the development of ‘Wow!’ events and giving staff and pupils ownership of the learning process. The new curriculum was built around a sequence of learning journeys for each year group. The range and focus of each journey was mapped out centrally in relation to the national curriculum to enable the teaching staff to check that the existing national curriculum was fully covered.

Each learning journey involved a variety of subjects and differing approaches. ‘Travel’ was the theme for Y6 pupils. This involved looking at the Second World War and the school approached this topic by:

  • looking at the theme of ‘evacuation’
  • building a class role play area of an Anderson shelter
  • talking to grandparents about taking in children from the cities
  • plotting the journeys of troops during the war
  • writing a diary of an evacuee.

The ‘Wow!’ event was a visit to the Imperial War Museum in London to generate an initial interest in the learning journey. Other learning journeys were based around ‘Jungle smoothies’ and ‘Viking visitors’. In between the ‘Wow!’ events and the outcome the pupils mentioned that: ‘You don’t just have a block of one thing, you do different things to fit – like numeracy, literacy, ICT and languages – it’s always fun!’ The intended outcome for each journey was clear at the start, often with a presentation to parents or an exhibition or a performance to the community.

At the end of every journey pupils evaluate the experience in terms of the skills they have acquired or improved and the knowledge and understanding they have gained. The learning journey also showed pupils how much they had achieved and enjoyed. The impact of this approach was recognised by the recent Ofsted inspection of the school, which graded the curriculum as outstanding and teaching and learning as outstanding. The high levels of motivation of both the pupils and staff was identified as a key factor in this judgement.

Ways forward
Primary schools should now take the opportunity to develop a syllabus which is creative, motivating, relevant and fun. However, it is important to maintain good curriculum coverage, detailed planning and evaluation to ensure that rigour remains. Ofsted confirms that there is no conflict between high national standards in core subjects and a creative approach to learning. Positive and creative leadership is a key factor in the successful adoption of a creative curriculum. Schools may want to:

  • ensure that pupils are actively encouraged to ask questions, hypothesise and share ideas, and that these skills extend into their writing
  • in curriculum planning, balance opportunities for creative ways of learning with secure coverage of national curriculum subjects and skills
  • ensure that all pupils develop skills in technology to support independent and creative learning
  • provide CPD for all staff to ensure that everyone has the skills and confidence to plan creatively
  • support partnerships with the potential to develop pupils of all abilities as confident, creative learners.

Dave Weston is a School Improvement Partner

Key References

  • The Primary Curriculum Review (Rose report) 2009
  • The Cambridge Review (Alexander report) 2009
  • Creativity: Find It, Promote It QCA 2004
  • Learning: Creative Approaches That Raise Standards Ofsted 2010