A school with creativity at the heart of the learning process will benefit by increasing the motivation of staff and pupils, says former head, Dave Weston. In this article and case study, he shows the way to more imaginative approaches to curriculum planning

Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality’ Arthur Koestler

Many school leaders and teachers realise that is now time to take more control over the curriculum and to include a greater emphasis on creativity in the learning and teaching process.

During the last five years, headteachers have developed the confidence to take innovative and imaginative approaches to curriculum planning and school organisation. This is due to some encouragement from central government in the light of recent perceived improvements in primary literacy and numeracy standards and to the realisation that a wider and more exciting curriculum can lead to greater levels of motivation for all pupils and staff.

Creativity and innovation have now been legitimised by the DfES and primary schools are actively encouraged to develop creative ideas and actions: ‘promoting creativity is a powerful way of engaging pupils with their learning’ Excellence and Enjoyment DfES 2003 (page 31)

Creativity is often associated with the ‘creative arts’ but in reality it is certainly not unique to the arts. It can be seen and identified in all aspects of the arts, humanities, sciences, maths and technology.

The National Curriculum Handbook (1999) included creativity within the section on thinking skills. It stated that: ‘Creative thinking skills… enable pupils to generate and extend ideas, to suggest hypotheses, to apply imagination and to look for alternative innovative outcomes.’

Didn’t we always teach it?

Creativity was taught in the 1970s and 1980s, often through topic-based projects, but there was a lack of accountability, detailed planning and thoroughness. Much of this perceived ‘creativity’ disappeared in the 1990s as it did not fit into a strategic box and schools thought that there was not time for it and that such an approach was not valued by central government.

The difficulty in measuring the success of a creative approach to primary learning and teaching gave our education system many problems. As a result headteachers, under the pressures of Ofsted inspection and statistical league tables, became reluctant to take risks with the curriculum. However, more recently this situation has started to change, especially with the development of the creative partnership schemes.

The Reggio Emilia approach

The success of the Reggio Emilia approach to early years education has influenced theory and practice in the area of creativity in primary education. In schools in Reggio Emilia there is an innovative staffing structure with each early years centre having an ‘atelierista’ (a specially trained art teacher) who works closely with the classroom teachers.

In Italy in the primary sector there is significant teacher autonomy with no national curriculum or associated achievement tests. In Reggio Emilia the teachers become skilled observers and they routinely divide responsibilities, so that one can systematically observe and record conversations between children while the other is teaching the class. Teachers from several schools sometimes work and learn together and this contributes to the culture of teachers as learners.

The learning environment is crucial in the Reggio Emilia approach and classrooms often have courtyards, wall-sized windows and easy access to stimulating outdoor areas. Each classroom has large spaces for group activities and specially designed areas for pupils and staff to interact. Display areas are large and stimulating and reflect the creativity of the children. Teachers in early years settings in Reggio often refer to the learning environment as a ‘third teacher’ as most centres are small with just two classroom teachers.

The curriculum is project-based and there are numerous opportunities for creative thinking and exploration. The teachers work on topics with small groups of pupils while the rest of the class work on self-selected activities. Projects are often open-ended and therefore curriculum planning is flexible and is sometimes teacher-directed and sometimes child-initiated. This philosophy is inspiring and can be partially transferred to the different framework of the British primary school.

Whole-school approach to developing ‘creativity’

For school leaders the first step in developing a creative school is the fostering of a whole-school approach. Creativity is not an add-on and it cannot be imposed by the headteacher. There needs to be discussion, involvement and ownership. The debate should be based around some of the following points:

  • taking control of the curriculum by the school
  • the creation of a school with creativity at the heart of the learning process
  • enhancing the motivation for staff and pupils
  • fostering the professional development of all the staff, both teaching and non-teaching
  • involving governors and parents in a whole-school approach to creativity and showing how this philosophy supports school improvement and high standards of achievement
  • getting the pupils involved in school issues (regarding the curriculum and the learning, perhaps through the school council).

How does your school measure up?

So how far has your school got in developing a creative approach to learning and teaching? Ask yourself:

  • Have you discussed the freedoms of developing a curriculum appropriate for your school?
  • Does your school development and improvement plan take account of creativity in learning and teaching styles?
  • Is creativity a part of your staff development programme?
  • Is the governing body committed to promoting creativity throughout the school? Is there a nominated governor involved in this approach?
  • How involved are the pupils in discussing the curriculum and in a creative approach to learning and teaching?
  • Does your school carefully plan visits to galleries and projects involving artists and craftspeople?
  • Are creative successes evaluated in the SEF?
  • Does your school celebrate and promote creativity to a wider audience?

Creativity should be celebrated and the school should consider looking for outside accreditation through the ‘Artsmark’ scheme. Creative successes should be carefully evaluated, highlighted in the SEF and showcased to parents and the community. Staff should be empowered to design activities within the curriculum which are exciting, motivating and relevant to their school and pupils. Once these seeds are sown, creativity will flourish.


Case study: making our school a more creative environment

At the primary school where I was headteacher, we recognised that the curriculum had become unbalanced and that we were spending too much of the ‘timetabled’ day on English and maths. Staff kept saying that too little time was being devoted to the arts and humanities. This imbalance was having an effect on the motivation of some pupils, especially in Years 5 and 6 and on the job satisfaction of the staff.

Like every school, we were very anxious to maintain high standards in English and maths and to ensure that our KS2 SATs results were good. However, we decided that we were fairly secure in the core curriculum and that the time had come to reclaim the curriculum. Therefore we reviewed our whole-school curriculum plan and looked at all the ways we could make our school a more creative and exciting environment. The aspects of school life we reviewed were as follows:

  • encouraging a more flexible approach to the timetable
  • developing the school grounds to link in with the outdoor curriculum.

We decided that the school grounds were under-used as a learning environment. Therefore each curriculum coordinator was given the opportunity to have a part of the grounds as an outdoor curriculum area to support ‘real learning’ in that area. Staff came up with lots of imaginative ideas such as:

  • Music – developing an outdoor music trail with differing instruments hanging from trees and fences.
  • Geography – developing an orienteering trail around the edge of the field.
  • Art – developing an outdoor sculpture area with a clay model from every pupil.
  • Languages – playground signs and rules in differing languages.
  • Science – developing an environmental area with a pond, seating in the shape of different animals and insects.
  • Design and technology – one of the most successful ‘creative’ projects was the development of a courtyard on the theme of ‘containers’. Each of our 11 classes chose a different type of container (Reception chose old wellington boots while Year 6 chose a large tractor tyre) and in the summer they were decorated and planted up.
  • Supporting the Foundation Stage curriculum with exciting outdoor areas and incorporating some of the Reggio Emilia approaches to early learning. The school decided it was important to give the early years staff the confidence to develop an exciting integrated curriculum based on the needs of young pupils rather than on the formalised curriculum.
  • Bringing in artists and craft workers to give pupils to work with adults with different skills. Each year we decided to bring artists into the school so every pupil had the opportunity to work with a ‘real’ artist at some time during their primary school career. This was an expensive approach but worthwhile as often the skills of the artists inspired school staff to try new ideas and therefore provided a professional development aspect to their work.
  • Celebrating the different languages in our school. As our school was very keen on teaching MFL to all the KS2 pupils we decided to celebrate all the languages of our school by designing a mural which showed pupils from all the countries involved saying hello in their home language. Our pupils decided that on the mural the pupils from the different countries should have hats showing the flag of their country. The large mural was painted by the pupils with the support of a professional artist and is now proudly on display by the entrance to the school office.
  • Developing the confidence and role of the art coordinator.
  • Enhancing the motivation of some pupils and giving greater ownership of the learning process to the staff.
  • Getting involved in the ‘Creative Partnerships’ scheme to get access to support and resources.