Our future economy and society is going to depend on creative individuals if it is to thrive. So while the position of creativity within the new Government’s future curriculum has still not been laid out in detail, one thing is certain: young people are always going to need creative skills. So this month’s Case in Point focuses on how to embed creativity in all learning activity to achieve joined-up thinking that will benefit students, staff and the whole school, with this case study illustrating how to achieve this in practice

School context
Queensbridge Visual and Performing Arts School is an 11–16 comprehensive school situated in almost inner-city Birmingham right on the borders of Moseley and Kings Heath. While these are both fairly middle-class areas of the city, the school has traditionally drawn most of its pupils from adjacent inner-city Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook, areas of high deprivation and poverty. Birmingham, in effect, still operates a grammar school system, with four King Edwards’ Foundation Grammar Schools within the city boundaries and one very close to Queensbridge, which also affects the school’s intake. We share a site and some facilities with Fox Hollies School and Performing Arts College, which has a cohort of about 60 students with special needs. This proximity allows for joint working and dialogue and enriches the lives of both communities.

The school has 660 learners, but the presence of a large girls’ comprehensive school close by means that we have many fewer girls than boys, roughly in the ratio of 1:3. Almost half of our pupils do not have English as their first language and there are 28 different languages (including English) spoken at the school. One-third of pupils are entitled to free school meals and 36% have special educational needs (SEN).

The school has made significant and sustained progress in raising its contextual value added (CVA) score from a percentile ranking of 62 in 2004 to within the top 10% for the last three years. Similarly, the percentage of students achieving five or more A*-C GCSE-level grades has steadily improved from 30% in 2004 to 69% in 2009.
Queensbridge has had visual and performing arts school status since 2003 and has been a Creative Partnerships school of creativity for the last two years, with one year left to run, whereby we have received a yearly grant of £20,000 to work with artists and creative people as well as with a cluster of local schools to help develop their creativity.

At Queensbridge, we have always had a commitment to developing the arts and using creativity across the curriculum to enhance achievement and enjoyment.

However, in 2004 when a new head was appointed it was clear that whatever the arts were achieving in terms of pupil engagement, they were not delivering in terms of achievement. We had no coher­ent strategy to use the arts and creativity to develop learning or to support the most vulnerable. The school was sadly not meeting its ambitious mission statement: ‘all different, all equal, all successful’. Progression was poor, traditional transition issues were taking their toll, significant numbers of English as an additional language (EAL) pupils were not able to fully access the curriculum. Creativity had become a bit of a catch-all term that actually excused a lack of solidity and shape to the learner’s experience.

The new head came in with a joyful determination to harness all of the rich diversity and energy in the school to develop a truly creative curriculum that would be pervasive from Years 7-11 and make sense to pupils and teachers alike. There was to be an end to the one-off isolated arts projects that at best benefited a class or group, and a commitment to investing in creativity everywhere. As the head said at the time, ‘My big aim is to change the way teaching and learning happen in this school’ as well as to tap into the pupils’ perceived innate capacity for deep learning.

Understanding creativity
One problem is the difficulty in defining creativity, giving the potentially ethereal a heft that makes it transparent and accessible for all teachers. Creativity has become a byword for having a go, the freedom to make mistakes, the valuing of process over product and the liberty to try new ideas to engage pupils with their own learning.

The dictionary defines creativity as ‘the ability to generate innovative ideas and manifest them from thought into reality’.

Our new world demands that we are teaching for jobs we don’t yet know exist, we don’t know what new knowledge our pupils might need – but we do know that they will need the capacity to update their knowledge and skills and have the imagin­ation and curiosity to solve whatever problems the new world order might throw at them. They need the ‘book learning’ too – we are not suggesting replacing the thrill of subject knowledge – but they need the skills to adapt and use that learning effectively and responsively.

Shaping a creative curriculum
There is a certain license in the very term creativity that means that our creative curriculum might look very different from yours, but at Queensbridge we have foc­used on embedding a number of key ele­ments in our provision – see below.

Key elements of our creative curriculum approach

  • A focus on project-based, cross-curricular learning
  • A focus on skills as well as content
  • Use of drama techniques and in particular ‘mantle of the expert’, which puts the pupils in the position of experts, often in created imaginary communities where, as enterprise leaders, they might gain commissions to do various things to support the community, solve or explore mysteries or issues, offering meaningful cross-curricular contexts for learning
  • A commitment to fostering positive relationships between teachers and pupils and among pupils themselves
  • Introducing and then sustaining a curriculum that enables pupils to engage with real-life issues

Assessing progress

We have put in place rigorous systems of monitoring and evaluation for pupils and teachers alike, in the form of monitoring weeks for teachers and ‘red’ (assessment) weeks for the pupils. These weeks anchor the nine-week cycles, checking the learning and making sure there is chance to draw breath and reflect, with everyone in school – there are no trips or activities in those weeks.

In these assessments and monitoring sessions we are checking that pupils are on target to at the very least happily meet and, with our help, exceed their academic potential and to pass the exams that will be their passport onwards and upwards.

But that is not all that we are looking for. Embedded in all that is done at Queensbridge is a commitment to the five Rs: risk, responsibility, rigour, relevance, rel­a­tionships. When lessons are monitored, observers look for teachers taking risks and taking their pupils on that jour­ney with them, deepening their relation­ships.

It is difficult to measure crea­­­tivity, but we are working towards ways of measuring how the pupils use their personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) through observations and dis­cu­­s­sion and reflection sessions with the pupils.

We use written tests at the end of each cycle, which mainly test their knowledge base and how far they have advanced since they were last assessed.

All of this has to be done within a rigorous and well-planned framework that ensures that pupils are taking responsibility for their own learning and the teachers are taking responsibility for being the adults in the room, ensuring that all that goes on has a deep relevance, not just to the curriculum but to pupil’s lives.

Developing a new curriculum
The major structural changes took place in Year 7 when in 2006 we developed a new curriculum called the enterprise curriculum. Groups were rigorously setted according to ability in classes of up to 30 with numbers reducing in the two most academically challenged groups.

This restructuring was as much about invigorating the social health of the new intake groups as working towards greater academic achievement and autonomy.

The groups all work to the same enterprise curriculum, spending 14 hours of the week with their tutor/teacher as well as working with different teachers on two hours of maths, English and PE and an hour each of music, dance, art and French. The enterprise curriculum time is spent working on ‘big questions’ such as, ‘How does it feel to be in someone else’s shoes?’ or ‘How can I make a positive difference?’ The box below illustrates how, in a six-week module, students work on the latter question.

Enterprise curriculum: activities related to ‘How can I make a positive difference?’

  • Pupils look at children all over the world and ‘visit’ different countries, costing their travels as they go. They interrogate children’s rights, look at where they are being abused, consider the actions they can take, conduct various campaigns and look at the work that charities are doing to support children’s rights. They also work with pupils from our neighbouring special school on inclusion issues.
  • In another classroom the International Freedom Fighters (IFF) are investigating ‘How much freedom do I have?’ looking at how to help people who don’t have the freedoms that we all take for granted. They get letters from the future, via the interdimensional post-box, a virtual device set up in the classroom that brings messages to the pupils via the interactive whiteboard. The message informs them about future rights abuses where the Fairites have locked up the Brunites for no good reason at all. They get letters from the past, from Thomas Percy, about the rights of Catholics, which leads them inevitably to the gunpowder plot via investigation of a local priest-hole in a rich stately home. And a letter from Rosa Parkes that leads them to consider and debate just how far one person can actually change the world. There is drama work based on the picture book The Island by Armin Greder and then there is the final letter from IFF rounding off their membership and reporting on their successes and failures.

The groups are not just learning about stuff, but how to go about stuff, in groups, as individual learners, leaders and team members. This is all made explicit for the learners through personal, learning and thinking skills, so that they know exactly what skills they are honing and developing through the execution of any particular task. They are also encouraged to peer-assess written work and discuss with each other the skills the work exhibits. There are displays of PLTS skills in every form room to reinforce and remind pupils how central the skills are to their learning.

Implementing in practice
These changes were not instant. The school employed an outstanding primary practitioner to lead the changes. She observed the school for a year, working with and building up what was to be the new enterprise team, allaying fears, particularly about spending so much time with one group but also about losing subject specialism in a generalist soup.

There was also the fear that there was only the one kind of blueprint who could deliver such a curriculum – the flamboyant drama practitioner. Both of these fears have proved groundless. There are many routes to creative teaching and The enterprise curriculum has attempted to brand itself so that everyone can use their own toolkit of skills to deliver their own approaches to their own big questions.

Teachers do have the freedom to work on their own big questions, within the larger framework of pupil entitlement. This means that each teacher is given the creative freedom to work on modules that they believe will matter to, and resonate with, their classes. The important thing is that each of the teachers is teaching from a commitment to the core values and a belief that these approaches work.

This is not an approach that gets sprung on people; it is something that they opt into and the school has invested in serious continuing professional development (CPD) for those who do opt in. This year, three of the enterprise teachers have also had paid time to conduct research into the impact of the enterprise curriculum on pupils in terms of behaviour, literacy and subject knowledge.

When recruiting teachers for the enterprise curriculum, we often recruit primary practitioners. Otherwise, it is generally teachers from our existing staff who have dipped their toes in the enterprise learning experience through their subject hours, and feel they want more, who take on the opportunity that The enterprise curriculum offers.

The approach has been so successful in engaging Year 7 learners that we now have a similar programme for the following year group. Called Innov8, most subject areas use big questions to frame the cycles or modules of work in KS3. For example, in English, pupils in Year 8 work to the big question,’ How can I read the world?’ and ‘How can I talk my way to success?’.

Structured approach
There is infinitely more to creativity across the curriculum than investigating big questions. It is not so much the questions as the approaches that teachers and pupils take to investigating them. It is the process rather than the answers that is important and which the school has fostered through a range of different structures and support systems – see below for examples.

Elements of our structured approach

  • We have had ‘plasticine days’ where teachers have been given a range of craft materials to work with and asked to model what they thought our learners needed to equip them for their journey through Queensbridge – the practice of visualising or dramatising abstract concepts has become a commonplace in the classroom either through drawing, poetry, drama or whatever form most suits both teachers and learners.
  • We have worked with other schools in our partnership group of six local second­ary schools just focusing on creative approaches to learning, with workshops ranging from ICT to physical exercise.
  • We have worked in partnership on a photographic project with disaffected Year 9 boys, helping them to visualise and articulate their problems and work towards finding solutions.
  • With Lister School, we have worked with our student leaders using drama and dance to reinforce messages about responsibility and leadership.
  • This year, we used some of our schools-for-creativity grant to pay for an artist in residence who worked with our pupils in a makeshift studio in the school entrance hall and who ran masterclasses for local primary school children. The money also funded a stained glass project with a Year 8 maths group, which will give us a model of creative practice that we can embed in the curriculum for years to come.

As a result, teachers and pupils are open to exploring different routes towards solutions (and there may be many – or none) to their big questions. We are about developing the pupil’s critical understan­ding, and we have to ensure that we are going deeper and deeper with them. But it means, too, that teachers don’t have pre-ordained or prescriptive answers; teachers and pupils alike have licence to explore.

Introducing ‘intensive weeks’
Out of rather standard ‘enrichment days’ have grown three ‘intensive weeks’ that take place in each term, and involve a week of activities, badged under particular themes. For example, in the most recent intensive weeks, Year 8 was investigating environmental issues, Year 7 was experiencing international sport, a group of Year 9 students was researching issues that they had flagged up as concerns, for example the position of girls in the school and emotional support for pupils from teachers and other pupils. Meanwhile, Year 10 might be getting ahead with their coursework taking a whole week with their teachers really focusing in on a particular module of their GCSE course.

These weeks are as far from ‘activity weeks‘ as we can get; they are meticulously planned, often through staff twilight sessions, to ensure maximum coherence and avoid the danger of filling the days with random trips and activities that either don’t make sense or don’t feed the overarching theme of the week.

Beyond the classroom
We like to think that we are constantly building and expanding our knowledge about what engages and stimulates the imaginations of Queensbridge pupils – and to do that we are creating a repertoire of pupils’ experiences that is making the curriculum more relevant and increasingly powerful.

The classroom is a hub for all that goes on, but it is just one of many settings that frame the pupils’ learning. As part of our vision, 10 promises have been made to our pupils that commit the school to getting them out of the classroom.

The Queensbridge promise:
In Years 7 and 8, you will…
1 take part in a residential trip
2 take action as a global citizen
3 take part in a fundraising activity
4 become an arts leader.

In Year 9, you will …
5 attend a national sporting event
6 help make a change in your local community
7 be a leader or coach.

In Years 10 and 11 you will…
8 experience a top cultural venue
9 take part in an outward bound activity
10 take part in a performance or multimedia event to influence others.

Our pupils visit and work with other schools, particularly our feeder primaries, they are involved with the Duke of Edinburgh Award and go on work experience placements; they have whole days helping to improve the environment in their own local communities; they go to art galleries, museums and local parks on organised trips and so on.

To encourage active learning in all sorts of settings, we have needed to help teachers to get that organised. The paperwork alone can be a disincentive to moving out of the classroom – the logistics, planning time and contacts with outside agencies can all become barriers.

Supporting staff
To help support all this activity, the school has employed two non-teaching creative agents (a term pillaged from the Creative Partnership lexicon, but the personnel in this case are Queensbridge to the core). They are employed to broker experiences to make the curriculum more powerful, helping:

  • teachers to hang learning around
  • good experiences
  • coordinate the growth of a
  • landmark curriculum
  • expand knowledge about what engages students, build on those techniques within departments and the school generally, with a view to exporting what we can to the wider community
  • find funding opportunities.

The outcomes are all to do with sustaining the breadth, excitement and depth of pupils’ experience. Our two creative agents come from different backgrounds, one from teaching and community arts, the other from a mainly community arts and drama background. They have no teaching commitment.

The box below gives a few examples that illustrate the type of help the creative agents have provided.

Examples of work of the creative agents

Week 1
In this sample week, the creative agents:

  • secured funding for and arranged the sex education residential for Y10 girls, com­plete with crying computerised babies
  • launched a book that our EAL pupils had written with special needs pupils from our adjoining school, securing the funding for this, coordinating and organising the creative writer, the venues, the printing, the software – all the details that help projects run from start to finish
  • organised for a theatre company to provide a week’s residential for the Year 10 diploma group
  • supported local schools bidding to become our partner enquiry schools (part of the schools-of-creativity network)
  • booked the trip to Parliament that has become part of the Year 8 curriculum.

Week 2
In another week, the agents were:

  • looking for people to bring in to talk about their careers to Year 11 on an evening, so that they can make more informed choices about their futures
  • bidding to bring an artist in to support Year 11 GCSE work
  • organising the trip to the Cold War Museum to support GCSE work
  • involved with the We’ve Got Words steering group who are rummaging through the world of literacy to find and implement joyful, cross-curricular initia­tives to help pupils enjoy and play with words wherever they encounter them
  • involved with National Poetry Day, where the school used subject-specific vocabulary to create poems and a poet worked with a selection of English pupils to create ‘subverse’ poems for display in unlikely places across the school.

They have also secured subsidies for life changing outward-bound trips, and set up a project to create a sensory gar­den for a child with multiple disabili­ties.

Working with others
We have been fortunate enough to work extremely closely with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and we are a Royal Shakespeare Company Hub school. The latter has been of massive significance to the school – as all the English and drama teachers have been trained in using active teaching methods, Shakespeare is no longer read but experienced as drama and as a result pupils, on the whole, love studying the plays.

We have built treasured relationships with our local Asda and Homebase stores, local community groups and traders who are happy to talk to groups of pupils about the kind of work that they do and how they fit into the fabric of the local community. These encounters all reflect creative approaches to answering the questions that the students ask in the classroom, like ‘What sort of job can I do if I don’t get to university?’ or ‘What’s it like to work in a shop?’.

A creative school has to be open to all sorts of ways of informing its pupils about different ways of living and being in the world.

Overcoming challenges
This process is not without its risks for the management team. The main dangers and pitfalls lie in the fact that schools are dynamic places, there are always new teachers, and there is always an academic imperative to achieve the best results possible. This can be perceived to be at odds with the creative curriculum, which traditionally likes to offer a bit of pupil puttering time, some cracks where the light can get in – time that is in obscenely short supply in secondary schools.

We have mainly overcome these reservations and problems firstly by assuming that creativity and creative teaching are indivisible and although there are many different ways of being a creative teacher there is no better or more effective way of teaching or achieving the best results for all our pupils.

Then we offer a supportive and imaginative programme of teacher training and CPD and many opportunities to share good practice via our local partnership schools, with our Royal Shakespeare Company group schools, our Creative Partnership group of enquiry schools, arts college group, with our extended schools cluster group and with our partner school in London, Lister School, to name but a few.

All teaching and learning is subject to rigorous monitoring and positive assess­ment allied with room for experiment and a culture that likes to say yes to innovation and does not condemn heroic failure but acknowledges and builds on it.

The structures are in place to support and nurture creative T&L and there is a budget to support innovation, training, visits and coherent projects. There is timetabled space for department meetings where long- and short-term planning incorporates creativity as the norm.

Taking stock
What all this pursuit of creativity actually means for our teachers and learners is a happier, more successful school where infinitely more powerful learning is going on. It means that there are far fewer exclusions; there is more participation by pupils, staff and parents in extra-curricular events and celebrations, in fact there are more celebrations as there is much, much more to celebrate. Key advice we can offer from our creative learning experience is set out in the box below.

Embedding creativity: factors for success

  • Focus on creativity as an essential tool for inclusivity and community cohesion
  • Capture best practice and make sure everyone knows about it
  • Invest in training
  • Invest in providing and expediting creative opportunities for pupils
  • Share the language of creativity
  • Be rigorous in monitoring what is going on in the classroom
  • Be prepared to take risks and let your staff and pupils take risks
  • Encourage staff to develop meaningful relationships with pupils through tutoring and their subject specialism
  • Ensure that what is being taught is seen by pupils as relevant to their lives
  • Encourage pupils to take responsibility for their learning through an emphasis on the importance of skills
  • Be open to new ideas – seek them out and encourage others to do so as well
  • Showcase students’ work at every available opportunity
  • Look for opportunities to make links with your local community
  • Seek out partnerships with arts organisations
  • Enjoy the possibilities

Our application to become a school of creativity still defines the sort of school we strive to be:

Our vision is that what has begun as curricu­lum innovation will have its outworking in establishing a whole-school culture where Queensbridge is characterised by staff who are full of curiosity. They will be reflective, risk-taking, listening to pupils in and outside classrooms,, and who are above all always prepared to fight for relation­ships. Pupils will mirror these qualities and for all of us, deep learning ra­ther than testing will drive us.

By modelling creativity at every opportunity, we aim to help our pupils go out into the world ready and able, in the words of the American theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘to add something new to the culture’ and with the courage and conviction to do so.

Helen Reeves, Acting Headteacher, Queensbridge School, Moseley, Birmingham