Pirates, munchkins and football; can you think of interactive ideas to make your lessons more creative? David Morley explains how themes like this can allow you to plan and take ownership of your curriculum, particularly with themed creative events

Where did it all go wrong? Long ago teachers needed a separate room in their house to store the National Curriculum in its 10 individual files. ‘Hurrah!’ we all said as this was scaled down into a single spiral-bound document. Teachers set about their planning excited by the bloodlust of the Aztecs when they were hit with a bolt from the blue: the Numeracy and Literacy Strategies. ‘Use the unit plans,’ we were told, ‘but make sure you adapt them… blah, blah, blah… ’ Teachers became slaves to pages and pages of lesson plans, while at the same time becoming terrified about doing the wrong thing. ‘We need to do this because this is what Ofsted want.’ The final nail in the coffin of creativity was the QCA schemes of work. For the first time we had a guide to tell us exactly what to do and when to do it. There was no chance of anyone getting it wrong now. By following the unit plans and the schemes of work we almost had a day-by-day, hour-by-hour guide to what to teach. A bit of photocopying here and an acetate there and away we went; teaching on autopilot. By following the QCA schemes, countless schools fell into the trap of thinking they were doing the right thing. How could anyone possibly criticise a school for doing what was expected? The QCA would say that the schemes of work were never meant to be regurgitated word for word. But to some extent that is what happened. That is why 20,000 ICT suites across the country are adorned with copies of Mondrian’s work and the word Chembakolli slips off the tongues of English youngsters so easily.

The big change
Excellence and Enjoyment was a breath of fresh air when it was published in 2003. Schools were encouraged to ‘take ownership of the curriculum’ and be ‘creative and innovative in how they teach’. While some schools reacted rapidly to this announcement, some schools did not react at all. In fact some schools did nothing and carried on doing exactly what they had been doing for a long time. And what sort of schools were these? The most successful ones! The schools which have consistently performed well with good or outstanding Ofsted inspections because they have had creativity embedded into their curriculum for a long time. Schools which start the ‘revision diet’ in September are unlikely to ever end up with their desired outcome. Until they make a leap of faith and start tackling their curriculum creatively, they will continue to churn out children starved of spark and imagination.

Breaking free
Many schools are in the position where they are still teaching from the QCA documents. Although it used to be almost acceptable to photocopy planning year after year, everyone now has access to electronic records of planning. Teaching to someone else’s plans for eternity is soul destroying. Ownership of planning needs to be seized. However, you may find in your school that a major upheaval of medium-term planning is too much for your staff to bear, especially as many of them are still just getting to grips with the new frameworks for literacy and numeracy.

One of the most effective ways of introducing a major change within a school is to aim to gain everyone’s confidence. As a leader, you will not only know who are your best teachers, but also which teachers are well respected by other members of staff and are adaptable and enthusiastic about change. If you are able to identify these people, then you have a starting point for the creative curriculum.

What should you be aiming for?
‘Bums on seats’ is not a problem for schools. We have a captive audience. But what we need to ensure is that these children are excited about their learning, feel involved in the process and have a level of anticipation about what will happen next. A creative curriculum is not simply about making links between subjects, although this is an important part of it. It is about finding ways to inspire the children by drawing in skills from art, music, technology, dance and drama. Creativity is about inspiring through the establishment of memorable learning experiences. Creativity can be a platform for establishment of personalised learning, enabling children to think for themselves, branching out into areas of curiosity and interest.

Starting point

Unfortunately, devising a creative curriculum does have a cost implication. It may be too much of a risk to change the whole school at the same time. Start with teachers you have identified as being the most suitable – perhaps one in each key stage or, in the case of  parallel classes, the same year group. They will need non-contact time to sit down with their existing planning and aim to build on it. Starting with a blank piece of paper is unfeasible as it would simply take too long. A Formula One team doesn’t throw away all their notes, plans and parts from the previous season – they build on their successes and transform their failures. They need to take time to be very familiar with the planning before they make changes to it – it would be ideal if the teachers already had experience of working with that planning before they get their teeth into it. A low-tech approach to this can really work. They should use a large sheet of paper to plot an overview of the year ahead. But remember the focus is on the learning and objectives rather than the tasks themselves. The school may have always studied 1960s Britain in history but if teachers are more comfortable covering the 1970s – and as long as you can match the objectives – change it! Your teachers are the ones who are covering it. If you are serious about changing the curriculum, your teachers need to have the confidence to make the changes without having the need to come and check with you every five minutes! It would be worthwhile excusing the team that is experimenting with a creative curriculum from taking part in training days. They may also need additional time for planning and you may wish to offer them the opportunity to do this off site, where they are away from the interruptions of a normal school day.

Building in challenges
Although devising a creative curriculum is a challenge in itself. Set your team a challenge. Can they include over the school year:

  • two coach visit days that tie in with topics?
  • one local walking visit per half term where they use the local environment?
  • at least one special guest per term who is invited in to talk about an area of expertise linked to the curriculum? You will be amazed who is willing to come into your school to talk. Astonishing people are just a phone call away and are free of charge.

Themed days
Initially you may want to do these as whole-school one-off events. The topics you choose are entirely flexible but the focus needs to bring out creativity and imagination. Some examples might include:

  • Pirates Day – Everyone in the school comes in dressed as pirates and that includes teachers, children and parents. Make sure that you give people plenty of notice beforehand so that they can prepare in advance. Being a pirate is inexpensive – ripped trousers, white shirt, eye-patch, bandana and Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! The children will then spend the day being a pirate – with all their learning being related to pirates. Literacy might be pirates adventure stories. Music could be learning pirate songs. PE might be pirate dances to go with the song they learned earlier in the day. Numeracy could be solving a range of word problems that eventually lead the children to the discovery of buried treasure.
  • Wizard of Oz – As before but this time people as, munchkins, witches, scarecrows etc. You could even get a professional theatre company to come to your school. Literacy might be writing for the ‘Oz Gazette’, science – hot air balloons, numeracy – scales on maps for measuring the distance of the yellow brick road. As with Pirates Day there are lots of opportunities for music, dance and drama.
  • Hero Day – Everyone comes to school dressed as their hero. This lends itself fantastically well to speaking and listening activities as well as non-fiction writing. This event, as with all other themed events, will provide significant photo opportunities for the local press.
  • World Cup Week – This is the biggest sporting event on the planet; bigger than the Olympics and it has the advantage of being held in term time, unlike the summer Olympics which often takes place in the holidays. In 2006 each year group in my school became one of the participating countries. With it being a truly global event, teachers were able to select from all four corners of the planet. Staff then set about focusing on creative aspects of that country such as music, dance, art and, one area which proved hugely successful, food. Contact was made from within the local and wider community and guest speakers came in to talk about ‘their’ country, like the local doctor who was originally from Ghana, a council community worker with Trinidadian heritage who brought in his friends, a mountain of food and a steel band, and a visitor from the London-based charity ‘TaskBrasil’ who came to talk to us about Brazilian street children and how we could help.

Topic days Over time your staff will become confident enough to want to organise themed events within their own class that are suited to specific areas of the children’s learning. For example when Year 2 children study the seaside, it is not always feasible for most children in the Midlands to spend the day at the beach. In my school the beach comes to the children! All the children come to school in sunglasses wearing suitable beachwear and all of their learning is based around the sea, rounding off with a professional Punch and Judy show. Encourage your staff to be flexible with their timetable. Slavishly sticking to 45 minutes of design technology every other Tuesday is not going to help you build your Roman homes in time. Why not plan, design and build a whole DT project in two days? Speak to your local secondary school; could they arrange for a couple of their A-level students to come and help? It is perfectly possible to combine what you do in themed and topic days with objectives from across the curriculum that you are due to cover anyway if you are creative and imaginative. If every once in a while you dare to think and even wander out of the box for a short time, then the sky really is the limit.

David Morley is the deputy headteacher of a large primary school in Milton Keynes