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A more creative approach to education

Learning by rote struggles to get the best results when transforming today's pupils into tomorrow’s innovative workforce. By developing a less formal style of teaching, youngsters can flourish in the classroom

Richard Garner
Tuesday 04 November 2014 10:19 GMT
The Wac Arts College in Camden is home to an inspiring exhibition of the work of artist in residence Cherelle Sappleton
The Wac Arts College in Camden is home to an inspiring exhibition of the work of artist in residence Cherelle Sappleton

The need to promote more creativity within the education system has been a hot topic for the past few years. Last year, leading academics joined forces to accuse the Government of damaging education standards by insisting that children learn "endless lists of spellings, facts and rules".

In a letter to The Independent shortly afterwards, more than 100 education academics warned that the new curriculum promotes "rote learning without understanding" and demands "too much too young". Others have claimed that without context, if there's no meaning, no understanding of any benefit, then pupils’ learning will be poor. From my own experiences, the need to promote creativity within the education system was highlighted by two events within 24 hours of each other.

The first was during a visit to the first alternative provision school of its kind in the UK. The focus of the college, dedicated to providing youngsters with a creativity-based curriculum, is to re-engage pupils with learning after their experiences of mainstream education had turned sour. The Wac Arts College in Camden, north London, is probably the first alternative provision provider to be oversubscribed.

In a previous guise, such establishments have been called pupil referral units, and the standard of education has often been poor. They have not exactly been the types of institutions that can inspire children to return to a learning environment.

Wac takes its name from a charity that has been providing a weekend arts club for pupils who could not get enough of the arts in school. It offers Future Learning a range of courses – and, crucially, hope – for the artistically inspired who cannot cope with the more formal style of education offered in mainstream schools. There is a buzz about the place. West End producers, such as Martin Freeman’s Richard III, have hired the venue for rehearsals when their theatres are already used for other performances.

Just 24 hours later I was writing an article about how more parents are turning to home education for their children – ostensibly because they cannot find a suitable place (usually at primary school) for their child. With the recent bulge in the birth rate, competition to gain entry to primary schools that are considered the best is even tougher. This may be one reason to turn to home education, but on investigating further I discovered a number of parents who were also upset by the testing and targeting regime their children were faced with at school.

Paul Collard, the chief executive of Creativity, Culture and Education – who will be speaking at this year’s WISE Summit on the factors influencing young people’s motivation to learn – agrees with those parents: “We all want good results for our young people and for them to learn and develop. However, what we test is the acquisition of a narrow collection of facts, not whether we have the skills to succeed in employment, not whether we have the capacity to build and maintain, the ingredients of a fruitful adulthood.”

Take Alex Byers, for instance. The mother of two had taken her two daughters, now aged five and six, out of their primary schools for that very reason. "Schools are obsessed with meeting targets and ticking boxes for Ofsted [the education standards watchdog]. Children are being coaxed into learning merely to pass tests with the promise of golden time and reward stickers. School doesn’t foster a love of learning."

Mr Collard added: "Creative learners are curious, disciplined, resilient, collaborative and imaginative. Creative teaching nurtures and develops these skills by creating a learning environment in which pupils are challenged, rather than directed, where learning is relevant to their lives."

But all is not lost. There has been a growing clamour for schools to cease operating as "exam factories", and seek to offer a broader education to their pupils. It gained momentum with the publication of a seminal report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) two years ago, which issued the clarion call for an end to “exam factories”. Employers, its director-general John Cridland insisted, were anxious to find evidence of communication skills and character in the candidates they interviewed, rather than just a set of paper qualifications gained at GCSE or A-level.

The response to the report was instant. Many people approached Mr Cridland saying: “Thank God for the CBI and what it is saying.” Ironically, many of them would have been academics and teachers’ representatives who – in the past – might not have been considered as natural ally of a bosses’ organisation. Mr Cridland has campaigned on this message ever since, being particularly critical of the approach that sees schools concentrating on borderline C/D grade students at GCSE in the hope of giving them a boost, which will then reflect well on the school’s exam league table position.

He has called on Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, to insist that Ofsted takes note of schools’ achievements in broadening pupils’ horizons – through such things as trips abroad or recognising a pupil who had won a gold medal in a maths Olympiad or had got a bit part in West End musical Chicago alongside exam results. “The trouble is that if the school hasn’t reached its targets the governing body is likely to say: ‘Cut the trips out, we’ve got to concentrate on the results’. ” The consequence would be, in Mr Cridland’s view, pupils not having the all-round skills they need when approaching the world of work.

In its report, the CBI argued that the best teachers were those who were rebels in the system – the Miss Jean Brodies of this world or the charismatic English teacher played by the late Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. “We want to liberate all teachers so they have more freedom to teach,” Mr Cridland argued.

Mr Cridland is not a lone voice in the wilderness on this issue. The call has been taken up by Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, who has also said he wants to see an emphasis on character-building and developing a range of communications skills among today’s young people. In a recent keynote policy speech, he emphasised that schools should be freed from the “top-down, target-driven, exam-obsessed” culture and that it should be replaced by a system which developed a pupil’s “character, resilience and guts”.

His comments have come just a week after Eton headmaster Tony Little demanded a move away from exams “to a broader recognition of what a fulfilling education entails”. Mr Hunt was full of praise for headteachers’ leaders who plan to publish their own independent school performance tables, which will draw attention to how much sport and music a school provides as well as its exam passes.

“I completely understand that education’s purpose is far deeper than producing workers for the labour market,” he said, going on to state that a country’s economic strength in the 21st century would be defined “more and more by the quality of its human capital”.

His solution was to call for a national baccalaureate focusing not just on academic subjects – such as the English Baccalaureate introduced by Michael Gove – but including high-class technical qualifications.

But, Mr Collard added, to make the quality more consistent, you have to invest in teacher development. For most teachers whose practice is letting them down, investment in the time and space to learn to do it differently works. Above all you have to recognise that good teaching for creativity is tough and demands rigour, discipline and resilience – but ultimately it is much more rewarding, improves motivation and behaviour – and will improve exam results.

But perhaps we should leave the last word on this topic with James Fornara, principal of the Wac Arts College, who told me: “The number one priority for what we’re trying to do is make learning fun.”

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